Bill McKibben, cofounder of 350.org, has suggested that we start naming major storms after companies that help create them. Instead of a headline like “Hurricane Sandy Slams Ashore,” we would see “Hurricane Exxon Devastates Thousands, Kills 285.” Perhaps we should also consider naming large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure projects after the politicians who allow them to be built.
On July 25, the Army Corps of Engineers issued the final major permits needed to build the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). Exactly one week later, on August 1, the White House issued new guidelines saying that any future projects similar to DAPL should be evaluated for their impact on climate change before they are allowed to move forward.
DAPL would be the largest pipeline ever to come out of North Dakota and, at 1,172-miles long, it would be only seven miles shorter than Keystone XL, which was rejected by the president because it didn’t pass his climate test. So it raises the question: Why, of all projects, shouldn’t DAPL have to pass a similar test? Is anyone really going to argue that the new guidelines shouldn’t apply to DAPL simply because they came out one week after the permits were issued? That would be a pretty lame excuse, and lead a cynical person to question the timing of both events.
The president talks about climate change all the time. He wants to show that he takes climate change seriously, and he wants the US to lead the world in addressing the problem. He says no challenge poses a greater threat to our children.
As commander-in-chief, one would think that he could order the Army Corps of Engineers to put a hold on the DAPL permits it issued while the administration conducts an evaluation of the pipeline’s climate impact. If he can’t order the Corps to do so, he can certainly ask them to. What are they going to say: “No, we don’t feel like it”? To not issue such an order or make such a request would call into question just how serious the president is about climate change, and whether these new guidelines are mostly for show — to shore up his legacy rather than to actually deal with the problem.
The new guidelines weren’t the only new development to occur shortly after the DAPL permits were granted. On August 2, Canada’s largest pipeline company, Enbridge, put down $2.6 billion, alongside the Texas-based Marathon Petroleum Corp, to buy a 49 percent stake in DAPL. The Financial Post reported that this would result in more tar sands oil flowing through the US, making DAPL similar to Keystone XL in another important way.
A South Dakota rancher who begrudgingly sold an easement for the pipeline only because she couldn’t afford the legal fight, recently said that if DAPL is going to be used to transport tar sands oil, she would consider that a breach of contract. She said that one of the selling points constantly presented to her was that this pipeline would strictly be for US oil.
Enbridge has a long track record regarding spills, and it isn’t good. Six years ago Enbridge leaked tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River and, after spending more than a billion dollars to clean it up, the river is still polluted and probably always will be. DAPL will cross 209 rivers, creeks and tributaries, and an untold number of wetlands.
Enbridge’s buy-in to DAPL comes just weeks after a Canadian court rejected the company’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would have carried tar sands oil from Alberta to the Pacific coast. The court based its decision largely on the negative impact that the pipeline would have had on Native peoples in the Canadian West.
If a climate evaluation is done on DAPL, no doubt the argument will be made that the pipeline won’t further advance climate disruption because it won’t lead to more oil being transported than is being transported currently. Companies will argue that DAPL will simply provide a safer way of transporting oil that is currently loaded onto railcars. Yet, while train derailments often lead to spectacular fiery explosions that make the evening news, pipelines account for a much larger amount of spilled oil.
Beyond that, the argument that DAPL won’t lead to a vast increase in the amount of oil being transported is undermined by additional construction that is taking place. Phillips 66 owns a 25 percent stake of DAPL. If the plan is to replace rail transport with pipeline transport, why is Phillips 66 also the majority owner of a new rail loading terminal that just came online nine months ago, and is scheduled to expand so that it can move 200,000 barrels a day by rail?
In the head-spinning way that North Dakota operates, this rail terminal will connect with a different pipeline that will also cross under the Missouri River. While DAPL will cross from one side of the river and then back again to carry oil south, this other pipeline, Sacagawea, will cross once, taking its oil in a northerly direction. Sacagawea ends not far from where DAPL begins. It’s almost a closed loop of oil coming and going in a counterclockwise direction.
A pipeline contractor working on Sacagawea signed a sworn statement that said he was ordered to not conduct a final inspection on the pipe before it was pulled under the river in July. He said whenever contractors did inspections they found bare spots that needed to be recoated to prevent corrosion from the outside in.
Another justification for building DAPL will be that much of it is already built. But when the pipeline company was begging regulators to let it begin construction way back in May, they said that they knew they were doing so “at their own risk.” In other words, they would eat their losses if the project never got completed. Now they whistle a different tune: “Look at all the money we’ve spent and all the pipe we’ve laid. You can’t stop construction at this point.”
Indigenous peoples have bravely taken the lead in fighting DAPL. The Standing Rock Sioux reservation is immediately downstream of where the pipeline will cross the Missouri River. They get their drinking water from the river, and they can see the handwriting on the wall. At some point there will be a spill. Others apparently had similar nightmares since DAPL was originally routed to cross just upstream of Bismarck, but was rerouted out of concern for the drinking water for such a large population center.
In 2014, President Obama became the first sitting president to ever visit a North Dakota reservation. He and the First Lady were warmly greeted, and their visit is fondly remembered by those at Standing Rock. They visited a school located right on the Missouri River, only a couple miles from the sprawling encampments and where DAPL will cross. It will be a shame if the pipeline becomes what the president is remembered for, instead of that uplifting visit.
Earthjustice lawyers are working hard on the tribe’s behalf. As important as their work is, and as inspiring as the encampments at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers are, with Indigenous peoples and allies arriving from every corner of the country, the most significant recent development occurred when 31 environmental groups sent a letter to the president asking him to intervene and stop this pipeline.
North Dakota isn’t the only place where large groups of people should come together in opposition. Unless the courts stop DAPL, the fight needs to be taken right to President Obama’s doorstep if he doesn’t intervene quickly. He can stop this, or at least put it on hold while a climate evaluation is done. We should see DAPL as no different than Keystone XL, and treat it as such. If we are going to wage a winning war on climate change, this is a battle we can’t avoid — and probably one we have to win.
Pipeline fighters in North Dakota are in remote areas, facing off against law enforcement and giant corporations who have their own armed, private security forces. At the 21-minute mark of this video, am Indigenous woman is physically attacked in a manner totally uncalled for. Out-of-state contractors have flagpoles on top of their bulldozers displaying in-your-face Confederate flags. This is the mentality that water protectors on the ground at Standing Rock are up against. As they continue their resistance, they need to know that another front in this battle is opening up in Washington.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton should be asked to weigh in on this. She finally came out against Keystone XL, despite her connections with the industry. What about DAPL? The platform she is running on calls for the type of climate test mentioned in President Obama’s guidelines. Her support for, or lack of opposition to, DAPL won’t be excused just because Donald Trump would like to build 10 of them. Jill Stein has made clear her position on DAPL, as well as water issues involving Indigenous peoples elsewhere.
DAPL should be a test for Clinton’s candidacy, for President Obama’s legacy and for the climate movement’s strength. President Obama has asked us to make him do things. Let’s make him do this. He and the US can’t pretend to be leaders on climate change if we continue to build massive fossil fuel infrastructure such as DAPL.
The whole world is realizing how serious climate change is, and they know that the US is, by far, the country most responsible for our current global predicament. We can argue that we were unaware of what we were doing for a long time (thanks to Exxon’s willingness to obscure the truth). But the science has been clear for a while now. A world with greatly diminished use of fossil fuels is both necessary and possible.
If this pipeline gets built, it will have to be renamed, since the Dakota people don’t want it, and the word Dakota means “friend” or “ally.” This pipeline will be friendly to no one, least of all those that live in its path.
What is the mad rush with this pipeline? Why was it approved by the Army Corps over the objections of three federal agencies? Are they afraid to do a climate evaluation? The message to the president is simple: Pull the permit. Do the climate test. Let’s do our best to convince him. If we fail, then he might have to get used to hearing about DAPL referred to as the “Obama Pipeline.”