Oil and Water Don’t Mix: Why the ACLU Is Standing Up for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers did the right thing by refusing to give Energy Transfer Partners permission to build a portion of the nearly 1,200-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe in North Dakota. The corps’ decision to perform an environmental impact assessment and explore alternative routes for the pipeline fulfilled the U.S.'s treaty obligations with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which vigorously protested the pipeline out of a credible fear that it could rupture and destroy its water supply, as well as acted in accordance with this nation's environmental protection laws. It was a big win for the tribe and its supporters.

But it didn’t last long.

Days after President Trump took office, he issued a memorandum and an executive order asking the corps to expedite its consideration of the company’s application for an easement to start construction. Soon after, the corps withdrew its call for the environmental study, and Energy Transfer Partners began drilling the next day. The reversal was a slap in the face of the tribe and its treaty rights with the United States. Quickly, the Standing Rock Sioux asked the courts to intervene and stop the pipeline so its impact on the environment could be assessed.

The courts are now the Standing Rock Sioux’s last hope to get the pipeline routed around its land.

That’s why this week the ACLU signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief with 34 Indian tribes and other organizations in support of a case filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in federal court against the Army Corps of Engineers. The tribe’s lawsuit seeks to halt further drilling and construction of the pipeline until the corps conducts a proper environmental impact statement consistent with federal statutes, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as the federal government’s responsibility to protect the tribe’s rights and sovereignty under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. 

The federal government has once again betrayed the Standing Rock Sioux.

As outlined in our brief, the pipeline should be halted immediately consistent with the Standing Rock Sioux’s treaty rights as well as to prevent, for good, any chance a pipeline leak or rupture could despoil the tribe’s land and water. Energy Transfer Partners, however, claims that the chance of a rupture in the river is low, but there are three responses to that claim.

First, the chance of a rupture isn’t that low. In July 2015, the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force issued a comprehensive report of pipeline failures. The study found “hundreds” of pipeline ruptures “that have occurred throughout the U.S. pipeline system.”

The report cites many examples of ruptures over the last few years. In May 2015, a pipeline failed off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, releasing 105,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean. A few months earlier, another pipeline spill released 42,000 gallons of oil underneath the Yellowstone River. Two years earlier, a pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Arkansas, releasing 134,000 gallons. In July 2010, a pipeline break released 840,000 gallons of oil, fouling 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

Second, the possibility of a rupture — whether low or not — must be considered together with the consequences of a rupture.  Even a “moderate” release of oil into the Missouri River would have profound and devastating consequences, a subject that the company’s press releases ignore.

Lastly, it is fair to ask: Who would suffer the most by a rupture? The immediate victims of a rupture of the pipeline would be the members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, now that the pipeline has been moved into their watershed. But the degradation of the water would also impact some 18 million people downstream who depend on water from the Missouri River.

Since 1974, it’s been the ACLU’s national policy to support Native Americans’ right to a tribal land base and its natural resources as well as support tribes who press their treaty rights with the U.S. government. Under treaties the Standing Rock Sioux made with the U.S. government as well as under federal statutes, the tribe has the right to protect its land, its heritage, and its water from contamination by a possible pipeline rupture. The treatment of the Standing Rock Sioux by Energy Transfer Partners and all levels of government compel us to help the tribe as they fight to stop the pipeline construction from proceeding so that a simple environmental impact assessment can be conducted.

The federal government has once again betrayed the Standing Rock Sioux and made a mockery of its obligations to the tribe while jeopardizing the drinking water of over 18 million Americans. We hope our brief helps convince the courts that a great injustice is taking place on federal land just north of the Standing Rock Sioux’s territory and that it should be stopped immediately.

Stephen L. Pevar’s book, “The Rights of Indians and Tribes” (Oxford 2012), is available here.

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the guy obviously is a part of big oil
we need our honor back
if we ever had any


2016 report of 30 years of pipeline spills indicate that it is no longer an "if" the pipeline will fait it is a matter of "when". Pipeline spills are the result of "weld failures, corrosion and erosion". This process could be delayed until a safer method of building pipelines is developed to save lives and eliminate future spills. This would not only reduce pipeline costs; it would prevent further environmental pollution.


