With protesters up in arms about the catastrophic impact of the Dakota Access Pipeline, how much longer can the US government afford to plough ahead with its construction? Not only is the pipeline obliterating ancient Sioux land at Standing Rock, but it will expedite climate change, facilitating the burning of fossil fuels. Surely there must be a more feasible solution, a future where renewable energy is our mainstream fuel source, as opposed to a marginalized alternative? So, why are the protesters so angry? Why are they willing to put their lives on the line for the defense of the land against the construction of this pipeline? Well, it is to do with far more than just the pollution of the environment.
According to Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline would carry up to 570,000 barrels of oil a day while creating 12,000 jobs in the area, would generate $129 million in annual taxes, and would reduce the overall dependence the U.S. has on foreign oil. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had conducted a limited review of the route and found no significant environmental impact, but in March and April of 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation asked the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a formal Environmental Impact Assessment and issue an Environmental Impact Statement. In addition to this, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July, but the motion was denied in September. It would seem that all that Energy Transfer Partners is interested in is the money. They care nothing for the potential damage that they will cause to the Standing Rock Tribe’s water supply, cultural history, or tribal heritage. After all of this drama, in early December of 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporarily denied Energy Transfer Partners the easement they were seeking.
The reality is that the Standing Rock Sioux, and the many other tribes that gathered to help protest the pipeline, have been protesting against the theft of their lands and the destruction of their culture for generations; and unfortunately, it seems that is has all been for naught. First, it was white settlers taking their lands, then it was then destruction of the bison herds, then it was isolation onto ever shrinking reservations, and now, finally, it is the theft of their water rights. To the protesters at Standing Rock, much like it was for the ancestors, this is a matter of life and death. The picture above is a representation of the Ghost Dance. The dance was invented by Wovoka, a member of Paiute plains tribe, whose hope it was to return the plains tribes way of life to its former glory. The United States government banned the dance and hunted down Wovoka and killed him. So, one can imagine that emotions are running high at Standing Rock even now.
What is the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Movement?
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests are grassroots movements that began in early 2016 in reaction to the approved construction of Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline in the northern United States. The pipeline was projected to run from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. Many in the Standing Rock Sioux tribe consider the pipeline and its crossing of the Missouri River to constitute a threat to the region’s clean water and to ancient burial grounds. In April, Standing Rock Sioux elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard established a camp as a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the pipeline. Over the summer, to the surprise of many, the camp grew to hold thousands of people.
The protests have since drawn international attention and have been said to be “reshaping the national conversation for any environmental project that would cross the Native American land,” Louise Liu quotes from an unnamed source in the Business Insider. In September of 2016, construction workers bulldozed a section of land the tribe had identified as sacred ground and when protesters entered the area, security workers used attack dogs which bit at least six of the protesters and one horse. The incident was filmed and viewed by several million people on YouTube and other social media. In late October 2016, armed soldiers and police with riot gear and military equipment cleared an encampment that was directly in the proposed pipeline’s path. This was also filmed and placed on multiple social media outlets.
The Initial Successes and Failures of the Protest
In late November of 2016, many new participants joined the protest. This included hundreds of discharged veterans of the United States military. Fluctuating numbers of protesters remained in the thousands, and police use of water cannons on protesters in freezing weather drew significant media attention. On December 4 2016, under President Barack Obama’s administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement for construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River. An environmental impact assessment was to be conducted by the Army Corps, but many protesters continued camping on the site, not considering the matter closed. In late December, President Obama finally stepped in and ordered that an alternate route be found for the pipeline so that the Standing Rock Reservation’s water supply would not be threatened.
