Feds close airspace over pipeline protest

Here’s something we don’t see every day. The FAA is closing airspace because of a news story that’s happening on the ground.


The Federal Aviation Administration has closed the airspace over the protest being waged against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Cannon Ball, N.D.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been protesting the pipeline, fearing it could destroy the tribe’s water. The pipeline was rerouted from north of Bismarck because of environmental concerns there. The tribe says the construction will destroy sacred ground and that they have treaty rights to land owned by the pipeline company.

The FAA closed the airspace a couple of days after authorities said a drone approached a helicopter monitoring the protest in a “threatening manner,” according to the local sheriff’s office.

It’s not particularly unusual for the FAA to close airspace when authorities are operating within it, but the size of the no-fly zone is unusual — seven miles up. (See below)

And the effect of doing so is questionable, if the concern is a drone near a helicopter. If the account is accurate, the drone operator was already violating the law. Preventing other aircraft — operating responsibility — from flying near the area isn’t going to do anything to eliminate an alleged threat.

“They put the blockade up. They have low-flying planes they’ve brought in” Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II tells the Los Angeles Times. “And they’re the ones who use the terminology ‘terrorist.’ So if there’s a heightened level of confrontation, it’s not because of what the demonstrators are doing when they walk down that road to protest the construction that’s going on.”

The TFR — temporary flight restrictionn — will prevent anyone from seeing any photos — like this one in the Bismarck Tribune — of the protest.

The airspace is to be closed until November 4th, although the FAA doesn’t indicate why that date is particularly significant, citing only “hazards.”

  • jon

    Well this is ripe ground for conspiracy theories….

    7 miles up…. wouldn’t that be a concern for commercial air traffic?

    I think we’ve discussed the altitude a drone is likely to achieve on a single battery charge before… and I feel like it 30k-40k feet was well out of range of a commercial drone… (I feel like I found video of modified drones launching from mountain tops above 10,000 feet, but even there they seemed to struggle.)

    • Boss Freedom

      The article was corrected. The radius of the no-fly zone is 7 nautical miles. The altitude is much lower, someone said 2500 ft. above ground level I believe.

  • Matt Black
    • Ferguson was 3100 MSL.

      But good catch, Matt.

      • Matt Black

        Yup, I misread the press release as AGL, not MSL. That puts them about the same 2500 AGL (I’m basing off of St. Louis Airport at 618 feet elevation).

        But to the broader point of the post, these TFRs are concerning if they start blocking news organizations from gathering aerial photos and video from protests or activities like this.

        • I wonder if they would’ve closed it if someone hadn’t flown a drone? I’ve always thought this idea that drones could somehow be legally and responsibly integrated into the air traffic system was a ludicrous pie-in-the-sky idea.

          • Matt Black

            I’m not sure. I wonder if law enforcement asked for one but the FAA said no unless there was a safety reason. The drone just gave them one.

            It would be wonderful if drone pilots could be held responsible for their actions and that pilots would responsibly integrate in to the system, but yeah… that’s pretty pie-in-the-sky idea. I don’t know what it would take to get the public to apply the pressure required to be socially responsible drone pilots. I really hate to think about it, but it’s probably going to take some type of serious accident to get people to pay attention.

            I know we talked about this a while back on a different story – what happens when drone operations near small airports with private pilots become a larger safety issue. Just based on the number of drone operators, the private pilots are probably going to lose.

            (I’m hoping @Kwatt chimes in this story, but I haven’t seen him around here in a while)

          • Boss Freedom

            If there is no license, registration, or an easy way to identify bad actors – how can you enforce air traffic regulations?

          • You can’t.

          • Boss Freedom


          • Boss Freedom

            I think the real safety concern about drones is related to broadcasting the tactics, numbers, and position of ground forces. Restriction to media access might have a lot to do with the FAA restriction; but remember that this is still an active and growing paramilitary operation.

          • Matt Black

            As somebody who flies small planes, I’m far more concerned about somebody operating a drone in an area with other aircraft and not knowing what they are doing. You are taught, relentlessly, that as a pilot you are responsible for your actions and the safety of those in your aircraft. You are constantly scanning looking for other aircraft in the area.

            It can be hard enough to spot another small plane near you when you have radio communications, especially if you are at different altitudes and in different style (e.g. high vs. low wing) airplanes. I don’t think there’s a chance I’d see a drone buzzing near me. If we collide, somebody loses their drone but there’s a good chance my plane is in serious trouble putting me, my passengers, and people on the ground in serious jeopardy.

          • Boss Freedom

            That is understandable, however the finer point here is that there is no evidence of a close encounter or even of a threat of a close encounter.

            This strikes me as flimsy pretext to ban flights. Drone activity is in the immediate vicinity of any municipal airport is far denser and potentially far more dangerous than anything you might encounter in a remote and rural area such as this protest site. It is far more likely that the police don’t want media coverage or the tactical disadvantage of being watched.

          • But the drone regulations are the Emergency Broadcast System (’60s version) of Aviation. The goal isn’t to protect you in the middle of a nuclear attack — no self respecting radio person is going to provide “news and other information” when the missiles are on the way. It was to make you THINK there was a viable system in place.

            Same thing with the FAA policy on the drones and “integrating” them into a system the way other aircraft are integrated into the system. It’s for show.

  • Mike

    It’s very clear from the excessive reaction by various authorities – first at the state level and now federal – that they really don’t want any of this covered by media. They don’t want anyone knowing or talking about this protest. Journalists like Amy Goodman have been threatened with charges just for covering it. There are real First Amendment issues at play here, but all the press wants to talk about is about Trump’s threat to the same.

    • Who is “the press”?

      • Mike

        In this case, I’m thinking of the mainstream media – larger newspapers, TV, and radio. Given the threats that have been issued by authorities to journalists, documentarians, etc., merely for covering the events in North Dakota, you’d think this would be a higher priority in the national discussion.

  • KTFoley

    My concern is that you’ve hit the nail on the head: the coverage of the law enforcement presence at Standing Rock has cast a not-so-positive light on their behavior.

    This would be a logical escalation of the steps that have already been taken to shut down coverage (arresting PBS reporter Amy Goodman & documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg, for example).

    Say what you will about celebrity activists drawing the public’s eye to an ongoing effort, but the arrests & the treatment of detainees have caught more national press in the last few weeks. If the Facebook feed is anything to go by, the protesters appear to be bracing for more oppressive tactics. It’ll be harder to carry out those actions under public scrutiny than when the news outlets weren’t paying so much attention.

  • Boss Freedom

    The Bakken pipeline or Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,134-mile-long (1825 km) underground U.S. oil pipeline project for crude oil being planned by Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of the Dallas, Texas corporation Energy Transfer Partners, L.P. to begin in the Bakken oil fields in Northwest North Dakota.

    What are the names and contact information for the other commercial entities involved with this project? A comprehensive list would be useful for communications and negotiations.

  • Mike

    Right, but the implications of this are national as well as regional, and my complaint is with the national media.