Standing Rock: Tulsi Gabbard on What the Dakota Pipeline Decision Means

After Army Corps of Engineers denied easement, congresswoman explains challenges that remain

"Unless we protect our water there is no economy," Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard said at Standing Rock. Credit: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/ZUMA

Thousands of U.S. veterans descended on Cannon Ball, North Dakota this weekend, determined to defend protesters opposing the construction of the final leg of the Dakota Access pipeline. Among them was U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard. The Congresswoman landed in Bismarck at 10 p.m. on Friday night, ready to help resist if the North Dakota National Guard was in fact, as rumored, deployed to clear out the camp.

Then something unexpected happened: On Sunday night, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would not grant Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation constructing the project, an easement to route the pipeline under Lake Oahe. The decision was a huge victory for the Standing Rock Sioux, whose reservation lies directly downriver. Gabbard spoke with Rolling Stone on a layover between her flights back to Washington on Monday to explain what the decision means.

I want to start by just hearing about your reaction to the news that broke yesterday that the Army Corps of Engineers' announcement that it would not grant the easement.
It was an unexpected turn of events. It was wonderful news that really showed the power of bringing people together in a peaceful way and raising their voices in unity for the protection of water, showed what's possible when that happens.

As word started trickling around in different sections – I started getting text messages and calls from different people asking if it's true – the tension and excitement was in the air [all around the camp] and, finally, the chairman of the tribe, Chairman Archambault, confirmed that it was true and, you know, it was very emotional moment to see how something that the tribe has been fighting for years, and thousands of people who had come from all over the country and even different parts of the world, had gathered there for months, raising their voices as water protectors – to see how all of that paid off was a very powerful moment.

[It] was a big moment for the people of Standing Rock, but it was [also] a symbol for the many other challenges that still exist and how we can go about bringing change.

Did you have any sense the decision was coming?
You know, I didn't. We've obviously been pressing for this exact action to occur, and I met with Chairman Archambault right when I got to Standing Rock on Saturday and the last question I asked him was, 'I've got to go back to Washington on Monday for votes: What's the number one message you want me to take back?' And he said: 'Deny the easement. Plain and simple: Deny the easement." To hear that news come out just the following day – on a Sunday afternoon – it's a powerful thing to know the people's voices were actually heard.

What does yesterday's decision mean for the company, Energy Transfer Partners, building the pipeline?
Because the Army Corps has said they will not approve the easement for any pipeline to occur in that specific location under Lake Oahe, in effect, that will cause the [company building the] pipeline to look at other routes. So whether that means they are going to reexamine other routes that they had previously considered and ruled out, or if they are going to try to determine if there are any other additional routes that they had not previously considered – I don't know if it's one or the other or both. But the other key component, that is really important that goes along with this announcement is something [else] that the tribe has been pushing for for a long time, which is making sure that they order and environmental impact statement of the whole project in whatever route they end up choosing.

Wait... There wasn't an environmental impact statement prepared for this project already?
Shockingly, no. There was an environmental assessment done, which is not nearly as comprehensive as an environmental impact statement... With an environmental assessment they look at data and numbers and assess statistics, but what an environmental impact statement will do is it will mandate in-depth and extensive public hearings – conversations with the community and many other actions in an attempt to determine not only what the data shows, but will the actual impact of this project be on people and communities and their environment and their resources, such as water, so that's an important win as well. And I was shocked to learn that that had not been done previously. And that begs a bigger policy question: when you're building a gigantic pipeline that crosses through four different states, how is is possible that an EIS is not a mandatory part of that process?

What's next for the tribe, and for all of the demonstrators that came to Standing Rock – how long do they plan to remain at the encampment?
Well, there are other issues that they would like to pursue. One that was mentioned was actually trying to change the law and the policy. If you have a project that encroaches on or crosses over treaty lands, the current requirement is that the tribal leaders are simply consulted, but there is no consent required. They would like to change the consultation [requirement] to a requirement of consent before anything can be constructed over or through tribal lands. There are a number of other policy issues that they are going to continue to try to pursue.

And, look, they are also cognizant of the response that the Energy Transfer Partners company responded with to the Army Corps announcement. I spent quite a bit of time with [the tribe chairman and] other tribal leaders late in the evening and there was so much joy, but along with the joy in the announcement is resolve and an understanding that it's not over.

The work will continue, as far as the tribal leaders are concerned, and it's the same with the water protectors who have come there. I spent some time at the veterans camp last night after the announcement was made, and you know, they are concerned with the safety and security of the people there. Some of them shared with me that they plan to stay until the drilling pad is disassembled and the Dakota Access Pipeline construction team leaves – they want to see this all the way through to the end, and ensure that those who end up staying, they're able to help make sure that there is peace and stability for the gathering of the people there throughout the duration. ...But I think everyone is thinking hard about where they can be most helpful. Others are talking about where is the next fight to protect our water. There's a situation in Utah. There's a situation in New Mexico. There are people I met from Flint, Michigan who would like to see this same attention and resolve brought to resolve their situation there. You know, there's not a lack of things to do, unfortunately.