The fourth story in the continuing fight spearheaded by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against Big Oil to save water and sacred indigenous lands in North Dakota

By C.S. Hagen
FARGO, ND – The true power behind the Dakota Access Pipeline extends beyond the private sector and into state leadership. This gray eminence – or power behind the proverbial throne – rivals the story books both ancient and modern, truth and fiction.

Such as China’s Empress Dowager Cixi who was the iron will behind Qing Dynasty’s last emperor, Puyi, or Dick Cheney, dubbed the “intellectual godfather” of President George W. Bush’s administration. In North Dakota, politicians have been bought, unilaterally across the state by big oil and gas lobbyists, according to statesmen and analysts. Some have invested heavily into Bakken oil interests declaring profits for the good of North Dakota’s infrastructure.

“We are where we are… and having difficulties today because only one side has been able to really participate in the decision making in North Dakota that’s totally dominated by the oil industry,” Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, said. “So what’s happened is our elected officials – every single one of them – is supported by the oil industry.”

The USD 3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline project has drawn thousands of activists together to an encampment outside of Cannon Ball, ND, in what is known as the largest gathering of Native Americans in 140 years, since the Battle of the Greasy Grass, where Colonel George Armstrong Custer made his infamous “last stand.”

It isn’t the first time North Dakota has leapt into the oil race, with the best intentions, but the state is now blindly following big oil’s agenda and supporting it with every law possible, Chase Iron Eyes, a lawyer and the Democratic challenger for the US House or Representatives for North Dakota, said. Iron Eyes has no support from the oil and gas sector in his 2016 race against Congressman Kevin Cramer R-N.D.

“It is a conflict of interest,” Iron Eyes said. “As a lawyer, I would get in trouble for that. In this case the client is the people of North Dakota, and it is obvious what has happened in the last 10 years. Our politicians do not do what is best for the people.”

Ten years ago, most people in North Dakota supported responsible growth in the Bakken Formation. Today, however, an unhealthy environment of either you are either for oil, or against oil, with no room in-between, has emerged, Morrison said.

“The power of the oil industry in so many ways sets the agenda of North Dakota. It’s what they do,” Morrison said. “They dominate. They’ don’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. Why? Because North Dakota elected officials have decided that’s the future of North Dakota, and that they don’t want to fight the oil industry.

“Every time questions are raised about this, people are accused that they want the oil industry to go away. And it’s been designed by the politicians to do the bidding of the oil industry.”

Iron Eyes wants responsible growth in the state, but on North Dakota’s terms. As a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, founder of the Last Real Indians website, and an activist who challenged white supremacists’ attempt to take over the town of Leith, North Dakota in 2013, Iron Eyes said today’s oil conundrum is the fallout from politically-motivated personal interests and big oil pressure from behind the scenes.


Chase Iron Eyes marching with activists at NDSU – photo by C.S. Hagen

On Friday, Iron Eyes arrived in Fargo to march with advocates of Standing Rock at North Dakota State University. Approximately 40 students and supporters attended the march. Prayers were said. Every participant was smudged with sweetgrass. Before marching, Iron Eyes recalled the day in 2010 when he saw – for the first time – big oil lobbyists in Bismarck’s YMCA.

“I thought, oh no, big oil is moving in,” Iron Eyes said. “I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but now I know it was the conglomerate that began pulling our state in this direction. I’m running for Congress out of necessity. I take a look around and I see that our government is broken, and I feel responsible to do my part to try and fix this on behalf of North Dakota.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline will also have a negative effect on the railway and trucking industries, Iron Eyes said. Iron Eyes has received numerous emails from labor unions and shipping industries asking him questions. “I don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes, but it’s all about who gets the money, who gets the authority to transport.”

Not everyone believes big oil’s agenda is pulling North Dakota’s strings, rather that state and big oil interests are aligned. Bismarck Mayor Mike Seminary said that although the possibility of conflicts of interests exists, he doesn’t believe it to be true among North Dakota’s current politicians.

“I think it is par for the course across the board,” Seminary said. “I don’t think that’s a conflict of interest. It always bothers me when people go there. I would never ever, ever question whatever motive they have for making investments. They’re trying to get a return. For the better part of eight years that was one of the best places to get money if you wanted a return.”

Recently, the “Commission,” or North Dakota Industrial Commission, Oil and Gas Division, a government agency established in 1919 to manage certain utilities, currently comprised of Governor Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, and Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring, pushed big oil agenda by attempting to ban the public sector from testifying, or having any input at Commission meetings. Only “interested parties,” which would have included project owners and landowners would have been allowed to testify, if the suggestion had been ratified.

Open processes are difficult, Senator Erin Oban said at the April 11, 2016 hearing about new rules for state oil regulation, but they are necessary.

“It would have been easier, I suppose, to limit that process and to only allow a select few to testify,” Oban said. “But my job as a public servant is not to make things easier for me, it’s to make it open and accessible to the public.”

President of the labor advocacy group North Dakota AFL-CIO, Waylon Hedegaard, attended the same meeting, and said big oil has cozied up to North Dakota politicians, effecting legislation, and twisting policy to their collective wills.

“I believe everything we do has to be done to the best of our abilities,” Hedegaard said. “Our government has to regulate to the highest degree, achieve the highest quality, we have to hire the most skilled craftsmen, the most skilled people, and our government has not regulated the oil field nearly to the extent it should have.”

The lack or regulation concerning oil drilling, fracking, waste disposal, and crude transportation has created the perception that all construction in the Bakken region is about bad players putting poor pipes into the ground, Hedegaard said. Hedegaard also asked the Commission to strike the amendment from the proposed rules.

“The essence of democracy is that everyone who thinks they are a stakeholder in something comes together vocally, or gets their opinion out there, and then argues over it and we come to a compromise,” Hedegaard said. “It is not democracy when there’s another group of people limiting who has interest in a certain thing. Democracy is a messy thing.”

Activists on the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, ND - photo by C.S. Hagen

Activists on the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, ND – photo by C.S. Hagen

Rocks, according to retired correctional officer Eric Thompson, are the only disinterested party to big oil interests.

“If a party drinks water, oil and gas developers could take a minute to make them an interested party,” Thompson said at the hearing. “If a party breathes air, oil and gas developers could take a minute because air is a requirement for life.”

During recent legislative processes, oil companies have frequently opposed changes, and continue to do so stating the “crackdown” is too expensive and that the timing is bad – oil price decline has caused steep inactivity in drilling in North Dakota. No oil companies stepped forward to oppose the “interested party” amendment, according to Commission records.

North Dakota, the second-biggest oil producing state in the USA, and among the ten largest oil patches in the world, has historically been lackadaisical about instating stricter regulations. A spirit of leniency toward oil companies has been fostered in North Dakota, analysts said. Criticism over lowering fines for oil and saltwater spills has mounted. In January 2016 the Commission agreed to scrutinize the issues, but behind close doors.

Some of the state’s top politicians are chairmen or members of regulating agencies governing big oil and Native American interests. Additionally, big oil supports the political campaigns for Dalrymple, Senator John Hoeven, Senator Heidi Heitkamp, and Cramer, making their voice, according to some, tainted.

Kevin Cramer

Kevin Cramer

Congressman Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where some of the largest legislative battles regarding oil regulation are started. Cramer is also a member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (Energy and Commerce), and a member of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, and has served on the North Dakota Indian Affairs Committee. Cramer’s largest campaign contributor is the oil and gas sector with a total of USD 138,500, Xcel Energy contributed USD 12,000, and Tesoro Corp. contributed USD 11,000.

John Hoeven

John Hoeven

Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D., is on the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and also a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Hoeven is a member of the Subcommittee on Energy, the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining, and the Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy. Hoeven’s largest campaign contributor is the oil and gas sector with a total of USD 327,963, including Continental Resources, Inc. and its CEO, Harold Hamm, who collectively donated USD 18,200. ExxonMobil contributed USD 10,000, and Whiting Petroleum Corporation contributed USD 2,750. Energy Transfer Partners donated USD 5,000 to Hoeven’s 2016 campaign. Hoeven has invested in 68 different oil-producing wells in North Dakota listed under the 2012-company Mainstream Investors, LLC, according to the United States Senate financial disclosure form.

Jack Dalrymple

Jack Dalrymple

Governor Jack Dalrymple, R-N.D., a long-time advocate of oil interests, chairman of the Commission, and is also the chairman of the Commission and the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. The top supporter for Dalrymple’s most recent campaign is the oil and gas sector with USD 467,290 in donations, and Hamm personally donated USD 20,000, while Hess Corporation’s CEO John Hess gave USD 25,000. Dalrymple has stated he will not run for a second term.

