About 50 demonstrators gathered outside Energy Transfer Partners’ (ETP) San Antonio offices Tuesday evening, signaling solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the company’s expansion into the pristine Big Bend area with the Trans-Pecos Pipeline (TPPL).

Environmentalists, Native Americans rights advocates, and a sprinkling of anti-government zealots filled sidewalks along an intersection 1,300 miles from DAPL, construction of which has garnered the largest gathering of indigenous tribes in a century and become a flashpoint in the nation’s energy policy debate.

Holding signs reading, “NO Dakota Access – NO Trans-Pecos – NO Comanche Trail Pipelines,” the group connected ETP’s behavior in North Dakota with the expansion of export-based gas pipelines in the Big Bend area and across West Texas.

Construction began early this year and the 1,172-mile, 30-inch pipeline is intended to bring 470,000 barrels of oil from North Dakota’s notorious Bakken oil fields to the refineries of Patoka, Ill., connecting it to global markets. The project’s plans to pass under the Missouri River, within one half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, quickly raised concerns that a leak could jeopardize the area’s water safety. Further outraging tribal members was their discovery that the pipeline had initially been planned to pass near Bismarck, the state’s capital, but was rerouted over concerns for the safety of municipal wells.

In late July, the Standing Rock Sioux filed a complaint against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, claiming it fast-tracked DAPL’s construction without adequately consulting affected tribes or producing a full environmental impact assessment. The federal courts declined this petition on Sept. 9, but minutes later the Obama administration temporarily halted construction under the Missouri River to consider its impact.

Read the complaint here.

By now, this segment is all that remains in the pipeline’s construction, but analysts say ETP’s contracts with oil producers are in danger if the project’s completion endures continued delays. In another potential victory for Standing Rock Sioux, on Wednesday, President Obama said the Army Corps is currently considering rerouting the pipeline.

At the same time, national attention on ETP has reinvigorated a two-year battle between Big Bend communities and the TPPL. Community members say they’ve watched ETP seize rancher land through dubious eminent domain condemnation, destroy prehistoric archaeological sites, and tarnish Texas’ most unspoiled region with little accountability to regulators, who receive significant campaign contributions from ETP itself. Organizing groups like Defend Big Bend and the Big Bend Conservation Alliance activists argue that ETP has put their communities at risk so the company can export Texas gas to Mexico.

As in Big Bend demonstrations, protesters identifying as Native American made up a major portion in the crowd gathered outside ETP’s San Antonio offices. Part Navajo and Squamish, student organizer Daryn Ocean-Sun Rinterra views the movement as an opportunity for Native people to raise their voices in defense of values long trampled on, which elevate the environment and communities over corporate profits. He described the pipeline’s construction through sacred and burial sites as a treaty violation reminiscent of a painful history of cultural degradation.

Further evoking such bitter memories was last week’s footage of riot police swarming the overwhelmingly peaceful “water protectors” with helicopters and armored Humvees, firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and mace point blank into the crowd. Following the arrest of 141 activists, reports of illegal arrests, excessive force, and mistreatment in jail have led both the United Nations and Amnesty International to send monitors to investigate human rights abuses.

“The force that’s being used against these peaceful protesters, they’re protesting peacefully, and I’ve seen images of them being in cages,” Stone Oak resident Shawnee Andrea said over chants and car horns honking in support. “It’s forceful against – I mean, they’re out there with their sage wands. They’re praying, they’re dancing.”

In what many commentators decried as an ironic stab in the back for peaceful protest, the same day police from six states conducted mass arrests in North Dakota, seven members of the armed militia that took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were pronounced not guilty of all related charges. Many fear that these coinciding events encourage violent solutions over peaceful ones.

