FARGO - When Joye Braun and her cousin first started camping in April near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers, she thought maybe 200 or 300 people would join their fight against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
Braun said she could have never predicted that the camp's population would swell into the thousands and gain support around the world.
Equally hard to predict is what will happen now as both sides appear as entrenched as ever. Concerned the pipeline will encroach on sacred sites and taint drinking water on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, protesters are hunkering down for a North Dakota winter. Meanwhile, the company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, remains intent on finishing the four-state, $3.8 billion project.
Looking in from the outside are academics who study protest movements and have been following the conflict in Morton County enough to offer some informed speculation on how the drawn-out, deadlocked situation may play out.
"The hard thing about the pipeline is that there's no compromise, face-saving option really on either side that I can see," said Pamela Oliver, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's just one side has to lose."
Many observers have compared the Dakota Access protest to the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. But Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, said the protest at Standing Rock reminds her of the Occupy Wall Street encampment of 2011 that spread from New York to other cities.
Like Occupy, the Dakota Access protest isn't just a one-day event. "It's more than a sit-in, it's like a live-in," she said.
Though unlike the Occupy movement, which did not achieve its lofty goal of eliminating social and financial inequality, the protest near Standing Rock has a specific aim: blocking the pipeline's proposed crossing under the Missouri River.
With such a tangible, conceivable goal, Fisher said, the protest will likely keep growing as it resonates among indigenous people and environmentalists. "Social media is amplifying this message extremely effectively," she said.
Oliver said if protesters succeed in blocking the pipeline, it could inspire others to wage similar battles and "throw a wrench in the whole pipeline business."
"That is kind of what happened to the nuclear industry," she said. "The anti-nuclear protests were so effective in the '70s and '80s that essentially nuclear plants mostly stopped being built in this country."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still considering whether to grant an easement to allow the 1,172-mile pipeline to cross under the Missouri just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
"There is no set timeline for the review period of the easement," Corps spokesman Mike Whetston said in an email. "We cannot speculate on what the outcome of this process will be."
President Barack Obama said last month the Corps was looking at ways to reroute the pipeline. But whether his administration will act on the issue before he leaves office in January remains to be seen.
On Thursday, Dec. 1, President-elect Donald Trump said for the first time that he supports the completion of the pipeline. Still, the effect Trump could have on the project's future is unclear, said Gail Small, a Native American Studies professor at Montana State University.
Small said transfers of presidential power take time, including the process of installing Trump's appointees to lead federal agencies like the Corps. And she noted that a president's power is constrained by such agencies, which have broad discretion in making decisions about easements and the like.
"The Army Corps of Engineers is the source of power," she said. "They're the ones that have tremendous authority right now to come up with some alternatives."
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a pipeline proponent, has urged the Corps to issue the easement. The governor's spokesman, Jeff Zent, said he does not think it's feasible to reroute the pipeline, which is finished in North Dakota except for the river crossing.
Aside from rerouting the pipeline or building it as planned, some say a third possibility is abandoning the project altogether.
Mark Trahant, a University of North Dakota professor who blogs about native issues at TrahantReports.com, said he thinks Obama could still sign an executive order that says proper consultation with the Sioux regarding the pipeline did not occur. Such a decision would create a delay of about six months, enough time for the price of oil to drop to a point where the project doesn't make economic sense, Trahant said.
Last week, the price of oil surged above $50 per barrel, reaching a 17-month peak but still well below the $96 average of 2013-2014.
To bolster his theory, Trahant pointed to a think tank's report, released in November, that says the pipeline is at risk of becoming a "stranded asset."
"If oil prices remain low and Bakken oil production continues to collapse, DAPL's capacity will quickly become superfluous," the report's co-author, Clark Williams-Derry, said in a statement. "The Bakken oil industry has already over-invested in infrastructure for moving oil, and the Dakota Access Pipeline could simply add to the glut."
The report came from the Cleveland-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a group aimed at reducing dependence on nonrenewable energy. The report said Energy Transfer will miss its Jan. 1 deadline to complete the pipeline, which would allow oil producers and shippers to renegotiate their contracts with the company and seek concessions, weakening the project's financial footing.
In rebuttal, Energy Transfer spokeswoman Vicki Granado said Jan. 1 is not a contractual date; rather it was the company's original date for the pipeline to be in service.
Granado said the actual contractual date for finishing the pipeline is confidential. She would only say it's "much later" and that the company is not concerned about it affecting contracts.
'Talk to people'
The governor and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have made calls for protesters to vacate Corps-managed land where camping is not permitted. The governor issued his order Monday, Nov. 28, due to the dangers of harsh winter weather. And the Corps has given campers a deadline of Monday, Dec. 5, citing the weather as well as "the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials."
Fisher said the smartest thing officials can do at this point is just leave the camp alone. "If the police go in and try to clear it, it's going to spark much more violence and problems than just letting people be," she said.
North Dakota and Corps officials have said they don't plan to forcibly remove campers from the site. But the Corps has said people who stay may be prosecuted for trespassing.
Trahant said he believes the potential for violence continues to be an issue, and he fears the situation could spiral out of control. He said he thinks Governor-elect Doug Burgum, who takes office Dec. 15, could help the situation "if the first thing he does is go there and just sit down and talk to people."
Burgum declined to comment for this story, and Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault did not respond to interview requests.
Granado said Energy Transfer expects ultimately to receive the easement and after that it would take 90 to 120 days to install the pipeline 95 to 115 feet beneath the riverbed. She added that construction is nearly complete in the other three states.
Just as confident is Braun, a community organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
On Thursday, as people were sledding, building snowmen and having snowball fights in the protest camp, Braun spoke of the unprecedented nature of the protest that's brought so many tribes together for a common purpose.
"We know that we will win," she said. "We know that this pipeline will stop."