What will Dakota Access protesters do if final pipeline restrictions are lifted?

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Dakota Access Pipeline protesters square off against police near the Standing Rock Reservation and the pipeline route outside the little town of Saint Anthony, North Dakota, U.S., October 5, 2016. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo - RTSRZWU

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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the escalating fight over a major oil pipeline in North Dakota.

This weekend, more than 120 protesters were arrested, part of a months-long campaign being waged by numerous Native American tribes and nations against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

For the latest, I’m joined by our William Brangham, who reported from North Dakota last month and has been following the story closely.

William, bring us up to date, but, first, remind us, what is this fight all about? What are the arguments on each side?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The fight, as you mentioned, is about this pipeline. It’s the Dakota Access pipeline.

It’s a 1,200-mile pipeline to bring oil from North Dakota, the Bakken oil fields, down to Illinois. And the point of contention here is right at the border of the North Dakota-South Dakota state line.

And that’s where the Standing Rock Tribe has a reservation. And their primary source of drinking water is the Missouri River. This pipeline is going to go right under the river just north of their reservation.

And they say two things. One, if that pipeline leaks, it’s going to contaminate their only source of drinking water. And, two, the construction process will desecrate burial grounds and ancestral sites just north of their reservation.

So that’s their argument. They don’t want the pipeline there because of that reason.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The company that is building this, Energy Transfer Partners, argues they have done all the legal permits and applications and they have done all the bits that they’re supposed to do.

They also argue that this pipeline is a far safer way of transporting oil than trains or trucks, which are much more prone to crash. And there is data that backs that assertion up. They also argue that we live in a carbon-based society. We drove to work today. People are going to drive to work tomorrow.

And until we figure a different way of moving oil or find a different way to power our houses and cars, we have to deal with this material and they argue the pipeline is the way to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, where does the actual construction stand right now of the pipeline?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The energy company says that the pipeline is about 60 percent built. So you can imagine the pipeline is moving in from the north and the south.

And it’s — the real holdup at this point right near the Standing Rock reservation. And that’s where most of the protests and arrests that we have seen have been happening, where members of different Native tribes, primarily Standing Rock, go out to these places where the construction is still going on and they chain themselves to the trucks.

The police come arrest them. And that’s where the conflict has been happening. But the pipeline is largely done. And that’s where really the fight is going on right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we know there is still a couple of restrictions that have to be lifted before they can go ahead and finish with the construction, but once that happens, what do people expect will take place?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, that’s really — that’s a very dodgy question.

People don’t exactly know what’s going to happen. If the Army Corps agrees to this last permit and says to the company, go ahead and finish, drill into the river, the question is, what will all these protesters do? We saw thousands of people out there.

It’s not clear if they will voluntarily get up and leave. It’s not clear if there will be a fight. Who is going to evict them? The jails out there are already so full, they have to bus people they arrest outside of the state.

Will the National Guard be involved? Will this very militarized police force step in? Nobody really knows.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, William, you and I were talking earlier. You were saying how unusual it is that you have, what, over 100 different Native American tribes that have come together to make up this protest. Why over this particular issue?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s really the most fascinating part of all this, because there have been plenty of instances in the past where you could have seen tribes coalesce around an issue.

I think social media had a lot to do with this. They have been — the tribe, the Standing Rock, has been very, very good at getting their message out. Every time there’s an arrest, every time there’s a protest, every time there’s something they want to promote, it’s on Facebook, it’s on Twitter, it’s on social media.

So that’s brought people together. I think, also, that this wasn’t a fait accompli. It wasn’t a done deal. And so when they put out the call and said, come help us, people felt like they could stand in the way of this. And for whatever reason, people from all over the country, really all over the world, came together and said, enough is enough.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I know you are going to continue to watch it. It’s very much an active scene right now. The protest goes on.

William Brangham, thank you.

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