MINOT, N.D. – A handful of Dakota Access Pipeline opponents took over the stage Wednesday, Sept. 21, as North Dakota’s top oil regulator spoke to an oil industry group’s annual meeting.
The elders of the Oglala Lakota Nation referred to the pipeline as the “black snake” as they took the podium and microphone while Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms was speaking to the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
“We want you guys to hear our voice and see us,” one woman said. “We’re not just some hashtag out there just making a scene. We want to be heard. We want you guys to understand that we are fighting for our lives, for our children, for our people, the way we have, our culture, our identity.”
Police approached the stage at the Holiday Inn Riverside in Minot and warned the protesters they would be arrested if they didn’t leave. The group left through a side door chanting “Water is life.”
Minot Police Capt. John Klug said the individuals left in their vehicles and no arrests were made. Although the group was “disruptive,” they were peaceful, Klug said. Shortly before the group got on stage, a different group of five or six protesters was in front of the hotel and police had asked them to leave, Klug said.
Helms, who stepped off the stage while the group spoke from the podium, resumed his speech within minutes and police stayed on scene as the event concluded without further incident.
Event organizers had taken extra security precautions as thousands continue to camp north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox, who spoke earlier Wednesday, said while the reservation he leads has embraced oil development, he also supports the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in asserting its right as a tribal nation to oppose the oil pipeline.
“If a tribe, unlike our own, says we do not want industry to be on our reservation, or on our lands or to impact our lands, then respect that. Go around,” Fox said. “We do respect their right and we’re going to stand behind them 100 percent.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline would cross the Missouri River less than a mile north of the Standing Rock reservation. Tribal members fear pipeline construction will destroy sacred sites and a potential spill could contaminate water supplies.
Andy Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, emphasized Wednesday that crude oil and other refined products transported by pipeline reach their destination safely greater than 99.99 percent of the time.
He also pointed out the Dakota Access would be installed more than 100 feet below the Missouri River and follow the path of an existing natural gas pipeline. The 1,172-mile pipeline would transport 450,000 barrels of oil per day from North Dakota to Patoka, Ill., where oil could then move on to the Gulf Coast.
“The Dakota Access Pipeline will get trucks off the road, reduce our reliance on unit trains, lower shipping costs and make Bakken crude more competitive,” Black said.
Black cited the environmental assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which found that an alternative to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck would affect affect additional acres of land, require more waterbody crossings and affect more wetlands than crossing at Lake Oahe north of the Standing Rock reservation.
“Not finishing Dakota Access or significantly changing the route would actually be worse for the environment,” Black said.
Marvin Nelson, the Democratic candidate for governor who also addressed the meeting Wednesday, said miscommunication led to the current situation.
“The tribe thought since the law said they have to be consulted, that if they didn’t engage in consultation that would block the pipeline going there,” said Nelson, who has visited the protest camp. “Of course it didn’t. And now here we are today and North Dakota is looking like the Little Rock, Ark., of the 2000s.”
Fox urged the oil industry representatives to accept tribal sovereignty and treat tribal nations as they would another state or the federal government.
“We see sometimes a lack of respect by our interaction between the oil industry and our own tribe on respecting that sovereignty,” Fox said. “We as a tribe have to assert that and we will continue to do that.”
Fox also mentioned some of the benefits that oil production has brought to Fort Berthold, which accounts for about one-sixth of North Dakota’s oil development, including a new health insurance program for tribal members and new houses, schools and a law enforcement center that are under construction.
“We want production on Fort Berthold. But we want responsible development on Fort Berthold,” Fox said. “We can have production, we can be responsible and we can protect our water at the same time.”