Oil Wars: The Significance of Small Battles for Land Rights Against Major Oil Companies

The complexity of the oil industry and the massive influence of big money over environmental and public health decisions often leaves the small battles to be squashed before they have seen the surface. But recent fights over land rights, have led to some large victories. Home owners, environmental groups, and tribes have all made strides against companies in their area; can these local battles gain headway on a national level?

Flag at a protest for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Becker1999. CC-BY-2.0.

Flag at a protest for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Becker1999. CC-BY-2.0.

Oil has hit a cornerstone between immense support from Trump’s administration and increasing heat from environmental activists. Often oil companies are in the news when facing massive consequences for oil spills. But, people that live near drilling sites or along pipelines can face health effects and unfair treatment from corporate and government agencies every day.

 The biggest culprits are often in rural areas where people are dependent on the land for their livelihood. For example, a pipeline being built from western Texas to the Gulf cuts straight through Hill Country and the ranches there. This is even true for areas designated as private conservation land that is supposed to be protected from any development. The building raises concerns for environmental, aesthetic, and public health reasons.

 The same problem is found in West Virginia, where pipeline development cuts through private homes. If the owners refuse to sell their land, it can be taken legally through Eminent Domain. This will continue to become more popular in the next 15 years as there is an estimated 26,000 miles of new gas pipelines to be built. People are starting to sue to bring the problem to the Supreme Court. The increased danger of living next to a pipeline can lead to cancer, contaminated drinking water, and increased dangers if the line were to break or become damaged.

 One of the biggest groups fighting against pipelines are native tribes. The Sioux gained attention at Standing Rock while fighting the production of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the Upper Midwest, rights to Line 5 are being revoked on reservations. In Alaska, Inuit tribes are fighting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) which has been opened up to drilling for the first time under the Trump administration.

 The ANWR and the Arctic are thought to be some of the largest untapped oil reserves in the world. Climate change has increased access to areas of the region that couldn’t be reached before, yet the environmental risk of drilling and transporting in an extremely unique and fragile ecosystem has led to a lot of resistance. In the ANWR, drilling is thought to upset Caribou migration and breeding grounds, which the local people rely on as a food source and cultural significance.

 In the US, it often seems like these fights always end in the same way, but in Ecuador and Canada tribes have main significant gains against drilling. In the Amazon, the Waorani won a landmark case against the Ecuadorian government that was trying to open the rainforest to mining. The government hoped to bring more cash into the country but would do so at a huge environmental and cultural cost. One that the Waorani wouldn’t allow. The area covered 7 million acres of Indigenous land. The Waorani said that is about more than the land but instead about a way of living that supports the lives of others.

 In Canada, fights against seismic blasts to find offshore oil reserves had great success to protect the local ecosystem. The local Inuit of Clyne River joined with Greenpeace and grassroots environmental movements to bring it to national attention. Now Arctic off-shore blasting has seen its final days. There are great strides to be made by fighting the daily impacts of oil and gas drilling. If anything, increasing drilling and pipeline construction is continuing our dependence on one of the most carbon-dense energy sources in the world.

DEVIN O’DONNELL’s interest in travel was cemented by a multi-month trip to East Africa when she was 19. Since then, she has continued to have immersive experiences on multiple continents. Devin has written for a start-up news site and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Neuroscience.


Three Years Since the Standing Rock Protests

What Has Changed?

In 2016, Native American tribes and allies from all over the country came to North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. 

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is in the center of North and South Dakota. Standing Rock was originally established as a part of the Great Sioux Reservation, which was established in 1868. In 2014, Energy Transfer Partners LP made plans to build an oil pipeline that would stretch over a thousand miles from North Dakota to Iowa, and carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The pipeline, called the Dakota Access Pipeline, would run through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 

When the Dakota Access Pipeline was approved in 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe sprang into action. The pipeline would run right next to their drinking water—any spill or leakage would contaminate their water supply. Additionally, the pipeline would run through the tribe’s sacred burial sites. 

On April 1, 2016, a group of 200 Native Americans rode on horseback to protest the construction. They set up a camp, called The Sacred Stone Camp, which became a site of protest for the cause. In November, 2016, the protesters were ordered to evacuate their protest site. The protesters intended on staying, and clashed with the police. 

Finally, the Obama Administration denied a key permit for the Dakota Access pipeline to be built. Protesters were relieved until a couple of months later, when the Trump Administration reversed that decision and approved further construction. The Dakota Access pipeline is now built, and carrying oil. Energy Transfer even plans on expanding, and transporting more oil.

But all hope is not lost. Standing Rock Activists did not give up the fight. Although the Sacred Stone Camp is gone, its ethos lives on in the Sacred Stone Village. Sacred Stone Village is an EcoVillage, whose mission is to combine Native traditions and sustainable living. Their Facebook page continues to update on the work that they have accomplished. Highlights include collecting trash from the cannonball river, planting indigenous trees and berries, and continuing to educate about the dangers of fossil fuels. 

The individual activists from Standing Rock continue to speak out and work hard to warn against the dangers of oil pipelines. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of Sacred Stone Camp, continues to give speeches and educate the world about indigenous rights and environmental protection. Spiritual activist and former Standing Rock spokeswoman, Cheryl Angel, is still working towards her goal of uniting people in fighting for water safety and protection. 

Three years later, activists won’t give up on their mission to fight for their slogan, Water is Life.

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur.