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How Do We Get to a Conversation in This Country About Climate?

CounterSpin interview with Mark Trahant on Dakota Access.

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Janine Jackson: That a holiday honoring a man responsible for the murder, enslavement and exploitation of indigenous people should be occasion for the arrest of Native Americans acting in defense of water, land and life is not mere symbolism. The celebration of Christopher Columbus in US history books and culture is increasingly denounced, not only because of his devastating cruelty, but because of the way the fable erases the Taino people, legitimizing their oppression with an implicit view of history as the story of the winners.

In a similar way, what is happening at Standing Rock, where thousands have joined to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, is a struggle not just between Native people and industry, or between industry and the planet, but also, our guest says, a fight about story. Mark Trahant is a journalist and a professor of journalism at the University of North Dakota. He blogs at He joins us now by phone from North Dakota. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Mark Trahant.

Mark Trahant: Thank you. Glad to be here.

You wrote recently about Standing Rock, “This is a fight about story and who gets to tell it.” What were you getting at with that?

Well, North Dakota has really tried to frame this as an issue of lawlessness, and they keep saying that the sound engineering of the pipeline — it will be safe. Although one of those great ironies is that once they moved it from Bismarck to the north of the reservation because of water concerns, it changed their argument, undermined their argument, I think forever.

This gets to a broader issue, though, of how we get to a conversation in this country about climate, and the idea of what it’s going to take to have what has been called a managed decline in fossil fuel use, and whether or not we can even have that conversation as a country. As long as we keep building pipelines with minimal regulation, that’s going to be impossible.

The state of North Dakota kind of stands in for the broader state in this role. They are just maintaining — all of what we see as this protest and this activism, they think is going to blow over. At least, that’s the story they’re telling.

Right. They see it as a temporary thing. And they really view the First Amendment as a limited response, where you can hold a sign, but you can’t stop a pipeline. And their failure to understand civil disobedience has really been striking.

Yes, and I think if there had been more video cameras there, if folks had seen the use of the dogs and all of that — I mean, it really has been quite amazing.

There is this piece of the story that regulation is hobbling the industry here, and that this, with all these tests and going back and going around on the decision, it just represents big government trying to hobble, in this case, the fossil fuel industry. And on that note, you reveal a statement from a US District judge that I think is actually very important. Can you tell listeners what you found in that statement from US District Judge Boasberg?

Sure. He wrote that, unlike any other pipeline such as natural gas pipeline, this entire process does not need federal permitting of any kind. There’s no environmental impact statement, there’s no real construction in how it affects the Clean Waters Act or the Rivers and Harbors Act, it’s just a basic permit — supposed to be pro forma, and the industry accepted that. They thought it was going to be just a wink and a nod. In fact, I think one of the most amazing things is they actually started construction without an easement under the river. And so even though they say this is all approved and all done, to this date, they still don’t have an easement.

I guess that’s what they call skating where the puck’s going to be. You know, sometimes industry is so sure they’re going to get the law in their favor that they just go ahead and start doing what they want to do.

You note in that same piece that the state of North Dakota and the Army Corps of Engineers have a history of rolling over the tribes in the region, including ignoring treaties. And that reminded me of this New York Times article back in August in which the reporter presented, on the one hand, the pipeline builders, Energy Transfer Partners, who called the project “a major step towards the US’s weaning itself off of foreign oil,” and then on the other hand were tribes who “viewed the project as a wounding intrusion onto lands where generations of their ancestors hunted bison, gathered water and were born and buried long before treaties and fences stamped a different order onto the Plains.”

I think that’s really slippery, to imply that the tribes want to go back to some misty memory before treaties, when actually they would prefer treaties be honored. But I wonder what, in general, you make of that kind of media frame.

I think perhaps the oil industry’s most successful framing has been the idea of it’s either/or, that protesters drive cars, therefore they’re being disingenuous. And it really isn’t either/or. If we’re going to meet the Paris Agreement, we’ve got to start turning things around, and we’ve got to start reducing consumption rather than increasing, and what steps do we take to make that so?

The other part of that story, that I think is just extraordinary, is that it really is a ruse. This is not just about domestic oil, but it’s about being able to sell US oil at shipping points and getting it to those markets effectively. And it’s also a stand-in for making it so there’s a connection, at some point, with the really dirty tar sands oil. So it has these multiple layers of misconceptions, I think.

Yeah. Well, some people do seem to see it as really the illustration of, are we going to make “keep it in the ground” more than a slogan, which it needs to be. And along that line, there have been many kind of hopeful signs. You know, we did see the AFL-CIO come out in support of pipeline construction, but then there were other unions who might have been assumed to also do the “workers versus environment” binary — another either/or that we’re forced into sometimes. But they’ve said no, we’re not going to be pitted against one another, as workers who, yes, need jobs, but who also need clean air and water. So do you see some coalitions that maybe look new, and maybe look hopeful in this?

I think we’re beginning to see that. And especially when you start doing the math, to look at, one, what the real cost of the climate is, and making sure that it’s a broad, overall picture. But the second is to look at job creation. The jobs being created in clean energy are actually greater than the oil industry, and that’s a potential for workers that I think is just beginning to be tapped.

Dakota Access is a story, and the election is a story, but you don’t really see the twain meeting so much. I take it you think that’s a missing bridge that we ought to see journalists doing more, showing the connections between voting and what’s going on at Standing Rock.

Absolutely. Just the idea of how we’re going to get forward on this — and voting is part of a national conversation — but just the conversation about what we’re going to do next to try to, if anything else, meet our international obligations — but, more important, save the planet.

All right then. Thank you very much for joining us. We’ve been speaking with Mark Trahant, professor of journalism at the University of North Dakota. You can find him online at Mark Trahant, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Great to be with you.

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