The lust for money and profit-driven deregulation contaminates flowing rivers, public health, and political elections. Avarice continues to erode sacred earth, fuel noxious fires, and flood powerful seas. Capitalism is competing with morality, but the people continue to rise up and fight.
July, 2020 was quite a month, with several significant victories for pipelines and Native American justice. On July 5, Duke and Dominion Energy canceled Atlantic Coast pipeline construction. One day later, Judge James Boasberg ordered the emptying and shutdown of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) in a U.S. District Court decision. That same day, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to cancel the permit that would continue the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. And the Supreme Court was not done. On July 9, it ruled that 3 million acres of land, half of Oklahoma, is Native American land — a big win and momentum-builder for the growing Land Back movement.
These victories, however, did not come without challenge. On July 15, the Dakota Access pipeline developers were granted temporary relief from federal appellate judges who agreed to freeze Boasberg’s decision. While the court did halt the shutdown, it could be a temporary setback, and it is more clear than ever that the DAPL fight is not over.
“This is ongoing. We understand and we celebrate every victory and every battle, but the war continues,” said Madonna Thunder Hawk, discussing the intergenerational battle against pipelines in a live streamed conversation between Lakota leaders and The Nation Magazine. Thunder Hawk is an American Indian Movement and NoDAPL activist who serves as Cheyenne River organizer for the Lakota People's Law Project. The Lakota People's Law Project is actively working to stop both the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipelines, and the Atlantic Coast pipeline decision is a welcome addition to July’s canceling of these projects.
“Indigenous people and people of color everywhere, I think, have not adapted to capitalism in the way that we were intended to, because we are not exploitative people,” said Tokata Iron Eyes, a 16 year-old leader in the “Rezpect Our Water” campaign. “In a lot of ways, it takes our communities, Indigenous communities, to ask these really hard questions. How are these systems specifically serving us? Have they done anything for us in the past generations? Are they helping us or are they hurting us? When we come to the conclusion that these systems are harmful, we must take accountability and responsibility to disband these systems,” she said in the conversation with The Nation.
Youth leaders like Tokata Iron Eyes are part of a generation — born into a climate crisis — that must fight to have a future. Across generations, inertia is building against the extractive capitalist system that continues to harm Turtle Island.
People power is working. Together, we are stopping pipelines across this country.
Watch the entire conversation here
Atlantic Coast Pipeline
The Atlantic Coast pipeline was planned to run 600 miles through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. The proposed project would have crossed the Appalachian Trail 34 times carrying natural gas, and its route could have disproportionately impacted Native Americans, including the Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, and Meherrin Tribes of North Carolina. While they represent just 1.2 percent of the state's overall population, Native Americans would have comprised over 13 percent of people living within a mile of the proposed route through North Carolina. Across all three states, an estimated 30,000 Native Americans live within just one mile of the Atlantic Coast pipeline’s dangerous, proposed route.
As with DAPL’s construction, regulators and developers did not adequately consult tribal governments when drafting the pipeline route. In this case, the National Congress of American Indians, North Carolina's Commission of Indian Affairs, and numerous tribal governments had to formally demand federal regulators participate in substantive dialogue with tribes living in proximity.
Now the tribes have won an even larger victory: the construction of the Atlantic Coast pipeline is canceled. Revealingly, as soon as the Atlantic Coast pipeline project was no longer as profitable, the energy companies pulled out. Duke Energy and Dominion Energy acknowledge that lawsuits made the project unattractive. Land protectors and changemakers filed those suits, which contributed to a $3 billion increase in the cost of the pipeline, ballooning its project budget to a whopping $8 billion.
“The costly and unneeded Atlantic Coast pipeline would have threatened waterways and communities across its 600-mile path,” stated Gillian Giannetti, a lawyer with the Sustainable FERC Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “As they abandon this dirty pipe dream, Dominion and Duke should now pivot to investing more in energy efficiency, wind and solar — that’s how to provide jobs and a better future for all.”
