It seems like the perfect liberal cause. The heroes: Native Americans, one of the most historically oppressed and marginalized groups in the United States. The villains: militarized law enforcement and Big Oil. The cause: fighting climate change, preserving the environment and clean drinking water, and standing up for Native American rights. What cause could be more justified, more worthy of donations and championing, than opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)?
Built to transport oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois, DAPL is a $3.7 billion investment over one thousand miles long and can transport 470,000 barrels per day, which is about half of the Bakken’s output. However, DAPL has garnered tremendous opposition from liberal groups, who have succeeded in delaying the project through protests and compelled the Obama administration to issue a stay on continued building.
Though protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline may seem like the perfect liberal cause, anyone concerned about the environment, improving US government relations with Native American tribes, and enacting a broader progressive agenda could better achieve their goals by supporting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
DAPL and the Environment:
Environmentalist opponents of DAPL are absolutely right that climate change is a serious threat and that the fight against climate change is a worthy struggle. If Senator Bernie Sanders, a main catalyst for galvanizing broad progressive opposition to the pipeline, was correct when he declared that DAPL is “a huge blow to our fight against climate change,” then environmentalists should oppose DAPL. However, his argument, which mirrors that of other DAPL opponents, rests on the misconception that stopping the pipeline will decrease fossil fuel emissions. In fact, stopping the DAPL will increase fossil fuel consumption by promoting the use of energy-inefficient trucks or rail transport. Thus, DAPL’s opponents are unwittingly exacerbating climate change.
Should protesters succeed in blocking DAPL’s construction, they will not succeed in preventing oil from being produced in the North Dakota Bakken shale formation. Currently, oil is being produced in North Dakota and transported by fossil fuel-consuming truck and rail.
Even if protesters managed to prevent all North Dakota oil from being transported—a goal even the most radical protester recognizes is impossible—they would only succeed in limiting oil supply. Oil demand would remain constant, as would oil consumption. But, instead, the oil would merely be transported to America, after having been drilled for and refined overseas.
As stopping the pipeline would not alter the amount of oil produced, environmentalists could better fight climate change by choosing the cleanest and safest means of transporting the oil. Because pipelines are the cleanest and safest means of transportation, environmentalists should actually support the Dakota Access Pipeline.
According to Energy Transfer Partners, the company building DAPL, the pipeline would remove between 500 and 740 rail cars, or 250 trucks, from the road per day. DAPL would transport oil with considerably fewer greenhouse gas emissions than these massive, fuel-guzzling means of transportation.
In terms of environmental damage from spillage, pipelines are clearly the best means of oil transportation. According to a Manhattan Institute study, from 2005 through 2009, pipelines had 0.58 spillage incidents per billion mile-tons, compared with 2.08 for railway and 19.95 for road transportation. Pipelines also resulted in a 0.004 fatalities per billion mile-tons, compared with 0.1 for railway and 0.293 for road transportation. Furthermore, by transporting oil in far less densely populated areas, pipelines have a much smaller effect on air pollution. As crude oil transportation expert Kenneth Green said, “On an apples-to-apples basis, pipelines have less accidents, cause less environmental damage and cause less harm to human health than do railcars moving comparable masses of oil and gas.”
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) report concurred with these conclusions when it granted a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline. After detailing damage to agriculture, human lives, and property by railcar accidents, the report stated “pipelines are a more reliable, safer, and more economical alternative for the large volumes transported and long distances covered by the Project. As such, the rail transportation alternative is not considered a viable alternative.” Furthermore, the report demonstrates that fears of wildlife damage from pipeline spills are misplaced. After examining the direct environmental impact on numerous animal species’ habitats, the USFWS concluded, “All surface impacts to grassland … have been avoided by route modifications or construction methods” and that impacts on wetlands would be only temporary and would affect a mere 71.8 acres.
To best fight climate change and prevent other damage to the environment, environmentalists should support the Dakota Access Pipeline as an improvement over existing rail and road transportation.
The Water Myth:
In addition to voicing concerns about the environment, opponents of DAPL most frequently decry the risk posed to the local water supply, especially for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Clean drinking water is essential to life and must be protected. Those who fight to ensure that everyone has access to clean drinking water fight for a very important cause. However, DAPL does not significantly endanger the Standing Rock Sioux’s drinking water sources. Therefore, water rights do not represent a reason to oppose the pipeline.