But the arrests have served a positive purpose for protesters by drawing massive international support, with millions of dollars of donations pouring in and a peculiar phenomenon on Facebook making headlines: Last weekend, protesters claimed police were using their Facebook locations to target them, calling on “EVERYONE to check-in at Standing Rock, N.D. to overwhelm and confuse them.” Though the Morton County Sheriff’s Department called the rumor “absolutely false,” 1.5 million people checked into Standing Rock within a few days, satisfying what was probably activists’ main goal – raising awareness.

Driving from the Southside to join demonstrators off of highways 218 and 1604, Ellen Tahhahwah-Martinez described the passion in Standing Rock as a catalyst for Native Americans like herself who have “stayed quiet and stood still for a long time.”

With Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache heritage, Tahhahwah-Martinez said most of her family members have travelled to Standing Rock and joined demonstrations outside ETP’s Dallas headquarters. Raised on a reservation in Lawton, Okla., she grew up with a keen awareness of the injustice embedded in her community’s history, but until now never felt empowered to raise her voice.

“Our voices really haven’t been heard,” she said. “I feel like it’s a big deal. People across the earth are getting involved and supporting.”

Golden Skyy (left) holds up a sign protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Golden Skyy (left) holds up a sign protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As a registered nurse, Tahhahwah-Martinez said she doesn’t trust the government to protect public health in the face of corporate interests and worries that inadequate environmental regulation could be contributing to rising child cancer rates.

Fellow protester Jennifer Muñoz voiced similar concerns. “These pipelines do break all the time,” she said.

Tracing her ancestry to the Taino Tribe in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, Muñoz views DAPL as a battle between the materialism represented by oil and gas and the environmentalist values embraced by Native cultures.

She recognizes, however, the cognitive dissonance in her anti-oil position, admitting that she, too, depends on the natural resources transported by companies like ETP.

“Everything’s set up where you can’t just get on your bike anymore – even though I try,” she said. “I try to do as much as I can energy-wise … but we need to move into something better than this old way that we know is hurting our environment.”

Those supporting DAPL, such as U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota), say it will be much safer than the eight pipelines already built under the Missouri River. The project, they add, represents just a small segment in a 2.6 million-mile network of pipelines vital to U.S. energy independence.

“Pipelines are the safest, most efficient method of transporting natural resources, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation,” ETP’s website states. “There are over 2 million miles of active pipelines across the country, all carefully regulated by state and federal safety standards to provide critical infrastructure for energy development.”

Forbes analysis concurs that pipelines are safest regarding human death and property destruction. It adds, however, that pipelines are more likely to produce oil spills than railway transportation and more damaging to the environment than transportation by rail and truck.

To many in the San Antonio rally, concerns go far beyond pipelines in North Dakota and West Texas. Ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, protesters described a sense of powerlessness in the face of corporate interests and fears that our time to thwart the worst effects of climate change is running out.

“This is just a small issue to a big picture of the problem,” Northwest Vista College music major Kiara Adame said. “(Corporations) rule everything. Money runs our world. And soon, if we don’t stop, it’s going to destroy all of us.”

The crowd was smaller than many had hoped, but with each wave of cars stopped at the intersection came a cacophony of horns honking in support. If nothing else, protesters felt strongly that they were raising awareness about the many issues ETP’s pipelines represent.

“Everyone is just so focused on everyday life, working, coming home, dealing with the children, putting them to bed, and the same repetitive thing over and over,” Muñoz said. “And people fail to open their eyes and wake up to a lot of things that are happening. They don’t even realize that they are giving away so many liberties because they just don’t have the time or urgency to look up what’s important surrounding our future.”

To Andrea, standing with Standing Rock isn’t about pointing fingers, but about taking personal responsibility for the future of our country.

“It’s about change,” she said. “It’s going to have to happen at every level, it’s going to have to happen at the level of Energy Transfer and at a governmental level, but it’s also has to resonate with us as individuals. The wake up call is not just about pointing fingers. I absolutely encourage everyone to do some soul searching and take a good look and see what you are doing to contribute to the ravaging of resources. None of us are free of guilt.”

Daniel Kleifgen

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.