Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Lars Plougmann/Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0

Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota have erupted this past week. For months, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies have been demonstrating at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers to stop the pipeline’s construction, which would cut through the tribe’s water resources and sacred lands with potentially damaging consequences. The $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline would carry oil fracked from the Bakken Formation across four states to a refinery outside Chicago. Fortune 500 company Energy Transfer Partners is overseeing the pipeline’s construction, which is planned to be able to move half of the oil coming out of the Bakken Formation every day.

Dakota Access Pipeline protests: No parallel in the Arctic

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has become a flash point for indigenous rights and climate change activism in a way that no recently proposed resource extraction project in the Arctic has. That’s not to say that there haven’t been significant environmental movements to halt industrial development in the Arctic. From 1979-1981, Sami and Norwegian protests attempted to stop the construction of the Alta Dam in Norway. The dam was eventually built, but protestors were successful in preventing a Sami village from being flooded. The construction of the $400 million Karahnjukar hydropower plant and aluminum smelter in Iceland in the mid-2000s also sparked a significant protest movement in Iceland that attracted global attention. Finally and more recently, 44 Greenpeace activists were arrested after scaling the Russian offshore oil platform Prirazlomnaya in 2014, while hundreds of protesters gathered in Seattle in 2015 to rally against Shell’s plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic.

Yet at least in recent memory, no Arctic protest has captured global attention in the way that the movement against DAPL has. I’m not even sure if anyone waved a sign to protest the arrival of the Goliat floating production, storage, and off-loading unit when it arrived in Hammerfest last year to commence operations at the world’s northernmost drilling site in the Barents Sea. In a Barents Observer article from earlier this year, a politician from northern Norway admitted the difficulties with protesting Arctic oil drilling, especially in a country like his where the future of the enormous domestic oil industry lies to the north.

The firestorm that is #NoDAPL

While drilling in the European Arctic continues relatively under the radar, the #NoDAPL movement has gained enormous traction in the media and on the internet. The main protest site along the Missouri River has attracted celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, an actress whose arrest for trespassing and rioting garnered media headlines. Mark Ruffalo, who has made a considerable effort over the years to raise climate change awareness, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian asserting:

“Given this ongoing shift to clean energy – and the fact that renewables offer a more sustainable, more prosperous, and healthier future – it seems almost unbelievable that North Dakota authorities are spending energy and money violently defending a dying and dangerous system of energy production.”

North Dakotan authorities want a pipeline because it will supposedly make shipping oil out of the state safer. Since June 2012, more Bakken crude has been moved by rail than by pipeline due to a surge in production and resulting pipeline congestion. Rail cars heavy with fuel, however, are subject to explosion. Moving oil by pipeline is also cheaper, which is an important motivation for both oil and shipping companies as the price of oil continues to remain low. As this Wired article explains, two years ago, Energy Transfer Partners promised oil refiners that the pipeline would be completed by the end of this year in exchange for them agreeing to purchase oil shipped through it at rates set in 2014, back when oil hovered around $75 a barrel. If the pipeline is not completed on time, rates will have to be renegotiated and DAPL may no longer be such a lucrative project. Time is money when it comes to oil, and that’s why so many oil majors had to pull out of the Arctic once the price dropped below $80-$90 a barrel – said to be the range of the breakeven price for a barrel coming out of the north.

How a protest in North Dakota affects the Arctic

An oil rig floats offshore from the largely indigenous Canadian hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories. The Arctic is no stranger to oil and gas development. Photo: Mia Bennett

The Standing Rock protests shine a light on five issues that are key in Arctic development: indigenous rights, fossil fuel infrastructure, asymmetric protests, climate change, and unconventional oil. Many projects in the Arctic involve these controversial issues, including the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas project in Russia and the new highway to the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Thus, the protests in North Dakota have the potential to affect the Arctic. Here’s how.

1. Indigenous rights

A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border
A map of native lands and pipelines around the U.S.-Canada border. Map by Cryopolitics.

Like many indigenous peoples in the Arctic, the Sioux suffer from poor health, pervasive unemployment, and low incomes. Shockingly in Sioux County, where the Standing Rock reservation is located, nearly 24,000 years of potential life are lost per 100,000 people compared to the North Dakota average of 6,305 (PDF of report). Reliance on local land and water resources in both North Dakota and the Arctic means that the environment requires safeguarding. And in the North American Arctic and the Lower 48, land is one thing that been guaranteed to many indigenous peoples through land claims agreements and settlements. The boundaries of Standing Rock were delineated in 1889 by the Dawes Act, a policy that had devastating consequences nationwide for Native Americans due to its attempt to break up the tribal system of societal organization. But it did guarantee them their rights to the land.

Even though many indigenous peoples now own and oversee their land in both Canada and America, industrial development on the outskirts of these protected areas is still putting pressure on them. As the map above shows, pipeline companies simply avoid having to deal with native land regulations by laying them right outside their jurisdictions. To be fair, these projects often give jobs to native people. But they can also wreak havoc on their environment and precious resources even though they do not directly cut through their land.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, however, would run directly through the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply. Protests there emerged first and foremost out of a concern among the natives, who are members of the Dakota and Lakota nations, for their water and land. “Water is life” is one of the movement’s main slogans. Last week, 50 demonstrators were arrested for sitting and blocking the pipeline’s construction in land that the Sioux consider theirs, but which technically belongs to Energy Transfer Partners. A court injunction in October denied the tribe’s request to halt construction of the pipeline through what they claim to be sacred grounds.

