In the past few weeks, hundreds of people have been arrested and detained in North Dakota over their attempts to block the construction of an oil pipeline known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline is intended to connect North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to a shipping depot in Illinois, helping to facilitate the transportation of North Dakota’s growing oil output, a product of America’s recent boom in fracking. The heavy-handed response to protesters from local authorities – including allegations of people being detained in dog cages – has elicited a great deal of sympathy on social media around the world.
The protests against the pipeline initially grew out of local concerns. On its route through North Dakota – before cutting through South Dakota and Iowa – the pipeline will cut below the Missouri river a few miles away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Understandably, many local Native American residents have expressed concern that should the pipeline leak, their supply of fresh water would be under threat.
This potential risk is easy to find sympathy with. Equally so is the injustice felt by the same Native Americans, considering the pipeline’s proximity to the Standing Rock reservation came about after it was rerouted from its initial location near North Dakota’s capital Bismark due to the potential threat to municipal water supplies.
However, what started as local protests against the pipeline route has grown into the largest cause for environmental groups worldwide. Hundreds of activists have taken to setting up camps in the area and clashing with police in Standing Rock, in an attempt to stop the construction of the pipeline. From the arrest of Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, to celebrities such as actor Chris Hemsworth proclaiming his support for the protests, showing ‘support’ for Standing Rock protests has become a cause celebre.
What should simply have been a local dispute over the route of this pipeline – a legitimate concern to raise – has become a movement that opposes the creation of the oil pipeline on principle. That the pipeline had already been rerouted once gives credence to the argument from local Standing Rock residents that it perhaps could be rerouted again. Of course, the possibility of finding another route that doesn’t raise concerns from residents in close proximity to it is uncertain.