On January 24, 2017, only four days after he took office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to advance the construction of the pipeline under “terms and conditions to be negotiated,” expediting the environmental review that Trump described as an “incredibly cumbersome, long, horrible permitting process.” In a matter of only a few minutes, he completely undid everything that President Obama had done to help the Standing Rock Sioux. On February 7, 2017, Trump authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed, ending its environmental impact assessment and the associated public comment period. Interestingly enough, if one does a little research, one will find that Donald Trump’s pick for US Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, the former Governor of Texas, was also on the Board of Energy Transfer Partners. Energy Transfer Partners is, as mentioned, the company that is building the Dakota Access Pipeline. Perry was also well known for supporting fossil fuel interests while he was governor of Texas, giving huge tax breaks to natural gas drillers, land oil drillers, coal mining interests, and off shore oil drillers.
The Legal Future of the Dakota Access Pipeline
A federal judge in Washington on June 14 2017 ordered the Trump administration to conduct further environmental reviews of the Dakota Access Pipeline but stopped short of halting oil-pumping operations pending further hearings beginning June 21 2017. U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg handed a limited victory to the Standing Rock Sioux who had challenged the administration’s effort to speed the project, and his dense, 91-page opinion directed both sides to appear before him June 28 2017 to begin deciding the next legal steps. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “substantially complied” with federal environmental laws, Boasberg wrote, “it did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.” Boasberg’s decision comes just weeks after Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners had begun pumping crude oil through the 1,170-mile line carrying North Dakota oil through South Dakota and Iowa to its distribution point in Illinois.
The Person Now Behind the Pipeline
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, on June 19 2017, denied that man-made carbon dioxide emissions are the primary cause of climate change. Asked in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” whether he believed that carbon dioxide was “the primary control knob for the temperature of the Earth and for climate change,” Perry said that “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.” Perry added that “the fact is this shouldn’t be a debate about, ‘Is the climate changing, is man having an effect on it?’ Yes, we are. The question should be just how much, and what are the policy changes that we need to make to effect that?”
Energy Secretary Rick Perry is cooking up a case to stifle further federal support of renewable wind and solar energy. He’s ordered a dubiously sourced staff study that is aimed to paint renewable energy as an unreliable source of energy for the nation’s electric grid. The study, originally due June 23, has been delayed for release on a yet undisclosed date in July. The study seeks to determine whether federal tax and subsidy policies favoring renewable energy have burdened “baseload” coal-fired generation, putting power grid reliability at risk. It is being spearheaded by Energy Department political appointee Travis Fisher, who is associated with a Washington policy group that opposes almost any government aid for renewable energy. Fisher wrote a 2015 report for the Institute for Energy Research that called clean energy policies “the single greatest emerging threat” to the nation’s electric power grid, and a greater threat to electric reliability than cyber attacks, terrorism, or extreme weather.
The Real Future of Energy Production in the United States
The solar and wind industries are each creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than that of the rest of the U.S. economy, according to a new report. The study, published by the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps program, says that solar and wind jobs have grown at rates of about twenty percent annually in recent years, and sustainability now collectively represents four to four and a half million jobs in the U.S., up from 3.4 million in 2011. The renewable energy sector has seen rapid growth over recent years, driven largely by significant reductions in manufacturing and installation costs. Building developers and owners have been fueled by state and local building efficiency policies and incentives, the report explains, but these gains are in contrast to Trump’s support for fossil fuel production, his climate change denial, and his belief that renewable energy is a “bad investment.”
“Trump’s current approach is basically ignoring an entire industry that has grown up over the last ten years or so and is quite robust,” said Liz Delaney, program director at the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps. What this basically means is that everything that is being presented by the present administration is scientifically inaccurate. In other words, it would seem that they are pushing a false dichotomy whose sole purpose is designed to prop up a dying industry while it still has time to make money. Tying this back into the Dakota Access Pipeline; the whole situation is completely unnecessary. The United States is beginning to produce so much renewable energy annually that the Dakota Access Pipeline is essentially obsolete.