The resistance changed the course of history. Native and Non-Native organizing effectively protected the land and communities along a 600-mile route that energy giants Duke and Dominion were ready to decimate for capital gain.
“We would not have gotten these decisions on the Atlantic Coast pipeline or the Dakota Access pipeline if it wasn’t for frontline communities mobilizing,” Dallas Goldtooth, the leader of the Keep It in the Ground Campaign of the Indigenous Environmental Network, told Earther Gizmodo. The two wins, Goldtooth said, “show the power of grassroots organizing.”
Dakota Access Pipeline
The currently operational Dakota Access pipeline runs 1,172 miles through North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa, leading to an oil terminal near Patoka, Illinois. The Black Snake slithers beneath ancestral Lakota burial grounds and the Lake Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River, and through sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Originally planned to pass north of the predominantly white city of Bismarck, North Dakota, the pipeline was rerouted to burrow directly under the primary supply of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
In 2016, water protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and allies from all over the nation and world stood in prayerful resistance against the pipeline. After months of occupation near the drill pad, amid brutal policing from the heavily militarized National Guard and the private security firm TigerSwan, protesters rejoiced when President Obama ordered an environmental review of the pipeline project.
One week into President Trump’s term, however, he reversed the DAPL decision, and soon oil began coursing through sovereign treaty lands, endangering every ecosystem and water crossing in its path.
Judge Boasberg’s recent order provided new hope, as it may yet result in the emptying and shutdown of the pipeline. However, on July 8, Energy Transfer announced that they would ignore Judge Boasberg’s decision, stating, “We are not shutting in the line. We believe Judge Boasberg has exceeded his authority and does not have jurisdiction to shut down the pipeline.”
We at the Lakota People’s Law Project quickly released a statement condemning Energy Transfer’s comment and blatant disregard for the ruling. Energy Transfer later clarified its original statement saying, “To be clear, we have never suggested that we would defy a court order. Rather, DAPL is seeking appropriate relief from that order through the established legal process.”
While the Boasberg win should be celebrated, “We have to remain vigilant,” Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project, reminded Earther in an email immediately after the decision. Iron Eyes was correct in his assessment. On July 15, federal appellate judges ordered a stay on Boasberg’s decision. There is still work to be done to ensure that the pipeline is successfully drained.
“It took four long years, but today justice has been served at Standing Rock," said Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe after Boasberg’s decision. "If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it's that health and justice must be prioritized early on in any decision-making process if we want to avoid a crisis later on."
In the Dakota Access case, Energy Transfer LP’s focus was on capital gain. Health and justice were secondary concerns. Thankfully, popular support was on Mother Earth’s side. From the start, activists elevated environmental concerns and fought for Indigenous rights.
"This pipeline should have never been built here. We told them that from the beginning," said Chairman Mike Faith of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
The organizing on the ground at Standing Rock was multigenerational and unifying. Adam Killsalive, a 22-year-old water protector raised on the Standing Rock Reservation, reflected on Boasberg’s decision.
“I truly think everything we did was passed down. All of us have a warrior spirit, a warrior heart. We don’t know how to give up. We don’t know how to bow down to nobody. That’s why they called us the ‘Great Sioux Nation,” Killsalive told Julian Brave NoiseCat, an Indigenous Green New Deal architect and activist, writing for Rolling Stone.
Now is the time to once again be in touch with Oceti Sakowin as we work to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline for good.
Keystone XL Pipeline
The current Keystone pipeline transports crude oil over 2,600 miles from Alberta, Canada to Port Arthur, Texas. Keystone XL (KXL), the proposed extension, would complete the system cutting through Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana. The pipeline is called the “zombie pipeline,” since it is now coming back after its cancellation by President Obama and a long hard fight by activists (Native and non-Native alike) over five years ago.
