Obama’s Statement Is a False Victory for Pipeline Protesters

On November 1, President Obama stated in an interview with Now This that, “the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute [the Dakota Access] pipeline.” This statement was covered by major news organizations and sparked great excitement on social media. The Indigenous Peoples website posted on their Facebook page, “Obama Just Announced He’s Going to Save Standing Rock By Rerouting Pipeline. EXCELLENT news! Help Spread the Word!!”

This is the second time the president has spoken about the Dakota Access pipeline, and it is good news to the protesters at Standing Rock, especially after the violence that made news last week. Many see it as a beacon of hope in an otherwise dark sky. When the president speaks about the issue you’ve been fighting for, it’s hard not to feel hopeful.

However, President Obama’s statement may be a false victory for protesters. It is clear that the president did not commit to any course of action. Taken in context, his statement is decidedly noncommittal:

We are monitoring this closely, and I think as a general rule … there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans. And I think that the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to re-route this pipeline. So, we’re going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that is properly attentive to the traditions of the First Americans.

The reality on the ground for protesters has not changed since Obama made this statement on Tuesday. One day later, a post appeared on Sacred Stone Camp’s Facebook page saying, “Police are currently desecrating [sacred] burial grounds … They have unleashed pepper spray and tear gas on water protectors standing in the river with their hands in the air.” It is still unclear whether Obama or the Army Corps of Engineers will take action, and while many protesters remain hopeful, others are skeptical if the president’s words will affect change. An article in Native News Online said, “With President Obama leaving office on January 20, 2017, time is running out for his administration to act. Yet, he suggested there will [be] no decision for several weeks.”

Even if the president reroutes the pipeline, it might not affect the major changes that protesters are hoping for. He suggested that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering rerouting the pipeline so that it would not destroy native burial sites or threaten the Standing Rock Reservation’s drinking water supply. This would be an important step, as the violation of Native rights is a major point of contention. But it would address only one of the issues with the pipeline.

If the pipeline were diverted, it would still run under the Missouri River, which provides drinking water to millions of people. The problems that the Standing Rock community now face would only be moved to another community. The possibility of an oil spill poses a significant environmental and social threat to those who depend on the river’s water for drinking and agriculture, and could pose long-term health risks, according to Business Insider. And a spill is not unlikely — since 1995, over 2,000 significant accidents involving oil pipelines have occurred, and their frequency is increasing. Even if the pipeline were rerouted, it will continue to remain a threat until further action is taken.