FARGO — Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the state finds itself “outgunned” in countering a “social media machine” manipulated by national environmental groups while the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline has “abdicated” its responsibility to defend the controversial project.
Dalrymple also said in a meeting Thursday the sprawling protest presence near Cannon Ball operates outside the control of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and it is difficult for officials to identify a clear leader in the shape-shifting movement.
In a wide-ranging conversation about the state’s difficulties in dealing with the ongoing protest, Dalrymple expressed frustration that the company building Dakota Access Pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, has not been vocal in making the case for the project in the public debate.
“They have abdicated completely their responsibility to explain the safety of the pipeline,” Dalrymple said, adding that the portion planned to pass under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River will be double-strength, buried more than 90 feet beneath the riverbed and carefully monitored.
“It’s as safe a pipe as you can build,” the governor said.
“The pipeline is great for our economy,” he added, explaining that it could carry half of the oil produced in the state's Bakken.
Native Americans and environmental activists have been protesting to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing under Lake Oahe at a point that is just upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
The Obama administration’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Dec. 4, that it would not grant an easement allowing the pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe, despite granting other permits for the $3.8 billion project designed to carry Bakken crude oil 1,172 miles to a hub in Illinois that provides access to oil refineries near the Gulf Coast.
State officials have been busy maintaining public safety in the face of a sophisticated public relations operation involving paid protesters, strategic advice from public relations professionals and an “army” of activists posting often misleading information, including “fake news,” that has shaped national media coverage, Dalrymple said.
“National media is killing us,” the governor said.
“There’s a new paradigm,” he said, referring to the influence of social media in molding public opinion. “I try to do what I can, but I’m no match for that organization. That’s a long-term challenge. That may be going on well after the pipeline is laid.”
Some protesters also repeatedly provoked law enforcement officers to try to goad them into a response that would make law enforcement look bad on video that would be widely shared on social media sites, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said.
One notable example came Nov. 20, he said, when protesters refused to back away from a bridge and set fires. When responders used fire hoses to douse the flames, protesters could easily have moved back away from the spray, but didn’t, creating a misleading visual representation of the confrontation, Wrigley said.
Wrigley said he and Dalrymple, joined by Col. Michael Gerhart, superintendent of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, and Al Dohrmann, adjutant general of the state National Guard, as well as Ron Rauschenberger, Dalrymple’s chief of staff, watched a live video feed of the confrontation.
“The Native Americans are being used, absolutely being used, by these outside agitators,” Wrigley said. “The state of North Dakota is not in conflict with the Standing Rock tribe.”
Law enforcers have made more than 500 arrests so far, with 90 percent of those arrested coming from outside the state, Gerhart said. Officers have acted with great restraint, but are forced to act when protesters break the law, he said.
“Every time it becomes dangerous is because of their actions,” he said. As examples, he said officers have been shot at, have faced improvised explosive devices, and have had rocks and burning logs thrown at them.
It has been clear for months that the Standing Rock tribal Chairman David Archambault II is not able to control many of the protesters, Dalrymple said. After the corps’ announcement on Sunday, Archambault asked protesters, many living in tents or other accommodations that are no match for a harsh North Dakota winter, to go home.
“Archambault’s influence is non-existent” with protesters, said Dalrymple, who said he has a good relationship with the tribal chairman and has visited with him many times during the protests, often by telephone.
The state no longer has any regulatory role in determining the fate of Dakota Access Pipeline, but must provide public safety, including for the protesters, Dalrymple said. The state’s cost so far is $17 million, he said.
The project will be in limbo until the Donald Trump administration takes over, Dalrymple said.
“I’m not going to lead us out of a federal easement decision,” the governor said.