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Protests target Dakota Access Pipeline investors, including President-elect Trump

Samuel White Swan-Perkins and others take part in a national day of protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in front of U.S. Bank in downtown Chico.

Samuel White Swan-Perkins and others take part in a national day of protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in front of U.S. Bank in downtown Chico.

Photo by Daniel Taylor

Against a backdrop of stormy November skies, a group of protesters with hand-painted signs occupied the sidewalk on the Second Street side of U.S. Bank’s downtown Chico branch, from Wall Street to the Flume Street roundabout, demanding that the bank divest its stake in the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project.

The protest, held Nov. 15, was one of hundreds across the country targeting major banks with financial ties to the oil pipeline’s operator, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners.

“What we’re trying to do today is get the message out to folks that the major banks in the United States—Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, Bank of America, for example—are all invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Samuel White Swan-Perkins, a self-described water protector who has helped organize local opposition to the pipeline.

Major banks aren’t the only ones facing scrutiny for their financial ties to the $3.7 billion, 1,172-mile-long pipeline that, if completed, will connect the Bakken and Three Forks oil production areas in North Dakota with existing oil transport and storage infrastructure in Illinois. According to a financial disclosure report filed in May with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, President-elect Donald Trump has as much as $50,000 invested in Energy Transfer Partners, down from up to $1 million in 2015. Trump also has as much as $250,000 invested in Phillips 66, an energy company that owns a 25 percent stake in the pipeline.

The pipeline and its proposed routing have been at the center of growing protests by Native American and environmental groups since it was announced in 2014. And the protesters are facing increasingly combative police response, including water cannons—in below-freezing temperatures—and tear gas.

If built as planned, the pipeline will pass underneath the Missouri River on federal land near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Critics of the pipeline are concerned that this threatens the river as well as Lake Oahe, a reservoir behind a dammed portion of the river that provides drinking water to the reservation.

“This is a problem, because as we all know, pipes still burst,” White Swan-Perkins said. “We’re out here to protect the water of up to 18 million people, not to mention the wildlife and the riparian fishing environments that would be damaged in the event of a pipe burst.”

Pete Nichols, national director for New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group that has been involved in opposition to the pipeline since August, agreed that, if the project is allowed to proceed as planned, it’s only a matter of time before there is a tragedy involving the pipeline.

“It is not a matter of if, but when, a pipeline will break or leak,” Nichols said. “This pipeline was originally supposed to cross the Missouri near Bismarck and the citizens rejected that proposal and it was moved to Standing Rock and has already impacted sacred sites. Energy Transfer Partners has not taken tribal sovereignty into account whatsoever. This is a corporate boondoggle on the backs of our indigenous peoples.”

Nichols has traveled to the Standing Rock reservation twice, most recently with Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to support the ongoing protests against the pipeline there and to call on President Obama to halt construction, which Energy Transfer Partners has said is currently 84 percent complete, pending an easement to build underneath the Missouri River and further review of its potential environmental impacts. However, even if Obama takes action on the pipeline, Nichols fears that the incoming Trump administration will roll back much of the current energy policy in favor of oil companies.

“I think the Trump administration will undo much of the work done by the Obama administration to move us from an arcane fossil fuel economy to one that is based on clean, renewable energy,” Nichols said.

In lieu of waiting for political action on the pipeline construction that may never come, Nichols encouraged those opposed to the pipeline to continue putting pressure on financial institutions with stakes in the project.

“I believe that citizens around the country can make a statement with their wallets and should stand up for their beliefs by divesting in the destruction of the environment by moving their money from financial institutions like Citibank, Wells Fargo and others that invest in these polluting projects,” Nichols said.

In front of U.S. Bank, White Swan-Perkins, who is part Siksika and Tsalagi, vowed to continue to peacefully oppose the pipeline.

“Our elders had warned us that this was coming and that this was something we’d have to fight in our generation,” he said. “So, small actions like this that stay prayerful, centered and, most of all, peaceful are what is really needed at this time. These national days of action and other actions planned for the future will help to keep the focus on the stoppage of the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as other environmental issues that indigenous folks are facing all over Turtle Island.”