Activists protest Dakota pipeline at Sunoco's Newtown Square HQ

Sunoco Logistics’ investment in a controversial North Dakota crude-oil pipeline came home to roost Wednesday as a group of about 40 protesters marched on its Newtown Square campus.

The peaceful protest, organized by regional Sierra Club chapters, was aimed at stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would deliver oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale field to Illinois.

The $3.7 billion project, which is being built by Sunoco Logistics' parent company, Energy Transfer Partners LP of Dallas, Texas, had attracted little attention outside the four states it crosses until the Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed for an injunction to halt construction in August.

The tribe’s grievances that the pipeline could disturb artifacts and will threaten its water have rapidly energized a coalition of Native American groups and climate-change activists, sparking confrontations with security crews and law enforcement where the pipeline passes near the Sioux reservation in North Dakota. About 60 percent of the project is already built.

A federal judge ruled Sept. 9 that the tribe had failed to make a case for an injunction, but the Obama administration stepped in and froze construction where the pipeline crosses the Missouri River, requiring a federal permit.

Emboldened by the government’s decision, activists opposing oil and gas projects appear to be stepping up battles to block infrastructure projects.

The organizers of Wednesday’s protest -- Sierra Club chapters in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware -- were joined by representatives of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, whose principal chief, Dennis J. Coker, said the Dakota Access project was a deep affront to Native Americans.

“We’re here in solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux,” said Coker. He said the protesters hoped to influence the pipeline officials “to do the right thing.”

Sunoco Logistics owns a 15.3 percent interest in the pipeline, and will become the operator if and when it is completed.

“While we respect the right to express opinions on infrastructure development, pipelines continue to be the safest form of transporting petroleum products, and we believe that these projects are catalysts for our nation's economy, creating manufacturing opportunities and real, family-sustaining jobs,” Jeff Shields, a spokesman for Sunoco Logistics, said in a statement Wednesday.

The protesters rallied on a sidewalk on West Chester Pike, outside the Ellis Preserve corporate campus in Newtown Square where Sunoco Logistics and other companies have offices. Later, the group marched into the campus to pose around the familiar sign of Sunoco LP, the fuel retailer, which is related to Sunoco Logistics but is not the company building the pipeline.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the Standing Rock Sioux’s fight was similar to ongoing battles in this region over the build-out of pipelines to deliver natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation.

“The big oil and gas companies are trying to build this massive infrastructure to keep us addicted to fossil fuels, while the future is clean energy,” he said.

Tittel and Lenape leader Coker accused the pipeline developer of bulldozing burial grounds, and said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had failed to consult the tribe on the location of cultural sites, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

The pipeline’s oversight is complicated because the federal government has limited jurisdiction over its pathway, primarily where it crosses waterways. The Corps of Engineers' oversight affects only about 3 percent of the 1,172-mile route.

The judge in Washington who heard the Standing Rock tribe’s plea for an injunction said the Corps and the pipeline developers had reached out to tribes along the pipeline’s route numerous times since Dakota Access announced its plans in 2014.

“The pipeline route had been modified 140 times in North Dakota alone to avoid potential cultural resources,” wrote U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg.

He also said the pipeline follows largely on “well-trodden ground” on private land near the Standing Rock reservation, along an existing natural-gas pipeline and an electrical power line.

But the tribe “largely refused to engage in consultations” about cultural sites with the Corps of Engineers, Boasberg wrote. “It chose instead to hold out for more -- namely, the chance to conduct its own cultural surveys over the entire length of the pipeline.”

He said the Corps "gave the tribe a reasonable and good-faith opportunity to identify sites of importance to it,” Boasberg said.

Those distinctions did not carry much weight among the protesters on Wednesday. Robin Mann, a Sierra Club national vice president and Rosemont resident, said the government’s approach seemed aimed at doing the oil company’s bidding.

“If the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal leaders weren't willing to play that game, I respect their decision,” she said.