The US Army Corps of Engineers is known for many things — the Panama Canal, the Cape Cod Canal, the Washington Monument. But it’s not necessarily an expert in crowd control, or in managing the increasingly dangerous standoff in North Dakota over the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.
The pipeline, which would carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois, would cross the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The tribe — and the “water protectors” protesting alongside — say the pipeline would trammel on sacred lands and could contaminate the local drinking water supply if it leaks or ruptures.
Studies on transporting oil and gas don’t completely support the claims of environmental protesters, however. A study in Canada, conducted in 2015 by the pro-fossil-fuel Fraser Institute, found that moving oil and gas by pipeline was more than four times safer than moving it by rail. (The boom in tar sands oil shipped by train in Canada and the United States has led to an increase in spills caused by derailments, including the 2013 explosion of an oil train in Quebec that killed 47.)
But discussion of the underlying environmental arguments for pipelines versus trains should be reserved for another day. Winter is coming, and conditions at the protesters’ Oceti Sakowin camp are deteriorating quickly. On Tuesday, after the governor ordered the camp evacuated and a winter storm swept in, officials said they would begin blocking supplies. The protesters vowed to stay put.
Local law enforcement officers, meanwhile, have escalated their tactics, spraying icy water and firing rubber bullets into the crowd. Sophia Wilansky, a recent graduate of Williams College, was badly injured last week. Her family says she was struck by a concussion grenade tossed by police, but police blame the explosion on the protesters themselves.
The corps ratcheted up tensions even further in the last few days by sending an eviction notice to Standing Rock tribal chairman Dave Archambault II. While corps officials gave a nod to the right to peacefully assemble, by promising to maintain a free-speech zone in a different location, they declared that the camp will be closed to the public as of Dec. 5 and that anyone remaining will be subject to arrest. A local police chief, asked in an interview whether use of force was necessary in a recent confrontation, answered, “It was effective. Wasn’t it?”
By issuing an ultimatum, the corps is in effect setting a deadline for an almost-certain confrontation — one that could draw hundreds more protesters to the scene and end tragically. The Obama administration temporarily blocked the pipeline from crossing under the Missouri River in September. Indeed, the White House has called for restraint. But the corps is part of the Department of Defense; what better time for Obama to show he is commander in chief and intervene, in the interest of negotiating a peaceful solution to a standoff that could have fatal consequences.