Energy, environment, civil rights collide in Standing Rock protest

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Standing Rock. It sounds like fortitude. Like endurance. The name invokes a sense of everlastingness, of proud stamina, a determination to be as eternal as the rock it is named for.

This is the name of a Native American Sioux tribe in North and South Dakota. It has also become the headline of an enormously contentious debate over Native American rights

This battle is a bizarre match-up between the natural gas company Energy Transfer Partners and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over a large plot of land in North Dakota.

Energy Transfer is constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,170-mile pipeline that happens to be routed under the professedly sacred land of Standing Rock. Native Americans and other activists have been protesting for months, in demonstrations that have occasionally turned violent, both on the side of the protestors and law enforcement. Conflicts in these demonstrations have included throwing rocks and even firing guns at police or security guards, who in turn have used pepper spray and hosing to subdue or disperse the crowd. It has become a nationally-recognized David and Goliath narrative, meriting the sympathy or condemnation of activists, politicians, and celebrities alike, as well as the support of a peaceful protest in our own Schenley Plaza this past Saturday.

However, as clean-cut as this story may appear — a big, heartless oil company bulldozing through sacred ground, and the small Native American tribe standing up to protect it — there are many nuances to the reality that render it much more complex, though not any less significant and respected. The Standing Rock Tribe’s motives for protest are twofold: the pipeline poses an environmental threat to their water as well as a desecration of ancient burial grounds.

Since part of the pipeline crosses under the Mississippi River, the Standing Rock Tribe is concerned that it could cause disastrous damage to their drinking water. However, this is a misconception of how the pipeline essentially works — any leakage would seep downwards into the ground, rather than significantly affecting the river water. The greater concern, in fact, is that of any drinking water wells nearby. This drinking water would come from an aquifer, or an underground body of water, likely a couple hundred feet below the pipeline. Thus, if the pipeline runs anywhere near drinking water wells, the propane could potentially seep through the ground to the aquifer.

This concern, with its Erin Brockovich-esque undertones, is perfectly legitimate, but it is also important to realize that there are already numerous federal agencies and systems in place for exactly this kind of situation. The EPA closely regulates all real estate like this Dakota Access Pipeline, and has an almost excessive number of restrictions designed to protect the environment. These governmental systems are infamous for their strident protection of environmental issues, and would never allow a company such as Energy Transfer to endanger the environment in any way. In fact, these companies spend millions ensuring protection of the environment — not out of the kindness of their hearts, but because the system is set up to force them to do so. Considering how reliable this system is, it is important to consider that state and federal agencies have already approved the pipeline. The only reasonable conclusion from that, with the knowledge of how highly regulated these projects are, is that the pipeline does not pose a significant environmental threat.

The cultural threat, however, is a different story. Imagine a construction crew arriving to route a drain pipe through your family’s cemetery, and you may understand the reaction of the Standing Rock Tribe to this Dakota Access Pipeline project. Burial ground is sacred to every people, regardless of culture or ethnic background. However, the essential problem, in this case, is that the Sioux Tribe does not own this ground; it is next to their reservation, but not legally a part of their land.

In just the past fifty years, the American government has become very sympathetic to the causes of Native Americans; quite understandably, given their tragically unjust history. The government also has a privilege called “eminent domain,” in which it has the right to appropriate any land for the sake of the public. It is therefore its responsibility to take possession of sacred land and give it to the Native Americans. So why hasn’t the government done so before now? Why isn’t this sacred ground already a part of the reservation?

This is the oddest part of the debate, and where the conflict ultimately lies: the government did not deem this land to be culturally significant, and the Standing Rock Tribe claims that their reviews of the land were inadequate. If the reviews had yielded stronger results, there would have been no way for Energy Transfer to build there. All companies are required to contact the Department of Native American Affairs multiple times in planning a construction project, and if any ancient burial grounds are found there, the project is shut down or rerouted. Period.

This superficially simple debate is clearly much more complex than many realize, but the determination of Standing Rock to protect the land of their ancestors is unquestionably admirable. While the environmental concern is likely unfounded, the cultural significance that they believe lies in their land should be respected regardless of any governmental report, especially considering the history of Native Americans in this land. The pictures and videos of protesters versus police that have been circulating for months, some very violent, are disturbingly reminiscent of the massacres of Native Americans in this country’s history.

While law enforcement was justified in removing the protestors from private property or blocking highways, it is nonetheless an extremely volatile situation that should best be resolved with some sort of concession on the part of the oil company. Energy Transfer is not stupid, nor is it suicidal. It is aware of how public opinion affects its brand. Although it may cost this company millions of dollars, it must realize that this land is priceless.