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A High-Plains Showdown Over the Dakota Access Pipeline

4 minute read

On the surface, the Dakota Access pipeline looks like any of the dozens of oil and gas projects approved in recent years. The 1,200-mile project is designed to transport hundreds of thousands of barrels a day of crude from vast reserves in North Dakota’s Williston Basin southeast across the northern Midwest into Illinois. But in recent weeks, opposition to the project has surged to rival the attention that surrounded the ill-fated Keystone XL pipeline before President Obama rejected it last year. Senator Bernie Sanders, actor Mark Ruffalo, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and legions of Facebook advocates have joined a growing list of opponents to Dakota Access.

Activists oppose many pipelines on the grounds that oil and gas extraction contributes to man-made climate change. What makes this one different is the opposition of the 10,000-member Standing Rock Sioux tribe, whose leaders say Washington never considered their concerns, as required by federal law. The tribal activists argue that the pipeline threatens their primary water source, traverses a historic burial ground and continues a legacy of mistreatment that dates back centuries.

More than a million people have checked in on Facebook “at” the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in solidarity with the cause, but the heart of the demonstration has always been the people who have gathered at the physical site of the pipeline construction, just outside the reservation.

The protesters–a mix of Native American activists and environmentalists–have built a tepee and tent encampment where the company Energy Transfer Partners plans to lay the underground pipeline. The protest has largely been peaceful, though some of the more extreme activists have blockaded a road and torched several vehicles.

Police have inadvertently given additional grounds for the activists’ cries of mistreatment with a sometimes aggressive–and easy to condemn–response. Footage of dogs, military vehicles, helicopters and pepper spraying spread on the Internet, along with stories from dozens of arrested people, including actor Shailene Woodley. The police response has been compared to the infamous use of dogs and firehoses to disrupt peaceful protest during the civil rights movement. “We don’t have weapons,” says David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. “We have people and prayer. We have civil rights and tribal rights.”

All the attention has pushed the issue onto the national stage. Obama praised the activists for “making your voices heard,” and his Administration asked Energy Transfer Partners to halt construction while the government reviews the project. Ultimately, however, any decision about whether to revoke the pipeline’s permits in the area near the Standing Rock Sioux tribe will likely fall to the next President. Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the issue without expressing a firm position. Donald Trump owns stock in Energy Transfer Partners and has vowed to “scrap” many oil and gas regulations, but he has been silent on the Standing Rock controversy.

For environmental activists, a rejection of the Dakota Access pipeline would boost the “keep it in the ground” movement that calls for a halt to all new oil and natural gas infrastructure projects, which have ballooned in recent decades as new technologies let companies access reserves. The U.S. is forecast to soon become a net energy exporter.

Neither side shows any interest in backing down. Many of the protesters have vowed to stay put through the bitter North Dakota winter. At the same time, construction continues despite the current Administration’s request for a pause.

“As with all these fights, you win some and the oil companies win some,” says Bill McKibben, the environmentalist behind 350.org. But “they used to win all of them.”

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com