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Standing Rock: Who Gets to Tell the Story About What Happens Next?

Mark Trahant

TRAHANT REPORTS—It always amazes how different people can look at the same set of facts, an event, or even a conversation and walk away with completely different impressions.

Then in four decades of reporting I have never seen a story with as wide a gulf over what is occurring at Standing Rock.

The government of North Dakota sees this extraordinary event as a minor glitch in their rush toward more profits from North Dakota oil. And so many of the characterizations are written as if none of the top government officials—you know the governor, members of Congress, the state’s power structure—have ever been to the site that they know so much about. But that’s me being generous: They have not been there and they are clear about their intentions to never go.

That’s why this is a fight about story. And who gets to tell it?

And the stories North Dakota Officialdom want the public to believe are those of lawlessness, “sound science and engineering,” and an overzealous regulatory structure. The first story is quickly erased by anyone who takes the time to travel to the camps. (Previous: Why politicians should visit Standing Rock camps.) And it is the same with the second story, the debate about science and engineering, because that telling only works when you ignore climate science. (Previous: Overdue national debate about pipelines and sound science.)

Mark Trahant

That leaves the third story, the one about an “overzealous regulatory structure.” Folks: This one is the whopper. And it must be challenged every time it’s told. The fact is that the Dakota Access Pipeline was designed to avoid federal regulatory oversight. The whole point was to make certain that there was no serious environmental assessment.

As U.S. District Judge James Boasberg wrote (in his decision against the tribe’s injunction) “A project of this magnitude often necessitates an extensive federal appraisal and permitting process. Not so here.”

Not so here. Three potent words that should wipe out the narrative of over-regulation.

The judge continued: “Domestic oil pipelines, unlike natural-gas pipelines, require no general approval from the federal government. In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99 percent of its route traverses private land. The only regulatory role for the federal government in this case “concerns construction activities in federally regulated waters at hundreds of discrete places along the pipeline route. The Corps needed to permit this activity under the Clean Water Act or the Rivers and Harbors Act – and sometimes both. For DAPL, accordingly, it permitted these activities under a general permit known as Nationwide Permit 12.”

But what happens when a federal agency does not do its job? The Obama administration’s answer is take a second look. That is the so-called overzealous regulatory framework. Or, as the state’s Republican candidate for Governor, Doug Burgum, told The Grand Forks Herald, “It’s really not fair to the company at this point to expect them to put the sands back in the bottle, so to speak.”

After all: The company spent a nearly billion dollars before it had all of the permits required under The Easy-peasy Regulatory Scheme.

Then the State of North Dakota and the Army Corps of Engineers have a rich history of rolling over tribes in this region, ignoring treaties, water law, and science, in order to build dams along the Missouri River. As Commissioner of Indian Affairs Philleo Nash once said: these projects “caused more damage to Indian land than any other public works project in America.”

So being fair to a company fits with the history of overzealous regulation and it must be far more important than getting the answer right. Except. Not this time. Easy-peasy is on hold.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On @TrahantReports" target="_blank">Twitter @TrahantReports.

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