As snow falls on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota—and the air outside feels like it's 11 degrees—state officials have threatened to fine anyone trying to bring food, materials for building shelter, and other critical supplies to Dakota Access Pipeline protestors.
On Monday, the governor of North Dakota issued an evacuation order for a camp located on Army Corps of Engineers land. Though the state later clarified that officials wouldn't forcibly remove campers, the restrictions on supplies are an attempt to force people out. Emergency crews can also choose not to send ambulances to the area. The governor cited the winter weather and threat to safety as justification.
"If the true concern is for public safety then the governor should clear the blockade and the county law enforcement should cease all use of flash grenades, high-pressure water cannons in freezing temperatures, dog kennels for temporary human jails, and any harmful weaponry against human beings," Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Chairman, Dave Archambault II said in a statement.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been protesting the construction of the 1,170-mile long pipeline since April. They say the construction has already destroyed sacred sites, and the pipeline would threaten the tribe's only source of drinking water.
In September, a judge denied a preliminary injunction that would have stopped construction in part because the tribe argued it wasn't properly consulted. But the Justice Department stepped in, saying that the permits need more review, and construction has stopped temporarily.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which needs to grant an easement to the company constructing the pipeline, is reviewing the case now.
The Corps plans to close access to the camp on December 5—like the state, citing safety concerns—though protestors plan to stay. The government wants them to move to a nearby "free speech zone," and may arrest activists who don't relocate on charges of trespassing (on historically indigenous land). On December 4, 2,000 veterans plan to join them to act as human shields, protecting activists from police. There are roughly 5,000 activists at the site now.
The months of protest have succeeded in impacting the companies building the pipeline. Norway's largest bank, DNB, sold off its $3 million investment in the companies and is considering withdrawing millions more that it provided in loans for the pipeline project. Odin Fund Management, also from Norway, sold $23.8 million worth of shares in Marathon Petroleum, one of the companies (17 banks are directly funding the project; this article explains how to contact them if you're a customer, or close your account).
Energy Transfer Partners, which oversees the pipeline project, promised oil companies that the pipeline would be completed by January 1. Though most of the pipeline is done, they won't meet that deadline now; even if the Army Corps gave the green light immediately, drilling under the Missouri River could take three or four months. If oil companies chose to pull out of their contracts, it's possible the whole project could fail, even with permits.
If it is built, a spill is possible. An expert who reviewed the environmental assessment prepared by the Army Corps says that one of the biggest risks may come from the fact that landslides can happen in parts of the path of the pipeline. "No steel tube pipeline—despite what some engineers can claim—can handle a massive landslide," says Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts.
There are many other ways that pipelines can spill oil, including corrosion or damage to pipes that can happen if construction is rushed. And spills happen all the time; more than 200 spills have happened in 2016 alone. In September, a ruptured pipeline in Alabama leaked more than 300,000 gallons of oil. In October, a storm damaged a pipeline in Pennsylvania, spilling 55,000 gallons.
The massive Enbridge spill in 2010—which sent more than a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan—still hasn't been cleaned up. Tar sands oil, which sunk to the bottom of the river, is even harder to remediate than a typical oil spill. Crude oil spilled in a drinking water aquifer in Minnesota in 1979, and almost 40 years later, it's still contaminated.
"If a pipeline breaks, it's potentially devastating for any water resources in the area," says Briana Mordick, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Cleaning up crude oil can be extremely challenging. On the surface of water it's one thing, but if it does contaminate a subsurface aquifer, it's even more challenging, because now you're trying to clean up a thing that you can't see."
Sunoco Logistics, the company that will operate the Dakota Pipeline, has had more spills of crude oil than any of its competitors. It owned the pipeline that ruptured in Pennsylvania in October, and has had more than 200 leaks since 2010.
More than 2.5 million miles of pipelines cross the U.S., and spills can happen anywhere—but like hazardous waste or factories, pipelines may be most likely to be cited near poorer communities. In North Dakota, the original route of the pipeline was planned to pass Bismarck, but that was rejected in part because it threatened drinking water supplies there. Now it threatens the Standing Rock Sioux's drinking water instead.
The pipeline is also about the bigger issues of tribal sovereignty, and centuries of land grabs from the Sioux. And, like the Keystone XL Pipeline, which Trump plans to revive, it raises questions about whether pipelines should be built in an era of climate change.
"The review process that the U.S. uses right now to determine whether there should be a new pipeline is certainly not adequate," says Mordick. "Given everything we know about the potential for greenhouse gas emissions, the potential for groundwater contamination, soil contamination—the review process is inadequate to take into account all those types of risks."
A Trump administration isn't likely to hold the project back (Donald Trump owned shares in Energy Transfer Partners as of May 2016, though reported selling those shares by the summer; the company's CEO contributed to his campaign). But Obama could still help reroute or stop it now: Bernie Sanders has suggested that the president should designate Standing Rock a national monument.