There are 2.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States. But thanks to a coalition of Native American and climate activists, about 20 miles of one of them—the the Dakota Access Pipeline—will now be rerouted away from a Sioux Reservation, according to statements from President Obama.
That is clearly a partial victory for the anti-pipeline coalition—but given the results of the election, it is perhaps a pyrrhic one.
DAPL is a 1,100-mile long, $1.6 billion part of a massive $4.8 billion energy infrastructure project to bring oil from Canada and the Northwest to Chicago. It’s being built by Energy Transfer Partners, which has a spotty record of spills elsewhere, but which won all the necessary environmental approvals for this project.
But then Native American groups and climate change activists saw an opportunity. As shown on this incredibly excellent (anti-DAPL-biased) map, the approved route of the pipeline crosses the Missouri just half a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (and, activists have noted, across parts of North Dakota that were supposed to have been granted to the Sioux under a 1851 treaty). Because that crossing point depends on an easement from the Army Corps of Engineers, activists saw an opening to protest the pipeline, raise the long-ignored issue of Native American rights, and make the cost of doing business in fossil fuels that much higher.
The result was an escalating series of protests arguing that a leak or rupture in the pipeline could spill into the Missouri, which provides drinking water for some of the Sioux, and that the pipeline crosses ancient burial grounds.
From the outset, the motives of the activists were mixed. In fact, the Sioux themselves are divided on DAPL, many supporting it and many opposing it. Meanwhile, a lot of the organizational and communications muscle has been provided by climate activists, who oppose not just DAPL but any pipelines, anywhere.
At least in theory—really, a more sophisticated understanding of the strategy is that it increases the marginal cost of fossil fuel infrastructure, thus making renewables a more attractive alternative. At present, oil, gas, and coal comprise 81 percent of American energy consumption. Renewables comprise 5 percent. The main reason is cost, and the enormity of the fossil fuel industry. So if litigation, regulation, protests, bad PR, security, and other assorted costs can drive up the cost of doing business in fossil fuels, then that calculus might gradually begin to shift.
But then something unexpected happened. In the midst of the election, DAPL became a cause celébre for the Bernie Left, a kind of alternative to an election with candidates they didn’t like and issues (like climate change) that weren’t being discussed. More than 1 million slacktivists “checked in” virtually at the protest site (under a mistaken belief that law enforcement was using Facebook to track protesters), but thousands of more serious activists showed up and put their bodies on the line. Most intriguingly, Native groups that are often at loggerheads came together for the cause.
Violence between police and protesters, and then the acquittal of the Bundy family, intensified the protests. Consider the outrage: white nationalists occupy federal land and get off scot free, whereas Native Americans defending their own land are hit with tear gas. There are plenty of differences between the two cases, but the juxtaposition was hard to ignore. At a time when most Americans were cheering the Cleveland Indians, DAPL was a powerful counterpoint.
The protests also became an alternative to an election in which no one is talking about the gravest existential threat to our world, i.e. global climate disruption, let alone the rights of Native Americans.
Now, in reality, DAPL is hardly the most important crisis point for either Native or climate issues. Other pipelines—for example, the Spectra Algonquin AIM natural gas pipeline that runs just 50 miles from New York City, and, at one point, beneath an aging nuclear power plant—are more dangerous. The proposed Missouri River crossing point already has a natural gas pipeline and high voltage electric lines over it, and the the risk to drinking water was determined by government experts to be minimal. (Compare the risk, the numbers, and the outrage to Flint, Michigan, for example.) And DAPL is nothing compared with the economic woes of reservations, poor access to healthcare and basic services, and continued discrimination, marginalization, and assimilation of Native Americans.
But DAPL became a symbol—an opportunity to focus attention on issues that are usually ignored. At least people were paying attention.
And now the protesters have won—sort of.
DAPL will still be built, of course, so the climate contingency hasn’t really won. It will still cross the Missouri, too—while we don’t know the new route, probably, if you look at the excellent map again, an alternate crossing point will be found, farther from Sioux Country but still downstream from Bismarck. That will lessen the water pollution concerns, but more importantly, move the crossing far from the reservation and the protesters.
Is that a win? Not necessarily, but it’s undeniable that the protests have galvanized progressives and united Native Americans. That may prove to be their most lasting contribution.
Especially, to state the obvious, in the Trump administration. Trump has already promised to greenlight the Keystone XL Pipeline, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and opening up public lands across the country to fossil fuel development. Compared with that, DAPL isn’t even a deck chair on the Titanic; it’s a coaster on a side table next to one.
And fossil fuels are only a tiny part of the story. The Trump administration will likely ban even the consideration of climate change in any governmental planning (let alone regulation), as Florida has already done. The Paris Accords will be shredded on day one. So will support for renewable energy. It’s easy to get overly apocalyptic about the next four years, but in terms of climate change, the impact will indeed be catastrophic.
In fact, one might argue that the gestural, romantic politics of the pipeline protest, to the extent they diverted energy away from the election, ultimately contributed to a far, far worse situation for both the climate and for Native Americans. In a sense, the DAPL protests were a kind of political fantasy, a distraction. They were full of stereotyping of Wise Native Americans—not among the hard core activists, of course, but certainly among the hundreds of thousands of more who were Standing with Standing Rock by sitting on their sofas. There were New Age prayer vigils for Standing Rock, just like the Evangelical prayer vigils for Trump. There was plenty of heated rhetoric: the protest site is “Sacred Stone Camp,” the pipeline is the “Black Snake.” And while Native Americans often took a leading role in the protests, one could also argue that their concerns were often being exploited for other activists’ agendas.
On the other hand, one could just as easily blame Hillary Clinton for failing to inspire progressives, or even persuade them to trust her. (Clinton was mostly silent about DAPL; Bernie Sanders supported, and even joined, the anti-DAPL protests.) And it’s not like DAPL siphoned off those crucial votes that could have put her over the top. DAPL protesters are not to blame for Trump.
Yet they now will face a thousand DAPLs, all across the country, and an administration actively hostile to environmental concerns. Ironically, the DAPL reroute may be the last environmental victory for four years. And certainly the last Native American one. (If there’s one thing the anti-political-correctness victory means for America, it means years more of Indians, Braves, and Redskins.) Activists have half-won this battle, but they have surely lost the war.
On the other hand, if the DAPL coalition be the beginning of a movement that opposes the drills, pipelines, and devastation that is sure to come in a matter of months, perhaps the protests offer a ray of hope, and a preview of the thousand such protests that now will be required.