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A sign welcomes visitors at the entrance to an oil pipeline protest encampment near Cannon Ball, N.D. Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

The Fight Over the Dakota Access Pipeline Could Be the Next Keystone

Sep 10, 2016

A growing group of indigenous people, climate activists and landowners have been protesting a 1,200-mile oil pipeline crossing North Dakota en route to the Gulf Coast since the project was first announced in 2014. But it was only this week, two years later, that the Dakota Access Pipeline bursted into the public consciousness as thousands of protesters gathered at the site and the Obama administration stepped in to halt construction.

Now, some environmental activists believe the Dakota Access Pipeline could be the next Keystone, a high-profile test battle in the longer term mission of activists to keep fossil fuels in the ground. And, while the Dakota pipeline protests feature the usual cast of environmental activists, the movement has captured attention in part because of the efforts of the indigenous people who say their own rights have been threatened.

"Tribal leaders and indigenous leaders have been talking about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground for a long time," says Lena Mofitt, director of the Sierra Club's Dirty Fuels campaign. "It's a natural partnership."

The central issue for the Standing Rock Sioux, a tribe located less than a mile from the proposed pipeline, has been the threat it could pose to the local water supply. The pipeline would cross under a dammed section of the Missouri River that serves as a source of water for the tribe, and tribal leaders worry about the effects of an accident or spill. The project would also destroy a burial ground, they say.

Read More: Does President Obama Want to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground?

Native Americans march to a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, North Dakota Sept. 4, 2016.
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Native Americans march to a sacred burial ground site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, Sept. 4, 2016.Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images
Native Americans march to a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline that is slated to cross the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, North Dakota Sept. 4, 2016.
A Standing Rock Sioux flag flies over a protest encampment near Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sept. 3, 2016.
Lamar Armstrong of the Mojave Paiute, right, instructs graduate student Tyesha Ignacio of the Najavo Nation how to prepare donated bison meat in the main kitchen area of the Standing Rock Sioux protest encampment near Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sept. 3, 2016.
People sign a teepee with words of support for protestors at an encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe (DAPL), near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Sept. 3, 2016.
People hang out in the bed of their truck as the sun sets over a protest encampment near Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sept. 3, 2016.
Drummers warm up their instruments over the fire Sacred Stone Camp, North Dakota on Sept. 8, 2016.
Flags of Native American tribes from across the US and Canada line the entrance to a protest encampment near Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sept. 3, 2016.
US-ENVIRONMENT-OIL-PROTEST-PIPELINE
Signs hang from heavy machinery after protesters stopped construction on the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sept. 6, 2016.
Native American protesters play basketball in an encampment that has grown on the banks of the Cannon Ball River in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Sept. 5, 2016.
The Youth Camp Council marched and chanted in opposition to the pipeline construction at the Sacred Stone Camp, in North Dakota on Sept. 8, 2016.
Signs left by protesters demonstrating against the Energy Transfer Partners Dakota Access oil pipeline sit at the gate of a construction access road in Cannon Ball, North Dakota on Sept. 6, 2016.
Native Americans march to a sacred burial ground site that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeli
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Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images
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But the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux represent just the tip of the complaints that have galvanized the thousands of activists, many of whom are indigenous people, who have shown up to protest. Indigenous activists from across the country say their communities are all too familiar with large infrastructure projects that wreak environmental havoc in their backyards without their approval. The Dakota Access Pipeline is an opportunity to bring attention to the broader issues facing their communities.

Beyond that, protestors say they are concerned about the contribution of the pipeline—and the oil it would soon carry—to man-made climate change. Many indigenous communities will be the first to experience the devastations of climate change, while doing little contribute to the problem.

"Indigenous people—we seem to have a solid sense of what sustainable stewardship looks like," says Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, speaking after a rally in Bismarck, N.D. "The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is just the natural evolution of the climate justice movement."

Read More: How a Little-Known Federal Agency Has Slowed New Oil and Gas Drilling

What seemed likely to be a futile effort just a few months ago gained significant traction on Friday as the Department of Justice, the U.S. Army and the Department of the Interior ordered a halt to construction while officials reconsider the approval process. The move by the government came immediately after a federal judge had denied the Standing Rock Sioux's to temporarily block construction of the pipeline. The government statement also acknowledged the top activist concerns and called for consideration of "nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views" for future projects.

The recognition that the government may not have adequately taken tribes' considerations into account is a significant achievement, but the decision by the Obama administration is far from definitive. In the meantime, the activists on the ground say they have no plans to move.

"We are in this for the long run," says Goldtooth, "whether it's snow, rain or hail."

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