Despite being one of the country's top producers of oil, there are only a couple refineries in North Dakota. One, which was built to take Bakken high sulfur sour crude and turn it into diesel to be sold directly to local farmers, was recently sold at a loss. There were plans for more, one near where I grew up in Devils Lake, one proposed on the Fort Berthold Reservation that likely won't be built for a bunch of dramatic reasons, as well as others.
With most of it not heading directly to market, North Dakota oil needs to be shipped to be refined. This means sending it to huge refineries in places like Texas and Oklahoma. Most of it goes by rail. This was a huge problem for other rail traffic (primarily agriculture) during the oil boom. While it was a problem, and a pipeline was brought up then, profitability was high enough to deal with the rail congestion. Now, with the needing to be heavily refined nasty ND oil barely worth anything, the pipeline is seen as the most cost effective way to get the oil to the refineries. It would be pumped to Illinois where it would link up with existing pipelines. This is the main reason we're seeing the push to build now.
Local farmers, from South Dakota and Iowa as well, had voiced concerns since the beginning of the proposed pipeline. The idea that the government could use eminent domain to take away land from its owner is not a popular idea in this parts, regardless of its intended use. In this respect, the Standing Rock Sioux have been extremely successful in their cause by publicizing and at least delaying the construction. One of society's most marginalized groups is getting international media coverage for demanding a basic democratic right, and that is absolutely wonderful. The reaction to the protest is disgusting, as authorities have used brute force against peaceful demonstrators and showed little concern for historical sites sacred to the local community. The protest also, however, serves as a example of what is lacking when it comes to fighting climate change. One of the main strengths of the protest, the emotions tied to the horrendous treatment of Native Americans in this country, also helps keep the discussion secured in identity politics. Many on the right, emboldened by Trump's scary appeal to white identity, are eager to find any chance to degenerate a movement they see as ethnically foreign. (Of course the irony in this particular situation is certainly lost on them.) The issue isn't about how much oil should we use and who controls it so much as it is whether you are "for" or "against" Native Americans. Have they been historically mistreated and deserve compensation or are they freeloaders exploiting the past for personal gain? To the extent our use of oil is mentioned, it's usually in a disingenuous way. Opponents of the pipeline talk as though blocking it from being built will stop our reliance on fossil fuels. Proponents act as though building a pipeline will free us from "foreign oil." At this point the back and forth is just theatrics aimed at each side's supporters more than anything else.
As mentioned there is a reason the push to build the pipeline is coming now, when the price of oil is drastically lower than what had become normal. A pipeline is the most cost effective way to move oil, and even more so in this particular situation. As much as I love seeing oil titans squirm when they can't get what they want, we should be honest. Just as there is no "clean" coal, there is no "good" way to transport oil. Spills will happen no matter what method is used and I haven't been able to find any persuasive evidence that says one way is much safer than the other. Whatever short term gains are to be had by blocking this pipeline will likely to be lost when passions cool and oil prices rise. Then we are back to farmers not being able to move the food we all rely on because the rails are full of the oil we all rely on. I see nothing in that almost inevitable scenario that fights global warming. We get some protests to remember and the oil keeps flowing.
Although it got next to no coverage, even within left media, during the boom some smart state legislators had talked about a building a state owned refinery. This would build upon North Dakota's legacy of bucking private power. (There still is a state bank and flour mill which add millions to the public funds each year.) At first thought refining oil seems to contradict the goal of reducing oil usage. But as with so many complex problems, solutions lie in the contradictions. If we want to reduce our fossil fuel usage, we first need pubic control of the processes that make it a viable fuel source. So long as these are in private hands, and there is money to be made, we simply will not be able to fundamentally reduce our impact on the earth's climate. The talks of a state owned refinery went no where in a deeply reactionary state legislature. But there was also no movement demanding it. This is the direction the current fight needs to take if it wants to be more than just another fond memory idealistic radicals look back on.