Tribe raises stakes in Dakota Access pipeline fight amid surge in Democratic 2020 support

Battles over Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline are rapidly emerging as electoral issues.

Tepees set up by Dakota Access Pipeline protesters stand next to the Washington Monument on March 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Tepees set up by Dakota Access Pipeline protesters stand next to the Washington Monument on March 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Standing Rock Sioux are renewing their battle against the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline, just as several Democratic presidential contenders are increasingly voicing opposition to fossil fuel projects and seeking to make inroads with Native voters.

Pipeline efforts — including the Dakota Access project, or DAPL — have long garnered support from President Donald Trump, even as indigenous communities and activists have pushed back, arguing that the pipelines will harm human health and the environment. Presidential candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have slammed those fossil fuel efforts, indicating that the pipeline wars could become a key electoral issue next year.

On Friday, the Standing Rock Sioux asked a federal court to throw out what the tribe says is a flawed environmental assessment of DAPL’s potential impacts. The Army Corps of Engineers “never engaged with the Tribe or its technical experts, shared critical information, or responded to the Tribe’s concerns,” the 63-page motion reads.

At issue is a key February 2017 environmental easement which enabled the Corps to proceed with DAPL construction. That easement allowed Energy Transfer Partners, which controls the pipeline, to avoid an environmental impact statement, which would have required a thorough review of DAPL’s potential impacts to water and wildlife.


In June 2017, a federal district judge ordered the Army Corps to consider environmental impacts following litigation from the tribe. That ruling yielded no real change, however — the government still allowed the pipeline to go forward. But the Standing Rock Sioux say the Army Corps failed to engage with them over DAPL’s environmental threat, and that they remain at risk of an oil spill.

Earthjustice, an environmental legal group, filed Friday’s motion on behalf of the tribe, arguing for a pause in construction while DAPL’s potential impacts are assessed again, this time with input from the tribe.

Moreover, the tribe is taking aim at a newly-proposed expansion of the pipeline, announced in June of this year, that would see its capacity enlarged to 1.1 million barrels of oil per day. DAPL currently produces around half that amount. “With DAPL’s proposal to double the flow of the pipeline, the unexamined risks to the Tribe continue to grow,” the tribe asserts.

If Friday’s motion is granted, DAPL would be forced to shut down until the Army Corps conducts an environmental review. The pipeline currently runs from North Dakota’s shale oil fields down through South Dakota and Iowa, into Illinois. The tribe has indicated they intend to fight DAPL in any way they can.

“This illegal and dangerous pipeline must be shut down,” said Mike Faith, Standing Rock Sioux chairman, in a statement.

It is unclear whether the Standing Rock Sioux will be successful in their efforts. But they already have support from several Democratic presidential contenders.


Last week, Warren became the first candidate to sign on to the “NoKXL pledge,” an anti-pipeline effort backed by groups including the pro-water and land conservation organization Bold Nebraska. The pledge targets the Keystone XL oil pipeline, along with DAPL and other fossil fuel efforts like the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast fracked natural gas pipelines in Appalachia. Signatories of the pledge commit to opposing all of these projects.

Other presidential candidates have also embraced the NoKXL pledge. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) quickly followed Warren, asking “Where do I sign?” in a tweet expressing his support. Inslee has devoted his entire campaign to climate action and has promised to shift the United States to net-zero emissions by 2045.

Sanders and billionaire Tom Steyer have signed as well — both candidates have been vocal on climate issues. Bold Nebraska told ThinkProgress they believe other 2020 contenders will sign as the pledge gains momentum.

Polling shows that climate issues are gaining traction with U.S. voters, and many are growing skeptical of fossil fuels. But pipeline projects are also emerging as an opportunity for Democrats to make inroads with indigenous communities, who have played a leading role in fighting fossil fuel expansion that often takes place on their tribal lands, and could be a key voting base in some states.

This week, a number of presidential candidates — including Warren and Sanders — are gathering in Sioux City, Iowa, for a presidential forum exclusively devoted to Native American issues. Audience members will ask candidates about a range of topics, and pipelines and climate concerns are likely to come up.

Warren preemptively laid out her approach on Friday in a series of tweets about Native issues. She expanded on her opposition to Keystone XL and DAPL and framed her views in the context of indigenous rights.


“When tribal concerns have conflicted with corporate profits or resource extraction, tribes lose. This has to change,” she wrote. “When I’m president, energy projects that impact Indian Country won’t proceed without consent. That means revoking Trump’s KeystoneXL and DAPL permits.”