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Proposed Sandpiper Pipeline: Is Oil the New Fur?

Georgianne Nienaber: Will we wrap ourselves in oil and drown in the salty byproducts of fracking while we watch towns burn from train explosions and die of thirst after our aquifers are poisoned?
Sandpiper Pipeline

Photo collage by Alyssa Hoppe of Honor the Earth

Part 1 of a 3-part series

Update! The news this week on the Fort Berthold Reservation was not good. One million gallons of brine from fracking operationsspilled in an 8,240 feet long flow down a ravine near Bear Den Bay and Lake Sakakawea. The pipe carrying the chemical byproducts of oil and gas exploration is owned by Arrow Pipeline LLC, a subsidiary of Crestwood Midstream Partners Inc. The reservoir provides drinking water to the Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes.

As the Canadian oil company, Enbridge, plans potential pipeline routes to transport North Dakota oil from the Bakken reserves and dilbit from the Alberta Tar Sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes, the past offers a valuable lesson. Promises of prosperity and easy money are eerily familiar and reminiscent of those made to indigenous peoples in the mid-nineteenth century when President Thomas Jefferson desperately sought American domination in the fur trade. Energy, like the fur trade of the nineteenth century, is manipulated on world markets. Oil is the new fur, and will be sold to the highest bidder. Clean water, health, sacred lands, and the future of the next generation hang in the balance.

An hour's drive north of Bismark, North Dakota, the National Park Service oversees the archeological remnants of a First Nation agricultural society that hunted, traded and farmed the Knife River region for at least 500 years. Prior to the river settlements, the region was inhabited for at least 11,000 years by nomadic tribes that hunted now extinct animal species. As the hunter-gatherer tribes gradually turned to agriculture on the fertile soils of the wooded banks of the Missouri and Knife Rivers, round earth lodges became the dominant architecture.

This was an advanced society in many ways. Oral history was rich with tradition, and creation stories recounted the Mandan Nation's birth on the upper Missouri. The neighboring Hidatsa learned how to grow corn from the Mandan, traded with them, and eventually the tribes shared so much intermarriage that the cultures merged. Because of an unofficial alliance with the Arikara to the south, the tribes dominated trade routes that were the economic backbone of the Great Plains.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in the mid 1700s, the three nations were at the height of prosperity and influence. In a little over 100 years it would all be gone. Smallpox all but obliterated 11,000 years of culture on the Knife River, and the epidemic followed the Lewis and Clark expedition up the Columbia River into the land of the Nez Perce, wiping out many of the Columbia River people. The buffalo were decimated, salmon destroyed, and sacred lands overrun by European settlements hauled west by the railroads.

The Lewis and Clark expedition was predicated on a lie. And the lie destroyed a civilization.

Most Americans learn that the Lewis and Clark expedition was a scientific exploration of a possible route to the Northwest Passage. In reality the expedition was covertly planned with Congress to fulfill Thomas Jefferson's goal of subjugating First Nation people under the legal cover of the Doctrine of Discovery. Jefferson coveted sovereign rule beginning at the gateway to the plains in St. Louis. However, there was a problem. Indigenous tribes were in the way and they also harbored a secret that Jefferson wanted.

Fur trade routes were the prize that justified the deception. Fur was worthless unless it could reach world markets.

So, Jefferson lied to France, England, and Spain when he requested passage for a "scientific" expedition through their territories. Spain realized the expedition was a ruse to steal the fur trade from England and sent a military mission to stop it. Jefferson's scheme involved convincing the tribes that by taking fur routes from England, they would be able to buy American goods such as horses, cloth, metal and other items not available to them.

The hollow promise of prosperity involved welcoming trappers on Indian land. America would become the biggest fur trader in the world if it could utilize the river system to the Northwest Passage to undercut the British fur trade with China. The key to success involved bypassing established routes through Hudson Bay and Montreal.

Standing Rock Sioux National, Chase Iron Eyes, Talks to Obama About Broken Treaties

Today, the remnants of the great Mandan and Sioux societies are living on reservations; suffering the consequences of the broken Fort Laramie Treaty and the lies Jefferson sold to Congress. The descendants of European settlers now own what was once First Nation land and exist in seeming prosperity on the Great Plains with the promise of greater riches to come as oil companies dangle Bakken oil as the new prize. Oil leases and pipelines are the new treaties.

With seeming impunity, oil companies are obtaining pipeline routes under the guise of "critical energy structure." Using the Patriot Act as a fig leaf, Enbridge has obtainedan orderthat says the exact location of a proposed pipeline through North Dakota is protected under the 2011 Patriot Act.

