Opinion—Standing Rock Tests Our National Priorities

Sep 28, 2016

The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy illuminates the conflict between economic development and environmental/sociological priorities.

The 1,172-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline being constructed at a cost of $3.8 billion by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) will, if completed, transport approximately 470,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois and Iowa. ETP has stated that the pipeline will create at least 6,000 jobs.

Construction, which is half complete, has been brought to a standstill by a peaceful protest led by the Standing Rock Sioux (Lakota) Tribe. The pipeline is designed to run underneath the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. The lake is the water source for the Tribe. Protesters fear a rupture of the pipeline beneath the river would irreparably damage their water supply.

The pipeline traverses ancient burial grounds sacred to the Lakota. They equate disrupting these areas as analogous to running a pipeline through Arlington National Cemetery.

A sit-in blocking the path of the pipeline was established to physically prevent further construction. This “occupation” has now become a semi-permanent settlement of 4,000 to 7,000 (depending upon whom you talk to) men, women, and children determined not leave until construction on the pipeline is permanently stopped.

People from more than 200 other Native American tribes have joined in the protest. Environmentalists and legal advocates of the rights of indigenous people have also joined the protesters.

Although the stand-off was at first ignored by mainstream media, coverage on social media “gone viral” has brought this confrontation national and international attention.

On the legal front, the Lakota filed suit in Federal Court to have construction halted pending further review of their grievances. The request was denied.

The Justice Department intervened and ordered ETP to “voluntarily” halt further construction until the Army Corps of Engineers can “review its previous decisions under federal environmental and other laws that had given approval for the pipeline” The New York Times 

Construction has stopped, new protesters continue to join those already encamped and winter approaches as the Corps prepares its study.

We need economic development and the jobs it creates. We also need to preserve our environment and our cultural and spiritual heritage. Without both we no longer have a viable, sustainable society. Without both our American way of life will fail.

Neither the business community nor Native Americans place much faith in the federal government, for well-founded reasons. But in environmental controversies the federal government is the only entity with the ability to reach and enforce a fair and just resolution to issues such as those now confronting us at Standing Rock.

The men and women in the government responsible for resolving this issue will need “the wisdom of Solomon” to successfully accomplish their task.

Let us pray, for the good of everyone in this country, that they can do so.


U.S. Suspends Construction on Part of North Dakota Pipeline, Jack Healy and John Schwartz, The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2016.

Don Wallis has more than 40 years experience in residential and commercial construction, and land development. He also has a law degree and currently teaches Environmental Law at Santa Fe Community College.