Pipelines placed anywhere near a water source are risky. Oil sands extraction in Alberta has polluted the Athabasca River, which supports many indigenous communities and ultimately flows to the Arctic Ocean. And in the Arctic itself, the countless number of ponds, streams, and rivers in the boggy tundra mean that pollution of a water source might be even less easily contained. Pipelines seem like quiet and sturdy infrastructures, but the protests in North Dakota are attempting to show that if one thing goes wrong, an entire way of life could be jeopardized.

2. The proliferation of fossil fuel infrastructure

If built, DAPL will perpetuate the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure across North America. While politicians in forums like the COP 22 meeting convening this month in Morocco talk about the need for states to lower greenhouse gas emissions, new pipelines continue to be bolted into the ground. Brand-new liquefied natural gas terminals are being constructed as well, particularly in the U.S. In December 2015, a glut of American-produced oil and gas led to the lifting of a 40-year ban on exporting U.S. oil. Now, American crude exports are “reshaping the world’s energy map,” according to Bloomberg.

Even if protestors and native groups are able to halt the construction of pipelines that would cross native land in the Lower 48 and Canadian provinces, a large amount of infrastructure is slated to be constructed in the Arctic in the coming years. If DAPL protestors are successful in stopping the pipeline’s construction, however, this might make project such as the proposed Alaska liquefied natural gas pipeline appear to be a less economically secure investments if protests, especially those organized by indigenous peoples with land claims, could threaten the ability to finish construction in a timely and profitable manner.

3. Social movements that unite indigenous and environmental activists on a global scale

The NoDAPL movement is a magnet for indigenous and environmental activists because it concerns issues dear to both movement’s hearts. Surprisingly, this is contrary to the Arctic, where many development projects are seen in a more black and white frame. The protests against Arctic offshore oil, for instance, have typically been about preventing climate change rather than protecting indigenous interests. Many indigenous groups in the Alaskan Arctic actually have a material stake in offshore drilling due to the fact that they own corporations with vested interests in the industry.

But if there were an issue in the Arctic like DAPL that attracted the interests of both indigenous and environmental activists, it could be a lightning rod for global dissidents to come and support the movement. The events in North Dakota show that not all locals are happy about out-of-state and foreign activists coming to ally themselves with the cause. CNN interviewed members of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, including one man who complained about the non-local protesters he said were responsible for inciting violence. “It irks me. People are here from all over the world,” he remarked. “If they could come from other planets, I think they would.”

If a protest were to arise in the Arctic, it would generally be less feasible for allies and supporters of the movement to travel to the site given the sheer costs of getting up north. The movement in Iceland against the Karahnjukar project, which mainly focused on environmental issues, managed to attract many international protesters. There was even an organized “Summer of International Dissent against Heavy Industry” in 2007 that featured concerts and free vegan food for international dissenters. But just as in Standing Rock, many places in the Arctic simply cannot handle the sheer volume of people who might come thinking they are helping local causes when they are actually straining local resources.

4. Gas flaring and climate change

Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.
Night light satellite imagery reveals the prominence of gas flaring in the Bakken Oil Fields and Athabasca Oil Sands and its proximity to the Arctic.

While it’s easy to see DAPL as the site of a relatively localized project and protest, its construction would have knock-on effects on other regions, including the Arctic. If DAPL is built, it will help secure and encourage the continued projection of oil from the Bakken formation. This could be perilous for the Arctic, as a NASA study found that every year between 2000 and 2015, nitrogen dioxide emissions increased 1.5% at Bakken and 2% over the Athabasca oil sands in Canada. Both Bakken and Athabasca are high-latitude oil fields whose emissions can exacerbate Arctic warming. Many of the pollutants they release into the atmosphere come from the wasteful practice of gas flaring, which is done to get rid of excess oil that cannot be economically shipped to market. The bright lights of gas flares can even be seen from space. The above map shows how the polluting gas flares over the Bakken and Athabasca oil fields are some of the closest major areas of industrial development to the Arctic. If the knock-on consequences of the DAPL protests mean that Bakken production is slowed, Arctic warming may be, too.

5. The rise of unconventional oil

On the other hand, let’s say the protests are successful in stopping DAPL and Bakken production does slow. This could push producers to look to other resource frontiers, such as the Arctic. As easy-to-access oil has dried up over the past few decades outside of the Middle East, tapping into unconventional oil resources has becoming more commonplace. Fracking is becoming an accepted way of dredging up more of the black stuff from deep underground. Deepwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico is also considered unconventional, as is Arctic oil. Since at least 2008, North American Arctic oil, especially in Canada where there is even less infrastructure to get product out to market than in Alaska, has been on the back burner. This is partly due to the glut created by the Bakken boom, which has made Arctic oil impossible to profitably extract. But if Bakken were to suddenly cease production (an unlikely proposition, but let’s just hypothesize) and prices were to go back up, Arctic oil could potentially be more attractive.

From North Dakota to the Arctic

The plains of North Dakota may seem a long way away from the Arctic Ocean. But while no project so far has yet united environmental and indigenous movements in the same electrifying manner in the Arctic, many of the underlying conditions in the North – an indigenous people with rights to land who still feel neglected, vulnerability to pollution and climate change, and the dominance of the extractive industries – are the same. The NoDAPL movement doesn’t seem to be letting up and protestors have vowed to stay through winter. Ultimately, it may be the longer staying power of the movement in North Dakota, which is centrally located within the U.S., reachable by car, and, while cold, not insanely so in winter, which allows the NoDAPL protests to succeed. In the Arctic, similar movements might eventually have to come in from the cold.

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