As a geography student, I have had the privilege of traveling throughout the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa listening to farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, tribal members, and experts talk about the Keystone XL and Bakken pipelines. In my dissertation Pipeline populism: 21st century environmentalism and the politics of land, I situate our strong pipeline resistance networks in a history of grassroots populist politics in the upper Midwest. By doing so, I hope to provide a clearer picture of the strengths and limitations of our strategies, especially with regards to public and tribal land and water rights.
How we view our resources – as private, common, future, public, or divided – has an extremely important bearing on what will happen to upcoming infrastructure struggles. With much of the pipeline in the groun, it might seem a strange time to take a step back and evaluate the Bakken pipeline* resistance; yet we are at a crucial point for deciding what the future of our movement will be.
Pipeline companies are on the defensive
After the defeat of Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, and the defection of Enbridge from Sandpiper to the Bakken pipeline, pipeline companies are on the defensive. They know that they face an uphill battle, and are trying to get their pipelines in the ground as quickly as possible. It’s easy to forget that we have the upper hand, but a temporary restraining order filed by Dakota Access, LLC on August 16 demonstrates that pipeline companies are already afraid of us. The company repeatedly argues that protests are causing them “irreparable harm in the form of lost business and goodwill.” The lawyers even go so far as to argue that the “public interest” is being harmed by the delay in construction! We cannot let pipeline companies reframe the debate around the inconsequential financial harm that they supposedly feel (let’s not forget they are billionaires); it is our communities, of course, which face the brunt of irreparable harm should the pipeline construction continue.
Public utilities commissions must become accountable to the public
Through the Keystone XL, Bakken, and Sandpiper pipeline developments, many of us have gotten intimately familiar with an institution we didn’t even know existed. The Public Utilities Commission or Utilities Board is generally charged with arbitrating minor rate changes and regulating electric co-ops and larger utilities. However, we now know they are also responsible for permitting oil pipelines and other so-called critical infrastructure services. Given that new pipelines, powerlines, and other utilities will only gain importance under future stresses caused by climate change, to whom should these institutions be accountable? In South Dakota, the PUC is elected – and is receiving a formidable campaign from Henry Red Cloud, but in most other states, the utilities board is often home to the Governor’s friends. Utilities boards thus tend to operate with a perverse understanding of ‘public good,’ in which short-term economic gain trumps long-term social welfare. We must change this as quickly as possible.
Midwesterners care deeply about the land…but that can mean very different things
Perhaps unsurprisingly to many of us, land has been at the heart of pipeline resistance in the upper Midwest. Ranchers and farmers have spent generations gaining knowledge of their land and its properties. Many of us have value our public lands – state and federal parks, wetlands, lakes and rivers. For many of the Native American tribes in this region, the land remains a spiritual and political base as well as a hotly contested resource unjustly appropriated by the federal government and non-Native settlers in an act of colonialism perpetuated to this day. To the pipeline companies and our state governments, land is merely something to be crisscrossed in pursuit of profits. So, although many of us are concerned about the pipeline’s impact on land, we in fact have very different relationships with the land. Is eminent domain the real villain here, or is its use just a symptom of an economic system that rewards private gain? If it is the latter, what kind of land tenure and water protection systems could be invented that could instead start returning land rights to tribes and collective control?
We are the experts
Public utilities hearings on the pipeline are commonly divided into a public hearing (2-5 minute statements) and evidentiary hearings (featuring lawyers, scientists, etc.). These contentious public hearings can provide us an opportunity to strengthen our movements, testify to our expertise, get to know each other better, and file our words for the public record (so researchers like myself can read them after the fact!). But as I talk with those who attended these hearings, it is clear to everyone involved that they have little impact on utility board decisions. Under the sham of paid expertise, evidentiary hearings reward those who appear to be the most legally or scientifically knowledgeable. But we know that we are the experts. From scientists like James Hansen to pipeline whistleblowers to the DAPL Pipeline Construction Watchdogs, every day I find that we are smarter than our opponents. We can’t let this knowledge go to waste; we have to find a way to mobilize our knowledge outside of public hearings and to share it with others fighting pipelines around the world.
The pipeline fight isn’t over
In 2014, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe declared that the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would be taken as an “act of war.” While the Keystone XL pipeline fortunately never reached this stage of construction, as you all know the Dakota Access pipeline is, in many places, already in the ground. Yet land and water defenders at the Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation are daily using new tactics to blockade the pipeline. More and more groups are flocking to support this blockade from around the world. In Iowa, individuals have found little ways of resisting pipeline construction, from symbolic displays like rallies and the upside-down flag, to destruction of the machines destroying our land. Without endorsing any tactics individually, what these events tell us is that for thousands of people, the pipeline fight isn’t over. It’s just beginning.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post, the pipelines, or your experience resisting the pipeline.
*I refer to the “Dakota Access” pipeline as the Bakken pipeline throughout this piece, as the name “Dakota Access” appropriates the word for “friend or ally” from the Dakota and Lakota people. This pipeline is certainly not our ally.Photo: Kai Bosworth