Unlike the many existing pipelines and railcars that transport oil from Standing Rock Sioux reservations (which the Sioux profit from), the Dakota Access Pipeline never enters Sioux land. Unlike many of the dozens of other pipelines in the area, DAPL is entirely underground, 50 percent thicker than mandated by government safety regulations, and is built with the latest technology, including safety valves designed to shut off the flow of oil should leakage occur.
Indeed, after much consultation and rerouting to avoid environmental damage, DAPL was deliberately built where existing infrastructure was already in place to limit extra damage. Moreover, DAPL was constructed exactly parallel to an existing pipeline and using the same general route, but farther underground, as eight other existing pipelines that have run safely for decades.
Progressive opponents of DAPL have often cited the dangers of having the pipeline cross under Lake Oahe and the Missouri river. However, eight pipelines already travel under Lake Oahe, with less modern technology and often not as far underground as DAPL. As for the Missouri river, DAPL is a full seventy miles upstream of the Sioux water supply, farther upstream than dozens of other, older pipelines. Indeed, there is currently an elevated railroad carrying crude oil just 1.6 miles upstream of the water supply.
The state-of-the-art DAPL poses considerably less risk to the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux than existing older oil and natural gas transportation methods. Although some may say that any added risk to the Sioux water supply is impermissible, no pipeline can be guaranteed to be risk-free. However, as the North Dakota public service commissioner stated, “This is a very good route. If you're going to build a pipeline, this is as safe as it can be built.” Between its modern technology and carefully chosen route, DAPL does not significantly increase risk to water supply. According to the USFWS, “Impacts beyond direct, temporary construction impacts to water quality due to the Project are not anticipated.”
Although protests to ensure access to clean water are admirable, DAPL is not the threat to clean water that it has been made to appear.
Native American Relations:
Activists opposed to DAPL rightly condemn historic persecution of Native American tribes and accuse the United States of too often ignoring Native rights and interests rather than enacting policy through consultation and collaboration. However, in the case of DAPL, both the American government and the energy companies building the pipeline fulfilled all reasonable obligations, while the Standing Rock Sioux consistently refused to engage constructively in the process.
Opponents of DAPL have frequently claimed that the Standing Rock Sioux were never consulted during the planning phase. However, this claim does not fit with the facts of the case. The Standing Rock Sioux did not attend any of the multiple public hearings held to discuss the pipeline, never submitted a written statement of concern, and refused to assist various state agencies with archaeological surveys. Over a span of two years while the proposal made its way through regulation, even as multiple government agencies approved the pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux ignored dozens of overtures from the Army Corps of Engineers, and never voiced their concerns in thirty hours of public hearings. Two federal courts rejected the tribe’s assertion that it was never consulted. Obama-appointed US District Judge James E. Boasberg concluded that “the Tribe largely refused to engage in consultations.”
Although many opponents of the pipeline have pointed out that Standing Rock Sioux tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II did, in fact, voice opposition to the pipeline two years ago, his statement is actually indicative of the misguided manner in which the Standing Rock Sioux have conducted their interactions with the American government. Archambault stated that he opposed the pipeline because it traversed some of the Sioux lands recognized in the 1851 and 1868 treaties of Fort Laramie, and he sought to maintain tribal sovereignty over all of the land granted, which consisted of half of South Dakota, along with substantial portions of Wyoming, Nebraska and North Dakota.
Whether the Standing Rock Sioux have a just claim to the entire land is debatable. However, Archambault’s blanket refusal to entertain infrastructure projects on land occupied by millions is neither realistic nor productive. The abandonment of such a massive area of land by Americans is logistically and politically unfeasible.
It was with a similarly unrealistic mindset that the Standing Rock Sioux approached the issue of working with the government to determine the location of culturally sensitive sites that should be avoided when building the pipeline. When the Standing Rock Sioux were repeatedly asked to assist in archaeological surveys of specific areas to determine if the pipeline traversed sacred or culturally significant sites, they refused because they were unwilling to limit their land claims. In the words of Judge Boasberg, “Yet a third problem bedevils the Tribe’s efforts to enjoin permitting along the entire pipeline route. Plaintiff never defined the boundaries of its ancestral lands vis-à-vis DAPL. Instead, Standing Rock asserts that these lands extend ‘wherever the buffalo roamed.”’
