Even though President Trump expedited approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines as part of a larger bid to unravel Barack Obama’s environmental legacy, indigenous activists and environmentalists say their fight isn’t over, with lawsuits filed to block the Keystone XL pipeline and protests against other pipeline projects spreading across the United States and Canada.
“Dakota Access has fueled a global movement of resistance against the fossil fuel economy,” Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the nonprofit Indigenous Environmental Network, told The Diplomat. “We know people are starting to make the link that the U.S. and the world needs to find real solutions to the climate crisis.”
But environmentalists face a tough road ahead of them under a determined new administration that doesn’t believe a climate crisis exists — let alone that the government should tackle it. The president’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would slash funds for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent and eliminate climate change-related programs throughout the government (see story on page 4). Trump also wants to dismantle Obama’s signature climate achievement, the Clean Power Plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants, making it likely that the U.S. will fail to meet its carbon-reduction pledges as part of the landmark Paris climate deal.
Above all, Trump has called for fewer regulations and more fossil fuel drilling to boost the country’s energy independence, bring back coal mining jobs and free American businesses from restrictions that conservatives say stifle economic growth.
But critics point out several holes in Trump’s claims. For one thing, coal mining jobs, which now represent a small fraction of the overall energy sector, are unlikely to make a comeback, having already been lost to market forces and automation. Natural gas, which is cheaper and more abundant, now makes up about a third of the country’s electrical supply. Meanwhile, the cost of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar has dropped dramatically, also making it a more attractive investment for companies. In fact, solar energy now employs more Americans than coal, gas and oil combined.
With clean energy jobs outnumbering fossil fuel jobs; a fracking boom that significantly increased America’s oil and gas production (and energy independence); and the price of oil plummeting in recent years, the economic rationale for costly pipelines has changed considerably.
Beyond this bottom line, Trump is likely to encounter stiff legal resistance to his environmental plans — and perhaps nowhere is that resistance more visible than the intensely personal fight over building pipelines across America.
Led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, thousands of “water protectors” — including Native Americans, environmentalists, veterans and celebrities — filled the Oceti Sakowin camp last year to oppose Energy Transfer Partners’ construction of the final section of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline beneath Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock reservation. They argued it would threaten the reservation’s water supply and sacred burial grounds.
After weeks of protests, authorities urged demonstrators to evacuate their encampments, citing flooding concerns as snow melted. The unarmed protesters faced mass arrests, water cannons and rubber bullets fired by police, and attack dogs unleashed by company security guards. They won a short-lived victory in December when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers required a more detailed environmental impact study for the $3.8 billion pipeline to cross beneath the lake.
One month later, Trump squashed that victory. In one of his first acts in office, the president expedited approval for the Dakota Access pipeline, and it was quickly built beneath Lake Oahe. Trump may have personally profited from his decision because he had invested up to $1 million in Energy Transfer Partners, and he received $103,000 in campaign contributions from its chief executive.
A lawsuit filed in February by the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes failed to stop the pipeline construction, with the judge saying the tribes were unlikely to succeed in their legal challenge at this late stage. Energy Transfer Partners has stated that the pipeline should be in operation in April to move oil from North Dakota to an existing pipeline in Illinois.
That has angered some North Dakotans, but made others very happy. The state’s once-booming Bakken shale region was losing out to lower-priced rivals in Texas and elsewhere because they had better access to refineries and terminals in the Gulf Coast, according to a March 27 Bloomberg article. Now, instead of shipping crude oil via costlier rail, the pipeline gives North Dakota oil companies a cheaper transport option that will help the state’s oil industry regain its competitiveness.
But opponents of the pipeline remain undeterred. In the Native Nations Rise march in March, more than 5,000 Native Americans from across the country and their allies marched to the White House to protest the Dakota Access decision and demand respect for indigenous rights. Another march and rally called the Peoples Climate Movement was scheduled in D.C. on April 29, a week after the March for Science on Earth Day.
Goldtooth and other Native American activists also will attend the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in May where they will discuss the Dakota Access pipeline, including alleged violations of Sioux treaty rights and the violent military-style tactics used to evict protesters. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous people have the right to restitution or fair compensation for land and resources that have been taken from them without their consent, and that they have the right to conserve and protect the environment on their territory. But like many U.N. initiatives, there is no meaningful enforcement to compel governments to act, and the Dakota Access pipeline is, legally and physically speaking, a done deal at this point.
Keystone Battle Drags On
Protests have shifted now to the Keystone XL pipeline, which hasn’t yet been built and still needs a crucial permit from the Nebraska Public Service Commission even though Trump expedited federal approval by the State Department. In response to Trump’s decision, the company behind Keystone, TransCanada, said it would drop a $15 billion lawsuit filed under NAFTA that claimed the Obama administration’s blocking of the pipeline was unconstitutional and “based on an arbitrary political calculation.”
The Keystone XL pipeline — which would connect tar sands oil mining sites in Alberta, Canada, to an existing pipeline in Nebraska and then transport it to refineries along the Gulf Coast — did indeed become a highly charged (some say overhyped) symbol in the political debate over climate change. Obama said approving Keystone XL would have undercut America’s leadership in the fight against climate change.
That’s partly because tar sands oil extraction is the “most carbon-intensive source of oil on the planet” that devastates pristine lands through strip mining and toxic tailings ponds, said Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels campaign. Transportation of heavy tar sands oil also is dangerous because it sinks in water if there is a pipeline spill, making it almost impossible to clean up, she added.
“Tar sands are really the worst of the worst,” Moffitt told The Diplomat. “From a climate change perspective, science is telling us we need to reduce our reliance on conventional fossil fuels, and tar sands are incredibly dirty sources of oil.”