"Pipeline spills are the result of "weld failures, corrosion and erosion""

All of which are prevented with modern-day pipe coatings and x-raying every weld. So the risk has to be weighed against current technology, not 50 year old pipelines that have problems.


Wow, I can't believe people still think we are all on welfare, receive free health care and education. Well I'm Native American and had to pay for my own education, my own health care and pay taxes. If you really believe that lie and stereo type of indigenous people, I feel sorry for you. You lack the educational history of the true land you call America. It was built on stolen land while millions of indigenous people died in the name of Manifest Destiny. America was never Great!


With stealing American Indian or Native American territory-is it because wars were used to take land from them or is the main meaning of this that the Whites were better @ being greedy ? When American Indians or Native Americans wanted territory, they used wars to get it from a neighboring tribe. In some cases, American Indian or Native American tribes would kill a neighboring tribes men in a war and then take the women and girls as their wives. Quanah Parker was the last Comanche chief-his mom was kidnapped when she was 9 years old and forced to become a Comanche chief's wife.

Before the Whites stole the territory, Native Americans got their lands by wars, which in some cases, involved killing the neighboring tribes men and kidnapping the women and girls as wives. I wouldn't want to live during the times an Indian tribe such as let's say Comanches killed their neighbors and then took the women and girls as wives.

I’ve found with Native Americans or American Indians is that many times when they talk of ‘stolen land’ what they imply is ‘you did what I wanted to do.’ There was greed & arrogance on both the Whites & Native American sides. Yes, this nations treatment of American Indians was arrogant & wars were used to take land from American Indians. Truth about greed is that Whites were just better in greed. Before the Whites, American Indians when they wanted land be it living grounds, hunting grounds, burial grounds & fishing waters got it from other tribes by wars. When the Whites came, they wanted the same things & more be they metals such as iron, gold, silver, copper & bronze.

Truth is that when people get advanced & complicated in their technologies, the more they want. People are just potentially greedy. If American Indian tribes (esp. tribes like the Sioux, Comanches, Apaches, Aztecs, etc.) had better weapons & capabilities, they would have been conquering other places in the world & imposing their laws on others. Whites ( I’m not White) had better military capability or capacity, but when it comes to thinking, they’re the same. People are the same everywhere-Whites, Blacks, American Indians, etc. That doesn’t excuse fact this nation’s treatment of American Indians was arrogant but when you have the view of ‘you did what I wanted to do’ then you’re no better than what you say to be against.


So Anonymous,

Here is a copy of the complete text of The Indian Citizenship Act (1924),

BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and house of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided That the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.
Approved June 2, 1924

You really need to stop pretending to understand the law. Your comments are completely false. You are confused and your mind is deluded. If you want to interpret laws, go to law school. Until then, at least have a little humility while you're spouting about things you do not understand.


Currently the oil in question is being delivered by railroads owned by Warren Buffet. If the pipelines get approved it will cost he and his friends billions of dollars. It is far more dangerous to transport oil via rail than through a pipeline. Such resistance goes against the best interest of the environment for the benefit of those who can afford to fund such resistance.

Rand A

Your comment about safety is wrong and miss-leading, a rail car limits the amount of the spill and it does not often spill into water shed or water ways, hundreds of oil pipe lines have leaked over the last 5 years and a dozen rail cars have actually leaked, or burned during the same time frame. So some research of recent pipeline leaks and you will see what the EPA, Government and Big Oil has been hiding. Sad

Randy A

We are free in America because when the Rule of Law fails as in this cse or is hijacked by big business, courts and politicians, it warrants an individual or collective action equal to the failure. Remember just because the government acts and the courts support it does not equate to the Rule of Law being met. Civil unrest is a founding action against abuse by Government especially when it teams up with big business. I think it is time to picket the Trump tower in NY, and also the Governors' home in North Dakota along with the home of the CEO of the pipe company and every bank that funds this pipeline. Focus on the actors and leaders. The Police do as they are told. The ACLU ignores abuse even if it is documented on film. Avoid violence but carry the message to their homes.

Roy Seeley

I am no expert but it seems to me that building a pipeline under a lake which provides potable water to millions of people is the height of stupidity. Trump is making a big mistake in forcing this issue. It is destroying his credibility.


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