The Global Trend in Renewable Energy
The Trump Administration’s attempt to deny the utility and future of renewable energy is, of course, contrary to global trends. According to Statista.com, global investment in Wind Energy alone has gone up close to one hundred billion US dollars in just over the past twelve years. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the global investment in Solar Energy has hit an all-time high and the general cost of that investment has hit an all-time low. Further, according to their research, the nations leading the march with this technology are India and China. According to WorldWatch, investment in Hydropower has also greatly increased around the globe. China has also been the leader in this field of renewable energy. Their use of this form of energy has increased by seventeen percent in the past ten years.
A more recent renewable energy beginning to receive increased amounts of investment dollars is Geothermal Energy. According to business interests interviewed for a press release put out by Power Magazine in March of 2016, investment in the technology is expected to double as its reliability increases. According to scientists interviewed for the same press release, global production of geothermal energy is predicted to increase fivefold by 2030, so long as current investment trends continue at pace.
Despite the Trump Administration’s efforts, the future of the fossil fuel industry is not looking good. According to the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Investment Movement, on the one-year anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, the value of assets represented by institutions and individuals committing to some sort of divestment from fossil fuel companies has reached five trillion American dollars. To date, 688 institutions and 58,399 individuals across seventy-six countries have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies, doubling the value of assets represented in the last fifteen months. Pension funds and insurance companies now represent the largest sectors committing to divestment, reflecting increased financial and fiduciary risks of holding fossil fuels in a world committed to stay below 2° Celsius warming.
The Standing Rock Sioux themselves are also following this trend. Recently, the Wallace Global Fund awarded the inaugural Henry A. Wallace Award and a $250,000 prize to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for its unyielding courage in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and its dedication to transitioning to renewable energy. In addition to the $250,000 prize, the Tribe will receive up to a one million investment from the Wallace Global Fund to support its transition toward fossil fuel independence. The award was presented to Tribal Chairman David Archambault II at an award ceremony in New York on June 8 2017; a donor and investor lunch briefing followed the ceremony to highlight solar and wind energy projects underway at the Standing Rock Reservation.
So, what is going on here? What can people studying global affairs learn from what is seemingly a local affair? How has a such a local affair found itself entangled in global affairs? The first thing, and the easiest thing, that will come to mind is the global shift from the use of fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy. As has been noted, nations around the world are taking dramatic strides to shift to clean energy sources. This shift is being made so rapidly year by year because of the damage to the environment caused by the use of fossil fuels. Oil spills in the water and on land can cause serious damage to animal life and needed living supplies like water. On land, fracking can damage underground aquifers that provide water supplied to millions of people, and the list can go on. Further, things like the burning of coal have been known to pollute the air and cause cancer. As such, countries around the world are moving away from the use of this method of energy production.
The Standing Rock Sioux are now tied to global affairs through their protests against an aged and dangerous technology that is no longer necessary for economic sustainability. As a tribe, they have chosen to march out onto the global stage to join the global movement for a clean energy future, a noble and brave strategy that should mark them as true American heroes. However, there is yet another way that their situation attaches them to global affairs. They are engaged in a deadly power struggle against globalization in which indigenous populations are finding it harder and harder to survive. In Peru, illegal gold mining operations are dumping toxic levels of mercury into the Amazon River which threatens the health and well-being of the native tribes there. These tribes, who have managed to remain untouched for millennia, may soon find themselves to be extinct or forced to live drastically altered lives.
The same happened in West and Central Africa during the Rubber Wars of the late seventeenth to early twentieth centuries. Long untouched African tribes were either killed off or forced to adapt to the European lust for rubber. The same goes now for the indigenous peoples of Malaysia, who are presently watching as their forest homelands are being taken down to meet the needs of the global lumber market. So, this basically means that the Standing Rock Sioux now find themselves victims of a common trend of economic and cultural imperialism, whose sole goal is to make profit, no matter who the victim turns out to be. So, at stake here is both the Standing Rock Sioux’s cultural identity and possibly even their very existence. Their fight is a tough one, but now, theirs is a fight that has caught the attention of an international audience. Perhaps that will be enough to win the day.