Opponents also contend that while the Keystone project would generate thousands of temporary jobs, the amount of permanent jobs would be minimal (barely a few dozen). In addition, the pipeline was planned when America was dependent on other countries for its energy supply and the price of oil was high. Neither holds true today, with the U.S. now producing enough energy to export its own oil and gas. Industry analysts concede that because of the sharp dip in oil prices, tar sands projects are no longer as lucrative as they once were, although they point out that the price of oil is expected to rebound once Keystone becomes operational.
So the seven-year debate rages on, with the embattled pipeline now facing more legal challenges. The Sierra Club, Bold Alliance and other environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in Montana in March claiming the State Department’s environmental impact study was incomplete and didn’t address the pipeline’s threats to the climate, water resources and local communities.
In the permit review process for the Keystone XL pipeline, the Nebraska Public Service Commission has allowed the Sierra Club, Bold Alliance, other environmental groups, two Native American tribes, labor unions and 93 landowners along the proposed pipeline route to join in the litigation. A public hearing is scheduled in August with a final order expected in September. Trump has said he would call Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a fellow Republican who supports the pipeline, to move the project forward, but the governor doesn’t control the independent commission’s five elected members.
Supporters of the project are fighting back as well, trying to dispel what they say are rampant myths and misconceptions. In a Jan. 26, 2017, editorial, Bloomberg argued that environmentalist warnings about the project are exaggerated.
“Given that Keystone would be built to the latest safety requirements, it would be less spill-prone than the tens of thousands of miles of older pipelines that crisscross the U.S.,” the editorial pointed out, noting that this advantage holds true for the Dakota Access pipeline as well.
Moreover, while oil sands extraction does produce more greenhouse gas emissions, technology and other environmental programs, such as Alberta’s carbon tax, are helping to offset this problem.
“Finally, many environmentalists argue that pipelines such as Keystone only encourage the further extraction and use of fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming. Regardless of whether this will prove to be true, the reality is that there aren’t enough sources of clean energy to meet the world’s needs. And to protect against price shocks, it is preferable for the U.S. to get its oil from domestic sources or from friendly neighbors like Canada,” Bloomberg wrote. “With or without Keystone, in any case, crude will continue to be extracted from the Alberta oil sands.”
That argument, in fact, was used by the State Department in its assessment, which found that with or without Keystone, Canada would continue to exploit its tar sands for profit, so a single project like Keystone wouldn’t worsen climate change. But that review was conducted in 2014, when oil was more $100 a barrel. Today, with oil priced at half that amount, oil sands projects have become less profitable — a fact environmentalists are eager to use to make the case that Keystone will, in fact, have a sizable impact on climate change.
Environmentalists are also hoping to use another tack that might appeal to conservatives: government encroachment. Bold Nebraska, part of the Bold Alliance that fights fossil fuel projects across four Midwestern states, helped organize a coalition opposing the pipeline that included landowners who could lose their property along the pipeline route through eminent domain proceedings, Bold Nebraska state director Linda Anderson told The Diplomat.
“[The protest] is able to span across the entire political spectrum,” she said. “We’re bringing in environmental hippies and scientists and people who lean a little more to the right and don’t believe their land should be taken by a private company or from the U.S.”
Moving Further Afield
Inspired by the massive Dakota Access protests, Native American activists, environmentalists and ranchers also have demonstrated against the 148-mile Trans-Pecos Pipeline that would transport fracked natural gas to Mexico through the Big Bend region of Texas. Protesters chained themselves to bulldozers to block the construction, but those protests have dwindled since the pipeline has been completed and received federal approval to transport natural gas across the Mexican border. The pipeline is owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which also owns the Dakota Access pipeline.
A much larger protest led by the First Nations tribes of Canada has coalesced over government approval last year for construction of Kinder Morgan Inc.’s Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline, which would link tar sands in Alberta to Vancouver on the Pacific Coast following the route of an existing company pipeline. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said government approval of the $5 billion pipeline was based on rigorous scientific debate and “will not be swayed by political argument, be they local or regional or national.”
But protesters see hope from a past victory in the rejection of Enbridge Inc.’s similar Northern Gateway oil pipeline. After 18 lawsuits, a Canadian appellate court overturned approval for the project because it said the government’s consultation with indigenous people was “brief, hurried and inadequate.”
Oil companies also face looming questions about the profitability or long-term sustainability of building so many tar sands pipelines given the low price of oil, demands to address climate change and advances in alternative energy. Some companies have decided that tar sands oil doesn’t make economic sense, with dozens of projects delayed or canceled in the Alberta region.
That has put Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau in a quandary. On the one hand, the Liberal Party leader was voted into office in part with support from environmentalists. On the other hand, Canada is home to the world’s third-largest crude reserves and tumbling oil prices have hurt the nation’s economy, pressuring Trudeau to bring in new revenue streams.
“I’ve said many times that there isn’t a country in the world that would find billions of barrels of oil and leave it in the ground while there is a market for it,” Trudeau said last year in justifying approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
But the world needs do exactly that and leave most oil reserves, especially carbon-intensive Canadian tar sands, in the ground to slow the devastating effects of climate change, according to scientific research. Even though protesters failed to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, that resistance movement has inspired action against other fossil fuel projects, said Moffitt of the Sierra Club.
“Even though the oil and gas industry now has a friend in the White House, there is an unprecedented level of opposition to these dangerous projects, and that level of engagement isn’t going away,” she said.
About the Author
Brendan L. Smith (www.brendanlsmith.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.