In April of this year, the U.S. District Court in Montana ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers had violated the Endangered Species Act when it issued Nationwide Permit 12, a water crossing permit for pipelines. Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Morris said that even though the permit was renewed in 2017, it must be canceled since the Army Corps did not adequately consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the risks of construction to endangered species and habitat had not been explored in enough depth. Plans have KXL crossing more than 700 bodies of water in the 1,200-mile section from the Alberta oil sands to the refinery hub in Nebraska.
One of the bodies of water is the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, which is part of the greater water table known as the High Plains Aquifer. Since the High Plains Aquifer fully encompasses the Ogallala Aquifer, contamination of Ogallala could create numerous other problems for the larger water table. The High Plains Aquifer is the drinking water source for 82 percent of people who live within the aquifer’s boundary, which includes areas of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Beyond these states, the High Plains Aquifer also provides an estimated 30 percent of U.S. groundwater used for irrigation, which impacts the vegetables on our dinner tables.
Rightfully, Morris’ decision successfully stopped the Corps from using a fast-tracked approval process for the Keystone expansion project. From April until the Supreme Court hearing this July, construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was not permitted through rivers, streams, and wetlands.
On July 6, Supreme Court justices upheld the Montana decision, ruling that KXL must comply with the environmental review process. That could stop the pipeline permanently. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged to rescind the Keystone permit if elected. Meanwhile, Trump signed executive orders to advance the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines upon entry to office, and he has not shown any sign of backtracking on his positions. November will be a big month in determining whether Dakota Access stops transporting oil for good and KXL ever comes online.
In the meantime, organizing around legal fights remains critical. “The legal teams are certainly a big part of what we do,” said Joye Braun, a prominent anti-pipeline activist. “It’s a part of how we’ve had to learn to navigate the non-Native world… Our legal teams have always helped us in every single fight that we’ve had to bring basic rights that most Americans have taken for granted.”
A New World on the Horizon
The three pipeline decisions are part of a larger movement for environmental justice and decolonization that works to ensure that treaties are honored and land is returned to Indigenous people.
“A more democratic, inclusive, sustainable energy economy is possible if we follow our laws and listen to the people our decisions impact the most. In the meantime, any company thinking of trying to repeat the playbook these companies used to cut corners and steamroll impacted families is now on notice,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and champion for the environment, wrote in a recent statement.
We live in a moment when we are witnessing a shift in the energy economy. Renewables are proving their endurance, and we can begin to see a world where Big Oil is obsolete. On April 19, the price of oil fell to its lowest level in two decades. The demand for oil in the U.S. and around the world has dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fall in demand, coupled with rising oil supplies, created a surplus of 25 million barrels a day. Not only has this excess oil overwhelmed storage capacity, but it has also threatened the viability of the U.S. shale oil production industry in its entirety.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has increased its renewable energy consumption — predominantly from solar and wind — by almost 40 percent in a few short months. The larger work-from-home economy during COVID-19 shifted peak demand in the grid. Since more people are at home, there has been a flatter peak time curve. Without as many demand spikes, there has been less of a need for non-renewable backup and storage to keep the grid functional. COVID-19 has accelerated a clean energy transition, and since renewables are affordable, a green recovery is possible. In the last few months, numerous countries have set new records for clean energy generation. The United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy are generating more energy from solar and other renewables than ever before.
“Our children deserve to live as an autonomous nation, our children deserve Indigenous sovereignty, our children deserve land back and we are going to get it. I no longer think it is a question of when, but what are we willing to do right now that ensures the changes that we need to see happening,” said Tokata Iron Eyes, drawing connections between environmental work and sovereignty movements in The Nation Magazine livestream.
The wins for the pipelines, the environment, and treaty rights are all interconnected. These decisions bring us closer to a world where there is more respect for Indigenous communities and appreciation for the earth we live on.
A new world is on the horizon. These decisions are no longer pipe dreams. What we are doing is working. The power belongs in the hands of the people.
Photo above by Joe Catron