The information sought to be protected is detailed design information and imagery pertaining to what would be classified as critical infrastructure under both state and federal law, and if publically disclosed, it would provide detailed information on the precise location and design of the critical infrastructure potentially putting the pipeline and the public at risk of terrorism or other foul play.

Fear is a convenient pipeline for the big lie.

The fight for oil routes, whether it be the Keystone XL or the obscure Sandpiper, is the modern day equivalent of the search for the Northwest Passage. History repeats itself and the takings are easy from the descendants of the first Europeans who do not have 11,000 years of history on the Great Plains to connect them to the land. Money trumps tradition, and the sacred is no longer sacrosanct.

We learned this from our exploration of the proposed Sandpiper Pipeline route through North Dakota and Minnesota. In North Dakota, county officials did not have access to maps of the Sandpiper, and residents had no idea a pipeline was proposed for their counties.

What would Sakakawea say today? Would she agree to act as a guide and interpreter for Lewis and Clark if she knew the consequences?

Lewis and Clark lived with the Knife River people before beginning their fraudulent expedition. Ironically, the Shoshone wife of a French Canadian trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, led the expedition as a translator and guide. Sakakawea was immortalized on a now defunct US dollar coin, and a reservoir that now floods a good portion of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is named for her. Under Lake Sakakawea are hidden pipelines. "Tesoro and Enbridge (at the far west end of its east-west line) cross with crude oil lines; WBI and Northern Border cross with natural gas lines; and Dakota Gasification Co. crosses with carbon dioxide." Enbridge would like to build another.

What would Sakakawea say today? Would she agree to act as a guide and interpreter for Lewis and Clark if she knew the consequences?

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Today, representatives from the oil companies visit courthouse after courthouse along proposed pipeline routes, quietly researching deeds and following the letter of the law with public meeting notices that no one attends. Whether through ignorance or indifference, non-indigenous people on the plains are handing the new 'trade' routes over without a whimper of unified protest.

Will they, like Sakakawea, become unwitting guides to their own destruction? Will pipelines run under what were once family farms, finally polluted by oil leaks and forever uninhabitable?

sandpiper pipeline

See Enbridge website

The Enbridge Company is known for spills. There are an estimated 800 documented spills in the last ten years.

The Kalamazoo Spill spewed almost one million gallons of oil, and continued for 17 hours without being discovered by the Enbridge Company. It was discovered by residents.

North Dakota has a website for company-reported spills, but can companies be trusted with reporting on themselves?

The Sandpiper pipeline, a proposed 375,000 barrels per day, would cut through a chain of lakes south of Park Rapids and Walker, towards Brainerd and McGregor, in Minnesota and then route to refineries in the Duluth and Superior area.

The Enbridge Company is also proposing to match that pipeline with a re-route of Line 3, carrying possibly another 400,000- 800,000 barrels of oil, and most likely another two pipelines, in the next decade. That is more oil than the Keystone XL.

In Minnesota, the route is being carefully examined.

The Sandpiper route across water-rich northern Minnesota has too many places where things could go wrong, they say -- dozens of open water and hundreds of wetland crossings. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found at least 28 water crossings where it would be difficult or impossible to get oil spill cleanup crews to the site, if a spill ever occurred, because they are so far from any road.

In North Dakota, the proposed Sandpiper pipeline goes through Mountrail County and across two important aquifers. One aquifer supplies the Devils Lake recreational area with fresh water. No one in North Dakota seems to be making much of a fuss, except for tribal leaders and several Facebook groups such as No Fracking Way Turtle Mountain Tribe.


Social networking has become a critical resource for public information on fracking, oil spills and pipeline infrastructure on the Great Plains. But, is it enough?

A civilization was lost as a result of Manifest Destiny. So was cultural identity. Sacred lands are continually under assault from utility companies.

As the quest for oil transport becomes the Manifest Destiny of our time, can we afford to assume someone else will be our guide and protect our water, land and ecology? Is social networking our only recourse?

We are a long way from energy independence and freedom from fossil fuels. The reality is that more pipelines and more trains will continue to haul oil to refineries on the Great Lakes and the Gulf shores. Where will we route this infrastructure? Don't we have the right to know proposed routing so that we can protect water and land resources?

Will we, as a nation, fall prey to "treaties" promising us riches beyond belief that big oil dangles? Will Congress and our President also lie to us, just as Jefferson did?

Will we wrap ourselves in oil and drown in the salty byproducts of fracking while we watch towns burn from train explosions and die of thirst after our aquifers are poisoned?


Will future generations have an archeological site that tells the tale of once prosperous farming communities that sold their heritage to big oil?

Not if oil is the new fur.

Georgianne Nienaber

Special Thanks to Alyssa Hoppe of Honor the Earth

See also "Native America, Discovered and Conquered" by Robert J. Miller