The War of Oil vs. Water: Police vs. Unarmed Water Protectors at Standing Rock

Actions against the Native American Water Protectors and their supporters are increasingly violent at the Standing Rock Reservation. Medical personnel have called for the end to the use of water cannons in the sub-freezing temperatures, conditions that could lead to death by hyperthermia.

When oil reserves in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field began to diminish followed by dropping oil prices, it was inevitable that cheaper methods of extraction and transport would be sought. After all, oil has been very good to North Dakota—reducing unemployment and generating a billion-dollar government budget surplus—not to mention the benefits to the oil industry and the bankers who back them. From the point of view of the oil industry and the state of North Dakota, Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline looks like progress, providing cheaper, more reliable transport than shipping oil to refineries by rail.

However, for those 8,000 members of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the many thousands that support them, the Dakota Access Pipeline is an unwelcome and potentially damaging intruder. For the Native Americans, the pipeline presents serious risks to scarce water resources and the sanctity of tribal lands. For example, pipeline workers recently desecrated sacred burial grounds.

The pipeline plans call for it to cross the Missouri River, the source of water for nearly a million people, including the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. With nearly inevitable pipeline failures and oil spills such as North Dakota’s Tesoro Logistics pipeline failure in 2013 that saturated the ground with 20,000 gallons of oil and spreading ammonium, selenium, lead and other toxic substances—concerns about the risks to the water supply and damage to the ecosystem are not exaggerated. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 1.3 million gallons (4.9 million liters) of petroleum are spilled into U.S. waters from vessels and pipelines in a typical year. A major oil spill could easily double that amount.

Underlying the battle at Standing Rock is the failure of the USA, to ramp down its long-term love affair with the combustion engine. America seems determined to fall behind the many developed countries that have made a serious commitment to and investment in alternative energy sources: solar, wind, hydrogen, etc. Reluctance to embrace the future of energy technology has led to a battle that is symbolic of all that is wrong about USA energy policy.

And a real battle it is. On one side is an overzealous militarized police force anxious to get the oil pipeline built before contractual obligations cause a default in January and are willing to cause injury and suffering if necessary to achieve that end. On the other side are unarmed Native Americans and their supporters, a cadre of tribes from all over the country, students and environmental activists.

Looking more like action movie storm troopers than officer friendlies, police and private guards seem to be willing to set relations with the natives of North Dakota back a hundred years. But their appearance belies the seriousness of the situation over the weekend. Rubber bullets aimed at heads and hands deliver the k.o. power of a sledgehammer and flesh has been ripped from bones. Clouds of tear gas enveloped the protestors as they stand unarmed, praying. The newest weapons, torrents of water from fire hoses delivered in sub-freezing temperatures, inflict rapid hyperthermia and ice-covered Water Protectors leaving the front line have required treatment from doctors who demand this practice be stopped.

Much needed resources including food, medicine, blankets and tents are being sent from supporters all over the country and doctors and other medical professionals have organized makeshift triage centers to treat the wounded. An international audience watches in disbelief as no governmental agency has stepped in to help the Water Protectors despite the obvious human rights violations.

Intimidation tactics are being used by police forces. Unmarked helicopters, drones and small airplanes circle over the heads of the Water Protectors in violation of both tribal airspace and a federally mandated no-fly zone adding to the sense of oppression, yet increasing the resolve and solidarity of those who are peacefully protesting below. It is reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and indeed issues of tribal rights, violation of treaties and racism are present.

The major media again demonstrates why it is slipping into irrelevancy. Not a single major newspaper or television network has committed journalists to report from the scene yet the only way to see the truth is from the ground. What scant coverage is available from the scene is provided by the Water Protectors and their supporters in the form of personal accounts and cell phone video.

The War of Oil vs. Water cannot be easily dismissed. As the environmental pressure on clean water resources competes with the interests of the oil companies and their investors and consumers—as it does with both fracking and pipelines—there will be future battles. Students and other supporters are likely to become radicalized as they witness the abuses of power against unarmed citizens.

In history books of the future, readers will look back on the events at Standing Rock as a turning point demonstrating that war is not inevitable, but change is. The sooner the citizens and governments of the USA understand that it is in their own best interest to develop alternative energy and protect precious water resources, the better for everyone.

Photo credit: Bambi Petty-Haynie

Related contacts:
U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers: (202) 761-0010; (202) 761-0014
Department of Justice: (202)-353-1555; (202)-514-2000
North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple: 701-328-2200
Morton County Sheriff Department: 701-328-8118 and 701-667-3330
North Dakota National Guard: 701-333-2000
White House: (202)-456-1414; (202)-456-1111

Release ID: 149414