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Native Americans Protest New Oil Pipeline In North Dakota


A fight over the route of a new pipeline is gaining momentum while it plays out in court. Hundreds of Native Americans from tribes across the United States are protesting in North Dakota. They're setting up camp at the site where the pipeline is slated to cross under the Missouri River. Reporter Amy Sisk of the public radio collaboration Inside Energy says the group is finding an eager ally in environmental groups.

AMY SISK, BYLINE: In what's usually an empty field, there are cars, trucks, teepees and tents surrounding me in a site near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in south central North Dakota. Those protesting here don't want the Dakota Access pipeline built. That pipeline is permitted to cross federal land under the Missouri river a mile north of the reservation border.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Keep it in the soil.

SISK: But the tribe is essentially saying not in our backyard.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Keep it in the soil.

SISK: Alice Brownotter is just 12 years old. Today she's leading a crowd of hundreds of protesters.

ALICE BROWNOTTER: When it goes through - or if - and when it breaks, it will affect everyone.

SISK: Like others here, Brownotter worries that if the pipeline leaks, it will affect the drinking water on her reservation. The pipeline is approved to stretch from the Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota to Illinois. Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners is building it and says it could carry more than half of North Dakota's daily crude production.

Kari Cutting is with the North Dakota Petroleum Council. She says state-of-the-art equipment will monitor this pipeline, which is a big part of the nation's energy strategy to deliver cheap oil.

KARI CUTTING: This is a product that they desire, they want. They have the markets. They have the people. And we're trying to get it there.

SISK: Safety experts say pipelines are a considerably better way to transport oil. Last year alone, there were more than a half dozen major oil train accidents. But still, it's pipelines that remain the focus of opposition by environmental groups.

Jason Kowalski's with the group 350.org and says environmental groups like his oppose pipelines with the hope of keeping oil in the ground. Despite their efforts, drilling continues, and the oil is transported in other ways. But the groups did successfully block the Keystone XL pipeline slated to bring tar sands crude from Canada to U.S. refineries. The Obama administration rejected it last year.

JASON KOWALSKI: People took a warm-up lap with Keystone. We all focused on one pipeline for a few years.

SISK: This pipeline is their latest target. It's here in this remote part of North Dakota where hundreds of people are now camped out in the grassy prairie close to the construction. That site is near but not on the reservation. Further north in Bismarck, trains carrying oil safely cross Missouri River bridges every day. Jon Eagle Sr. is Standing Rock's historic preservation officer. Today he's rallying the protesters with his microphone.

JON EAGLE SR: For two years, we've been holding them off, waiting for you to come. Hey, well, now you're here with us.


SISK: The protests forced a halt in construction last week. The Standing Rock tribe requested a preliminary injunction, arguing that the U.S. Army Corps which approved the pipeline in July failed to adequately consider its impact on sacred sites. A U.S. district court judge heard arguments yesterday and is expected to rule in two weeks.

Meanwhile, North Dakota's governor has declared an emergency in this area, and more than two dozen protesters have been arrested. But protest organizers say they're not going anywhere and are committed to protesting this pipeline peacefully. For NPR News, I'm Amy Sisk.

MCEVERS: Inside Energy is a public radio collaboration focused on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 25, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier headline for this story incorrectly placed the protest in South Dakota. It is in North Dakota.