2 Years After Standing Rock Protests, Tensions Remain But Oil Business Booms

Listen Now

Two years ago in North Dakota, after months of protest by thousands of indigenous and environmental activists, pipeline opponents celebrated when the Obama administration denied a key permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

A few months later, the Trump administration reversed that decision and approved construction.

Pipeline opponents worried that a spill from the Dakota Access Pipeline would pollute drinking water for the nearby Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

"It turned out to be a massive gathering — a world-wide gathering," recalls current Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council Chairman Mike Faith.

Faith says the protests sent a message to the world that Native Americans were standing up for themselves, encouraging indigenous people from around the world to join the demonstrations. Among them was Leoyla Cowboy who left her job and home in New Mexico.

"I'm still here. I haven't really left," laughs Cowboy. The demonstrations changed the course of her life.

At the protest camp she met and married her partner. Michael "Little Feather" Giron is among the hundreds of protesters arrested during the anti-DAPL movement. He pleaded guilty to civil disorder charges. Prosecutors say he was seen pouring fuel on a barricade that was set on fire.

Cowboy says Giron is scheduled for release from federal prison next October. Meanwhile she has landed a job in North Dakota as an organizer with the Water Protector Legal Collective.

"What's been really great and blessing is, being an indigenous woman, learning how to maneuver through the legal system," Cowboy says.

Lawsuits continue

Two years later, the legal system in North Dakota is still busy processing the people arrested during the anti-DAPL protests. Many have had their charges reduced or dismissed.

There is also a string of active civil suits that have yet to be resolved. One was filed by protesters who police sprayed with water in freezing temperatures. Another, filed by the company that built the pipeline, Energy Transfer, is a lawsuit filed against Greenpeace and other environmental groups for inspiring the protests. And in yet another case, tribal members and others filed suit over the shutdown of a local highway near the protests for five months.

That shutdown hurt business at the Standing Rock Sioux's Prairie Knights Casino. The tribe won't say how much. But The Bismarck Tribune reported the tribe suffered a $6 million budget shortfall, largely because less money was coming in from the casino.

"I feel the economy is coming back slow but it is coming back. I think we're trying to mend fences now," Chairman Faith says.

Protests cause divisions

Divisions between the tribe and local residents, who are mostly white, intensified because of the protests. Most people an hour's drive north in Bismarck don't want to talk about that, but Mandan resident Craig Keller is an exception.

"People weren't happy about what was going on and the way protesters were treating other people," Keller says.

When demonstrators clashed with police at the state capitol and a local shopping center, and many North Dakotans viewed their actions as rude.

But fewer than 6 percent of those arrested were from North Dakota, according to Morton County Commissioner Cody Schulz.

"A lot of the troubles and problems that happened were created by people that are no longer here, so there is no reason for anger at our neighbors and friends," Schulz says.

Schulz says the protests cost his county nearly $40 million for police, fire, including repairing damaged infrastructure, cleaning-up protest camps and prosecutions. The county's emergency fund is only $500,000, so the state legislature picked up most of the tab.

North Dakota can afford to do that because the state's oil business is booming. The Dakota Access Pipeline is moving more than 500,000 barrels of oil a day and, despite the protests two years ago, the oil industry is expanding.

"We are building pipelines here every day," says Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

North Dakota's oil production is growing so fast the state likely will run out of pipeline capacity next year, which is one reason Energy Transfer recently announced it plans to expand its Dakota Access Pipeline so that it can transport even more oil.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.