Heidi Heitkamp

Heidi Heitkamp

Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a ranking member of the Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy, and a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The tenth-ranking supporter for Heitkamp’s campaign is the energy and natural resource sector, according to Vote Smart, and the oil and gas sector is the third largest contributor to Heitkamp’s 2016 campaign with a total of USD 258,379, according to Open Secrets. Hess Corp donated USD 19,600, BP contributed USD 17,750, Continental Resources, Inc. donated USD 17,500, American Petroleum Institute donated USD 13,250, and Xcel Energy donated USD 13,000.

Chase Iron Eyes

Chase Iron Eyes

Chase Iron Eyes, D-N.D. has raised USD 82,127 in 2016, running as the challenger for District 1 as a Democrat. Iron Eyes has no support from oil and gas or energy and natural resources sectors, and his largest contributing sector is casinos and gambling. Ho-Chunk Nation is top supporter with a donation of USD 5,400.

Kelley Warren

Kelcy Warren

Kelcy Warren, the main force behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, founder of Energy Transfer Partners, is worth USD 7.3 billion, according to Bloomberg, Dakota Access Pipeline quietly purchased 6,000 acres last week of private ranch land near to Camp of the Sacred Stone – the historic Cannon Ball Ranch, which begs questions on how the purchase was made possible. Energy Transfer Partners donated USD 304,200 in 2016 and USD 581,300 in 2014 to political campaigns.

Harold Hamm

Harold Hamm

Harold Hamm, Bakken fracking mogul, and Continental Resources, Inc. CEO, long time financial supporter of North Dakota’s politicians, and worth approximately USD 13.8 billion, according to Forbes. Hamm is currently the campaign energy advisor to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and is a candidate for energy secretary of the United States if Trump is elected in 2016.

  • Top national recipients of support from Continental Resources, Inc. 2016
    • 3rd Place: Heidi Heitkamp – USD 11,300
    • 4th Place: Donald Trump – USD 10,928
    • 5th Place: John Hoeven – USD 10,200
    • 14th Place: Kevin Cramer – USD 5,000
    • In 2014, Continental Resources donated USD 6,200 to Heidi Heitkamp, and USD 3,500 to Kevin Cramer
  • Top national recipients of support from Hess Corp. 2016
    • 2nd Place: John Hoeven – USD 20,800
    • 8th Place: Kevin Cramer – USD 10,000
    • 19th Place: Heidi Heitkamp – USD 3,500
    • In 2014, Hess Corp donated USD 15,600 to Heidi Heitkamp and USD 2,600 to Kevin Cramer
  • Top national recipients of support from BP 2016
    • 5th Place: Heidi Heitkamp – USD 15,700
    • 100th Place: John Hoeven – USD 1,000
    • In 2014, BP donated USD 2,000 to both Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven
  • Top national recipients of support from Energy Transfer Partners 2016
    • 6th Place: John Hoeven – USD 5,000
    • In 2014, Energy Transfer Partners donated USD 1,500 to both Kevin Cramer and Heidi Heitkamp

– financial statements made available by Vote Smart and OpenSecrets Center for Responsive Politics – statistics do not reflect Dark Money groups, or educational or membership building donations.

Every day, 1,027,131 barrels of oil are produced in North Dakota, and a total of 1,662,917 thousand cubic feet of natural gasses are produced from 13,248 wells, according to the North Dakota Industrial Commission, Department of Mineral Resources.

Since January 2016, more than 100,900 gallons of crude oil, waste oil, bio solids, natural gas, and brine were spilled in North Dakota and surrounding areas, according to the North Dakota Department of Health records. Approximately 50,000 gallons of slaked lime solids slid into the Missouri River in June causing unknown impacts, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

Few companies involved in the spills have been fined. In January, the Commission reviewed six outstanding spill cases with fines totaling USD 600,000, according to the Bismarck Tribune. Additionally, past spills are still being cleaned up around the state, such as the Tesoro Corp. spill of 2013, the XTO Energy, and the Oasis Petroleum Inc. spills of 2014 and 2015, according to Bill Suess, Spill Investigation Program manager of North Dakota Department of Health.

Spills occur on a daily basis, Suess said, the cleanup is costly, and companies are rarely fined.

