Native Rights and Concerns at Standing Rock: The Important Role of Science

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | September 14, 2016, 4:10 pm EST
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Over the past months, we have all had an opportunity to see democracy in action with all its challenges.  No, I don’t mean the endless coverage of the presidential campaign.  I am talking about people taking action to protect the rights, health, safety and culture, standing with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Lakota nations in North Dakota.  I mean free speech, the right of peaceful assembly, the right to petition our government for redress of grievances, the importance of the United States honoring its commitments to Native nations, and the well-being of all people. Because these principles have not been applied equally to all people—and especially to Native Americans—in North Dakota, Native Americans are on the ground demanding that these rights be upheld.

I believe that in addition to the many social, economic, legal, cultural, and other perspectives upon which others may speak more eloquently and authoritatively than I, the Dakota Access pipeline battle has a core element of the role of science in promoting democracy.

Dakota Access Pipeline construction in North Dakota

At issue is the construction of part of an oil pipeline in North Dakota, a state that has seen a boom, and yes, partial bust of oil production over the last decade or so. The state of North Dakota and the Army Corps of Engineers have approved moving forward with construction near Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands, crossing the Missouri River, through lands held as sacred to sovereign tribes.  To some, the pipeline is a vital economic development with literally billions to be made. But at what cost? And to whom? And where do the benefits flow from those billions?

Notably, the route of the pipeline has already been moved from a proposed crossing under the Missouri River north (upstream) of Bismarck, ND because of concerns about water contamination of the municipal water supply serving the city and high potential consequences of leaks and spills.  The new route that the company is moving forward with is a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Reservation—implying, perhaps, that the tribe’s water supply is less “consequential”.

The company has made lengthy assurances of the safety of the pipeline and its monitoring plans, claiming it will transport crude oil in a “safer and environmentally responsible manner”. Given that pipeline leaks and spills are far from rare, for such a project—encompassing four states and in the vicinity of many tribal nations—the environmental impact assessment should be based on sound science instead of foregone conclusions. Such an assessment would give people the best information from which to exercise their political rights.

Science and public policy at Standing Rock

When government makes decisions on a project like the pipeline, science comes into play, not only in designing the project itself, but in analyzing the consequences. When federal agencies, in this case the Corps of Engineers, take an “action” such as permitting construction of this pipeline through  federal lands or watershed areas of the Missouri River under federal control, they must analyze the impacts on the “affected environment” including the natural and human environment, according to the National Environmental Policy Act. This scientific analysis may start with a limited environmental assessment (EA) to determine if any environmental impacts are likely. The EA process has only limited opportunity for public input. If no “significant” impacts are determined to be likely, the analysis can end there and the permit process moves forward. But if there are possible significant environmental impacts, then a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required.

Without going into too much detail, there are four key points about the process of preparing an EIS:

  1. It requires a detailed scientific analysis of a proposed “action” (e.g. permitting a specific route for the pipeline) and several reasonable alternatives;
  2. It requires an extensive process of public input as well as consultation with other government bodies (including, notably in this case, sovereign tribal governments);
  3. The scientific work in preparing a properly done EIS doesn’t have a foregone conclusion. That is, it doesn’t mean from the outset that it has been decided that there are significant impacts that must be mitigated or that there is only one acceptable alternative. That emerges from the analysis which includes the public and other input;  and
  4. It is a timely and costly process as befits a costly and highly lucrative development project.

For Dakota Access (the company that wants to build the pipeline), only an EA was prepared and it was determined the project could go ahead because it found no significant impact.

Hmmm. I used to oversee management of marine fisheries around the country, and the agency I worked for frequently and very laboriously prepared EISs to permit fishermen to go out and catch fish. And now a pipeline carrying millions of barrels of toxic fossil fuels that will be used for energy, chemical products, and plastics can be said a priori to have no impact on natural and human communities? That seems to defy common sense.

The way the project is structured and the specific lobby efforts by the fossil fuel industry are revealing. Even though the pipeline is more than a thousand miles long, for the purposes of federal permitting it is “considered” to be just a series of small projects, each of which are analyzed for their environmental impacts independently.  The industry secured that particular set of exemptions from requirements of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and National Environmental Policy Act to ease permitting of their construction projects.

I wonder what would happen if the project developers were not allowed to refer to the economic benefits of the full collection of sections of the pipeline when talking about its importance. In that scenario, the section under review would be essentially worthless because moving oil only through that section isn’t worth anything. No billions of dollars in revenue, no claims of energy independence, no big employment numbers, because that section is unrelated to other sections in its benefits just like they analyze the impacts?

The Dakota Access Environmental Assessment (EA) does not consider the low-income and Native communities that could be affected by the proposed pipeline. Only the communities outlined in red and blue were evaluated for environmental justice impacts. 

The Dakota Access Environmental Assessment (EA) does not consider the low-income and Native communities that could be affected by the proposed pipeline. Only the communities outlined in red and blue were evaluated for environmental justice impacts.

Environmental justice

One of the biggest problems highlighted by this project is the issue of Native rights and environmental justice. In this case, the burden was directly and consciously shifted onto Native American tribes and communities as has happened too many times throughout the history of the country.

The Dakota Access project should have been fully and deeply analyzed and, most importantly, included consultations with the sovereign tribal governments before issuing a permit. But it wasn’t.  The US Environmental Protection Agency said the analysis was inadequate. The Standing Rock tribal government said it was inadequate. In fact, Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said that that “the first draft of the company’s assessment of the planned route through our treaty and ancestral lands did not even mention our tribe.”

As important as it is for human and environmental health, possible water contamination is not the only concern here. There is a critical question of impacts on lands sacred to Native people. How can the Army Corps, or Dakota Access, or anyone for that matter determine the impacts on sacred lands, sites, and burial grounds without consulting with the tribe? How can one determine a priori that there will be no impacts? At the very least, a thorough analysis of environmental justice concerns—fully engaging with the tribe and surrounding communities—is essential.

Moving the route away from the city of Bismarck to near the reservation, ignoring the need for input from the people near the changed route, dismissing concerns out of hand about sacred sites and lands and cultural impacts, and proceeding with construction based on a claim of economic benefits without regard to the costs to those most impacted: these are the meat and bones of how environmental injustices are allowed to happen.

By no means is this an isolated case. Indigenous people of America have lived this story time and again. The sacrifice of tribal lands and sacred areas in the name of “development” is all too common. Another case in point is the fight over designation as a National Monument of the Greater Grand Canyon area, sacred to Native American tribes who have already suffered devastating effects from uranium mining, impacts on drinking water and other development impacts. What could be more monumental than the Grand Canyon? What could be more monumental than the cultures of the indigenous peoples of this land?

At Standing Rock, and at the Grand Canyon, as well as many other examples too numerous to speak to here, our democracy has a chance to listen to its people. It is important that science not be used for purposes of political, economic and cultural repression. Science can be an instrument for justice, and that is what needs to happen here.

Photo: Joe Brusky, CC BY-NC 2.0/Flickr
Sources: Esri, HERE, DeLorme, USGS, Intermap, increment P Corp—NRCAN, Esri Japan, METI Esri China (Hong Kong), Esri (Thailand), MapmyIndia, copyright OpenStreetMap contributors, and the GIS User Community

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  • solodoctor

    I have read elsewhere that the Army Corps of Engineers ignored info about the problematic aspects of this pipeline years ago. Only now are they, finally, being held accountable to more thorough and equitable standards.

    I have signed petitions and written President Obama about the need to keep these fossil fuels in the ground rather than extract and transport them via pipelines or other means that are problematic. I hope other UCS members will do likewise.