Protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline are all over the news. Some say this is a normal infrastructure project, and it is a more efficient way to transport oil. There are “news” reports out about how the protesters are essentially professional agitators and environmental extremists. Part of the argument states that there were a large number of public hearings and that the agitators did not attend those meetings but try to make a big fuss outside of the system.
I would offer an argument about the process, from the perspective of an environmental professional, and from my perspective of what happened here in Iowa. A lot of the anger on the part of the protesters comes from the lack of legitimate public hearings.
Large projects like this involve the solicitation of public input. A project is funded and mostly designed, then government agencies go out to the public and interested parties and ask for comments. This is an asymmetrical process–by the time the meetings are held the project can be very much underway.
Usually there are people who want to stop the project altogether, and the agency does have that power. But that seldom happens. More often than not, there are smaller areas of concern that can be addressed. Small compromises can go a long way to ease tensions.
There were public meetings in Iowa. But by the time they happened, pipe was already visible in many locations around the state. And the proponents of the pipeline had people lined up to give comments at the meetings–welders, construction workers, and other people who expected employment as a part of the project.
Typically, the speakers alternated between opponents of the project and proponents. On the surface that sounds fair. The net effect, however, is the same as asking someone for their opinion then telling them they are wrong as soon as they give it. They might as well have been revving up the engines on the bulldozers during the meetings.
So all negative feedback to the project was countered as it was given. There was no compromise. People whose voices were not heard within the system felt passionately that there was no attempt to hear their grievances.
Much of the right-of-way for the project was purchased from willing sellers. But for some people who live on the land and who work the land the value of the land goes well beyond money. And to take that land and ruin it, using eminent domain, and to give them no voice in the process is simply wrong.
Passions run high. Had the public hearings been conducted without the interference of the proponents of the project the project would still have been approved. There might still have been protests.
But gasoline was poured on the fire. And the proponents of the pipeline are the ones who poured it on.