“Not every one gets fined,” Suess said. “Usually we hold off as long as we can on the fines because it is a motivator to get them cleaning it up.”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission’s policy on levying fines for damaging spills is unclear, and is usually negotiated then settled for a fraction of the initial fine. In 2015 and 2016 the Commission proposed a total of USD 4,525,000 in penalties, collecting USD 125,976, and suspending for one year a total of USD 461,250. No violations were reportedly committed, according to the Commission.

“Although generally reported otherwise, fines are never forgiven,” the Commission’s Public Information Officer Alison Ritter said. Every fine is a legal process, and if a company contests a fine the case will be taken to court. “Fines are suspended for a period of time, usually a year, to encourage changed behavior from a company.”

Wild West: Cowboys vs. Indians

Racism against Native Americans in North Dakota, is prevalent across the state. Nearly every activist who stands to speak in Big Camp’s Sacred Circle mentions racism, oppression, and genocide, in one form or another.

North Dakota Highway Patrol logo

North Dakota State Highway Patrol logo

From the logo emblazoned on State Highway Patrol vehicles – Sitting Bull’s killer Marcellus Red Tomahawk – who was from Cannon Ball area, to whistleblowers in 2012 condemning federal and state authorities of allowing native children to be placed in homes with sexual predators, to the recent use of attack dogs against activists, to blatant disregard and ignorance for native cultures, to big companies armed with eminent domain laws whose only concern is profit, to North Dakota politicians, namely Cramer during a 2013 meeting with Abused Women Services, who verbally attacked and threatened Native Americans.

The list goes on. The State Highway Patrol’s emblem is a constant reminder of oppression, many activists said. From the beginning of the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not include Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in meaningful discussions, the lawsuit filed by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated. Native archeologists have been ignored, activists said. Petitions for consultation as a sovereign nation went unanswered, according to court documents. Morton County law enforcement is working under standard operating procedures, without regard to native practices or culture, officials said. And now, Dakota Access Pipeline quietly purchased 6,000 acres of private ranch land near to Camp of the Sacred Stone – the historic Cannon Ball Ranch. A blow to Standing Rock Sioux some say is below the belt.

Buffalo drinking from pond near the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline - by C.S. Hagen

Buffalo drinking from pond near Cannon Ball Ranch – photo by C.S. Hagen

Twenty parcels of the Cannon Ball Ranch, established 1883 and inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1999, was sold to Dakota Access Pipeline by David and Kathy Meyer on September 22, for an undisclosed sum. The area lies west of Highway 1806 where the Standing Rock Sioux claim burial grounds and other sacred sites were disturbed on September 3, the day of the attack dogs and pepper spray that injured at least eight people, according to camp attorney Angela Bibens.

“The signs are there, as far as the fear politics,” Iron Eyes said. “Just being unwilling to back down from that posture. It revives the old prejudices that exist, that we’re trying to evolve from. We’ve been living side by side for 120 years, and now it gives the Indian the reason they need to demonize white people. The white people are at our door again, and trying to make us beg again. They’re trying to turn us into beggars.”

One other questionable fact raised Seminary’s eyebrows when he first heard news the pipeline’s route was moved from north of Bismarck’s water wells to its current location, a spear’s throw from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation land. He knew trouble was coming.

“And here is the first thing I said to myself, ‘Really. Really? You were concerned about Bismarck’s water source? You just made your job a lot harder.’ That was my first impression, and that probably didn’t win me any supporters on the deal.”

“It feels a lot like racism,” Iron Eyes said. “We’re all evolving from some form of say, I don’t want to use this word, oppression, but that is what it is.”

Seminary agreed with Iron Eyes that systemic racism is a contributing factor to today’s controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline. This racism, dating back hundreds of years, emboldens the “wasi’chu,” or the white man to exclude natives in important talks with a historically ‘take what we want’ mentality. Ignorance on how to approach tribes like the Standing Rock Sioux as sovereign nations under binding treaties with the United States government, has been in play since the planning stages of Dakota Access Pipeline, activists and legal documents stated.

“But nobody talks about that stuff in North Dakota,” Iron Eyes said. “The governor created the emergency, he declared it, and he called in the National Guard, and now he is crawling to Obama, asking him to foot the bill for this emergency.

“There is no emergency to speak of that merits his kind of response.”

