Jessica Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in federal prison last month after admitting to sabotaging the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) during protests in 2017. The activist was charged with conspiracy to damage an energy facility and has been labeled a domestic terrorist by the Department of Justice after welding apart sections of the pipeline to hamper its construction in early 2017.
In addition to prison time, Reznicek was ordered to serve three years in probation following the sentence and to pay more than $3 million in restitution to Energy Transfer, the company that owns the pipeline. Meanwhile, the pipeline she was attempting to stop construction on had already experienced five oil spills within its first six months of operation.
Why Reznicek and Others Oppose DAPL
The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a nearly 1,200-mile-long underground oil pipeline running from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to an oil terminal near Patoka, Illinois. Along this route, it crosses through ancestral burial grounds and beneath the Missouri River where it could contaminate the drinking water that tribes living at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation just 10 miles downstream of the pipeline depend upon.
To avoid scrutiny, Energy Transfer originally filed for permits not as a large, multi-state construction project but as a series of small construction projects—just small enough to be allowed to get permits without first conducting an environmental review.
Escaping environmental review and continuing with construction despite opposition from local tribes who argued that their treaty rights were being violated by the pipeline, Energy Transfer’s DAPL project has been the focus of an ongoing battle for both climate justice and indigenous sovereignty in the United States.
Despite claims about the safety of oil pipelines, Energy Transfer’s pipeline infrastructure has already been responsible for $115 million in property damage and at least 67 incidents of contaminated water as well as excess air pollution, all of which violate clean air and clean water standards.
Not only are oil pipelines environmental hazards in their own right but the energy infrastructure they fuel is intensifying the climate crisis we are in. While that amount of property damage and water contamination might be less than say, transporting oil by train or truck, our economies shouldn’t be continuing to invest in oil infrastructure at all according to protestors.
There is no safe way to transport crude oil and no clean way to burn it so allowing companies like Energy Transfer to continue operating hazardous pipelines and continuing to grant new permits to construct new pipelines runs counter to the urgent need to build a fossil-fuel-free economy.
Free Jessica Reznicek Campaign Calls for Appeal of Activist’s Sentence
After Reznicek’s sentence was announced, her legal team has said it will file an appeal and supporters are calling for her release. These supporters cite the hypocrisy of forcing her to pay restitution to Energy Transfer when the company has been the source of far more environmental damage and has refused to pay fines levied against it for that damage.
Moreover, her sentencing is seen as part of a larger effort to crush protests as it comes amid other aggressive responses by police and courts against protestors across the United States.
Reznicek’s attorney Bill Quigley said of the sentencing, “Unfortunately, actions to protect our human right to water were found to be less important than the profit and property of corporations which are destroying our lands and waters.”
The Ongoing Fight to Stop DAPL
Tribal members and environmental activists have been protesting DAPL since 2014 when Energy Transfer representatives first met with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal council about the project.
Since then, other tribes and environmental activists living along the route of the pipeline have joined the Standing Rock tribes to call on state and federal officials to halt the project.
Despite years of protests and lawsuits, DAPL was unanimously approved for construction in January 2016. This approval sparked a major protest later that year as thousands of supporters gathered at camps in Standing Rock to block the project from continuing.
The size of the protest and the media attention finally forced the government’s hand and in April 2016, the EPA ordered an environmental impact assessment. The report came back in July that same year, citing “no significant impact.”
In response, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief to stop the pipeline. The federal government agreed to halt construction on federal land but Energy Transfer refused requests and continued construction on private land. By December 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) officially blocked drilling and announced that an alternative route for the pipeline would have to be found.
When Trump came into office a month later, however, he signed an executive order allowing the DAPL project to continue as originally planned. It was after this executive order spurred construction to continue that Jessica Reznicek participated in direct action efforts to stop the pipeline. Despite her and other activists’ efforts, DAPL became commercially operational on June 1st, 2017.
More lawsuits followed and, by June 2017, a Federal Judge ruled that the environmental impact study conducted the previous year was inadequate and ordered a new one. However, the judge allowed the pipeline to continue operating while a new environmental review was conducted.
In September 2018, the USACE completed the new study but reached the same conclusion as its 2016 review: no significant impact.
Despite this setback and the fact that the pipeline was now fully constructed and operational, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continued the legal battle. At the same time, Energy Transfer has begun plans for expansion by doubling the capacity of DAPL.
Doubling the amount of oil that flows through this already controversial pipeline could further increase the risk of a spill and increase the damage caused by any spills. In July 2020, a District Judge ordered Energy Transfer to shut down DAPL and empty the pipeline, pending a more thorough environmental review.
After multiple appeals in which the shutdown order was alternately reversed and upheld, the lawsuit was finally dismissed last month, leaving the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to file a new lawsuit if they want to continue this fight. When asked to step in on the issue, the Biden Administration declined to intervene.
Now, protestors are taking the fight to Washington, demanding the Biden Administration make good on its promise to take bold steps on environmental policy. The #NoDAPL fight has joined the #StopLine3 fight to call on the president to shut down both pipelines.