In a stunning and surprise (and perhaps temporary) victory for the water protectors gathered at the Standing Rock protest camp, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that they will not approve the easement necessary for construction of the hated Dakota Access Pipeline. This decision means that construction of the pipeline will be delayed for months while the Corps undertakes an environmental impact study.
This decision came after more than 2000 veterans descended from around the United States to place themselves between the Sioux and other protesters and the violence perpetrated by local police forces. In response to the gathering of veterans, National Guard troops were being deployed to the Standing Rock area. One can easily imagine (at best) awkward and (at worst) tragic interactions between the veterans and the National Guard, some of whom may know each other. Additionally, with winter settling in, the Governor’s office considered a blockade and a $1000 fine for anyone bringing supplies into the camp, but later backed down from this decision. The situation at Standing Rock looked impossibly tense in the first days of December, with forces building on both sides.
And then, victory! Or is it? The Sioux began their months-long protest with many goals in mind. They were worried about the Dakota Access Pipeline, like all pipelines, eventually leaking or rupturing and contaminating the Missouri River, which is the sole source of water for the Standing Rock reservation. The construction would dig up land they consider sacred, and destroy sites of historic and religious importance. Treaty rights came into play because of the allegedly unceded land across which the work would progress. And because we’re all connected on this blue watery marble hurtling through space together, one of the goals was to keep the oil in the ground altogether. Quoting a document that is purportedly the operations order for the veterans joining Standing Rock, “Our intent is to slow construction of the [Dakota Access Pipeline] and draw attention to both the injustice committed there and the danger to our families posed by an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”
While any rerouting of the pipeline is a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux, and any delay in its construction is a momentary reprieve from additional carbon being released into our atmosphere as if it were an open sewer, this is, in a way, a zero-sum game. The Dakota Access Pipeline project is not being shelved, merely rearranged, especially with an incoming Trump administration that seems likely to fast-track construction. It will still go through someone else’s land and someone else’s water, especially if the unlucky people along the next proposed route are unable to mount a spirited defense that plays to guilt over our collective cultural debt to the First Nations, gains international media attention, and attracts thousands of war veterans to flock to their aid.
While I have seen social media chatter suggesting that re-routing the pipeline through white folks’ neighborhoods will provoke more mainstream resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, I have my doubts. Racial arguments are easily, and sometimes more accurately, recast as class arguments. To be sure, there’s a high degree of overlap between minority and high-poverty neighborhoods, but they both seem to garner more than their proportionate share of any pollution that businesses want to externalize, since they are often the most marginalized and least able to fight back in a given area. This class divide is still present in Middle America, though. Will they be the next host for a rerouted pipeline and all the dangers it implies from future blowouts?
Finally, although it’s currently the most famous, the Dakota Access Pipeline isn’t the only pipeline project in progress. Energy Transfer Partners is also planning the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana, Spectra Energy is set to build the already-approved NEXUS Pipeline through Southeastern Michigan and Ohio, Mitch McConnell is bugging Trump about approving the old Keystone plan that Obama shelved, and several others are listed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as being in the planning stages. Stopping pipeline construction is like playing a game of regulatory Whack-a-Mole. Also, the public seems to tire of fighting the same battles over and over. Recall the outcry against the attack on Net Neutrality, and how legislators merely waited for the howls to disperse before preparing the next attack under a slightly different name. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was valiant, and everybody associated with it deserves several nights of peaceful sleep with their sweethearts in warm beds under fluffy comforters. I hope the next battle against the next pipeline – for surely there will be one – gets just as much love, attention and resources lavished on it by a supportive public, but I’m not holding my breath. The Black Snake slithers on.