Progressives concerned with Native American rights have repeatedly lamented the damage the pipeline could do to Standing Rock Sioux sacred sites. However, had the Standing Rock Sioux assisted the independent archaeologists, along with the State Historic Preservation Office that studied, surveyed and approved the final route, they could have worked with Energy Transfer Partners to find an acceptable route. As the North Dakota Public Service Commissioner said, “The entire route of the pipeline was examined on foot by certified archaeologists. They identified more than 500 different cultural resources that needed to be protected, and the pipeline route was altered 140 times to avoid cultural resources.”
Even as the Standing Rock Sioux’s unrealistic land claims prevented them from participating in the process, Energy Transfer Partners accommodatingly re-routed the pipeline repeatedly based on concerns voiced by the fifty other tribes they consulted. Despite the willingness of Energy Transfer Partners to reroute the pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux refused to attend public hearings.
If the American government is to have a mutually beneficial working relationship with tribal governments, tribes must participate when their consultation is requested. Tribal relations cannot proceed when the tribes ignore ways to participate and then protest after the fact. Such behavior only gives voice to the loudest and most disruptive members of a tribe. Those with the most pressing or legitimate concerns that can be voiced in consultations will be silenced and marginalized.
By “standing up for Standing Rock,” supporters are facilitating two destructive features in any future American-tribal interaction. First, they are encouraging aggrieved tribal members in some future dispute, who know they lack a legitimate case, to engage in disruptive protests rather than constructive processes. This will hinder the government’s ability to understand and interpret tribal sentiment on a given issue. Second, they are promoting a backlash against positive government-tribal relations. Energy and construction companies will be less willing to reach out to tribes if they know that such efforts will be wasted, and policymakers will face increasing pressure to repeal existing laws that mandate tribal consultations. Ultimately, both of these features will damage future relationships with Native American tribes.
Broader Progressive Agenda:
Ultimately, progressives must ask themselves if this is the hill they want to die on. Much like the Keystone XL pipeline issue that drove Midwestern voters into the Republican camp, DAPL is not environmentally harmful and is economically beneficial. The working class of Middle America sees the suspension of the project as an example of coastal elites not caring about them.
According to the companies building DAPL, the pipeline supported twelve thousand jobs, will yield $156 million in sales and income taxes and then $55 million annually in property tax, and will lead to $4-5 savings per barrel of oil, potentially reducing consumers’ electricity bills. With such clear economic gains, and with so many Americans unemployed, underemployed or struggling to pay the bills, working-class Americans are left wondering why so many people want to prevent them from working.
Instead of obstruction, progressives should champion investment. To fight climate change, they should promote clean energy manufacturing jobs and green infrastructure, rather than protesting oil pipelines. To improve tribal quality of life, they should promote investing in Native American education or tackling the disproportionate number of acts of sexual violence against Native Americans on reservations. Such issues are, perhaps, less interesting, have fewer easier answers, and receive less celebrity attention, but they too are vitally important.
By championing protests, progressives are pushing working-class voters to reject all climate change action and productive relations with Native American tribes.
Furthermore, DAPL is now 87 percent complete, and Energy Transfer Partners has spent many years negotiating, consulting, meeting regulations and re-routing their pipeline. For DAPL to be blocked at so late a stage would disincentivize future infrastructure investments. With companies already facing heavy regulation of major construction projects, the prospect of having an infrastructure project—in which billions of dollars have been invested and for which all proper regulations have been met—blocked at the last minute will discourage companies from commencing future projects. With American infrastructure in desperate need of repair, progressives should support corporations that invest in American infrastructure in the absence of significant risk of environmental damage.
Some could argue that the tremendous energy that has been generated over the DAPL issue in favor of environmentalism, access to clean water, and Native American rights is, in itself, worthwhile. However, this immense harnessing of activism for a potentially harmful cause is not only wasteful but detrimental. The opportunity cost of all the energy spent opposing DAPL, rather than fighting for a policy that will actually promote positive change, is large. With this attention misdirected, nothing is being done to invest in clean energy, rebuild America’s dangerously old and damaged water supply network, or improve the lives of Native Americans. That is the true cost of opposing DAPL.
In sum, progressives have a responsibility to ignore the passionate rhetoric surrounding DAPL and focus on the facts. DAPL does not exacerbate climate change, does not seriously threaten Standing Rock Sioux water supplies, and is not an example of the American government ignoring Native American rights. DAPL is a cause true liberals should champion.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals major. This summer he interned at Hamilton Place Strategy, a policy consulting firm. Previously, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation, at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam has been a Senior Writer, Opinion Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, and now just writes for The Gate. On campus, Adam has also been President of the UChicago Political Union and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics, as well as an active member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.