“We have some racial tension in this,” Seminary said. “We have some racial tension in the country. For whatever reason it is worse now than it has been for some time. I don’t care what someone looks like, I don’t care about ethnicity, we are all on God’s planet and we’re supposed to do as much as we can for each other while we are here.”

Looking back, Iron Eyes wondered if the entire Dakota Access Pipeline situation couldn’t have gone much differently if only all parties involved sat down to discuss with mutual respect. In the words of Sioux chief and holy man Sitting Bull, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

Seminary wants to help open dialogue between all parties, and traveled to Cannon Ball area to discuss racism problems last weekend.

“It just seems like we have let the civility escape the discussion. If in fact, we’re dealing with a sovereign nation, which we are, I don’t know that this standard operating procedure for how the state or its agency conducts business, is necessarily what you want to hang your hat on.

“It is a sovereign nation. Maybe, just maybe another step should have been added to the process,” Seminary said.

Activists singing alongside the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, ND - photo by C.S. Hagen

Activists singing alongside the Missouri River near Cannon Ball, ND – photo by C.S. Hagen

No Light at Pipeline’s End

On the day Dalrymple declared a state of emergency, Iron Eyes approached the governor, petitioning for an opportunity to gather all interested parties to talk about rerouting the pipeline.

“They’re not interested in anything other than what they announced as their plan, and they’re unwilling to back down from that posture,” Iron Eyes said. “Everyone is doubling down.”

From the governor, to Morton County law enforcement, to Dakota Access LLC, no one appears willing to consult with the Standing Rock Sioux and come to a compromise.

“As non partisan leaders, we are not against progress,” Iron Eyes said. The smear campaign coming from North Dakota’s extreme right, coupled with Dakota Access LLC’s refusal to discuss the issues, threatens any kind of peace.

Energy Transfer Partners’ response came in the form of an in-house memo from its CEO, Warren, who vowed to his employees to complete the 1,172-mile pipeline on time. The pipeline, if built, will “safely move American oil to American markets,” Warren stated. “It will reduce our dependence on oil from unstable regions of the world and drive down the cost of petroleum products for American industry and consumers.”

“How long can we continue with this economic reality?” Iron Eyes said. “We can continue it a lot longer if we are smart about this. We have a shelf life, we are at a tipping point as a global consumer and we have to figure out how to survive this. We can’t treat the earth as if fresh water will always be available. As if deforestation and climate change aren’t real issues. Right now it doesn’t seem to be happening, but this thing changes every day. There are going to be pipelines built here, we’re slow to evolve, so let’s do it in a way that’s smart for our state, and our people. We can do that if we avoid the Missouri River.”

If a reroute is not on the table, then there will be no “lawful resolution,” Iron Eyes said. Civil disobedience will continue.

Around 9:30 a.m. on Sunday 200 activists marched on to a Dakota Access Pipeline construction site off of Highway 6, according to Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Thirty private security personnel at the scene, most left by the time protesters arrived. Three remained behind, and one security personnel was assaulted, according to Morton County Sheriff’s Department.

“When law enforcement arrived, they witnessed protesters carrying the security guard for approximately 100 yards,” Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said. “The guard was treated for minor injuries.”

Activists departed once law enforcement arrived, according to Morton County Sheriff’s Department, but officers reported seeing knives and one activist with a pistol. On Tuesday, five more activists were arrested near St. Anthony along Highway 6, according to sheriff’s department spokesmen, and on Wednesday, 21 more protesters were arrested by officers assigned to the Dakota Access Pipeline, raising the total amount of people arrested to 95. Law enforcement brandished automatic weapons, shotguns, and drove up in an armored riot-control vehicle with sound cannons, amidst activists chanting “We have no weapons.”  More arrests are pending after deputies review video and photographs taken at the scene.

“Our officers are trained to respond to the threats they perceive and to take appropriate action,” Kirchmeier said. “A charging horse combined with totality of the situation presented an imminent threat to the officer.”

“It’s a real pickle,” Seminary said. “I’m not qualified to give anything other than my opinion. Whatever the decision is I pray it is a peaceful result. I think there are some real significant decisions ahead. It’s just such a mess right now. I don’t know how, but we’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”

Activists take over Dakota Access Pipeline work area - photo provided by Morton County Sheriff's Department

Activists take over Dakota Access Pipeline work area – photo provided by Morton County Sheriff’s Department