Protesters marched in San Francisco last week against the Dakota Access pipeline to show support for the Standing Rock Sioux. The pipeline is under construction near the tribe's land in North Dakota. Photo courtesy Peg Hunter via Flickr Creative Commons.

Protesters marched in San Francisco last week against the Dakota Access pipeline to show support for the Standing Rock Sioux. The pipeline is under construction near the tribe’s land in North Dakota. Photo courtesy Peg Hunter via Flickr Creative Commons.

By almost any of the conventional measures of cultural and economic influence, the clash over water security and heritage between a tiny North Dakota Native American tribe and a wealthy and well-connected Texas pipeline operator would appear hopelessly tilted one way.

Yet on Friday, convention was set aside, at least temporarily, in an escalating struggle over water, energy, and land on the American Great Plains.

Around midday, after weeks of confrontation and protest along a stretch of North Dakota prairie near the Missouri River, a federal district judge turned aside a request by the Standing Rock Sioux to stop construction of a $US 3.8 billion, 1,886-kilometer (1,172-mile) oil pipeline that the tribe asserted would harm its drinking water supply. Literally minutes later, the Obama administration halted construction of a stretch of pipeline on federal land near where it approaches and would cross Lake Oahe, a reservoir that supplies the tribe’s drinking water and is fed by the river.

Just how long the work suspension lasts is not known. But in declaring that it would not authorize the pipeline on federal land, the administration also said it needs time “to determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws.” In short, the federal government is poised to review the process for ensuring that Native American tribes are much better represented in government decisions on energy infrastructure.

Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based pipeline developer, did not respond publicly to the decision by the Departments of Justice, the Interior, and the Army to stop pipeline construction. Native American leaders celebrated.

“A public policy win is a lot stronger than a judicial win,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II told reporters. “It’s a win for all Indians. It’s a win for indigenous people.”

Such public interest breakthroughs at the places where water security and energy development collide are becoming much more common. In its struggle to curtail an expensive piece of transportation infrastructure, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stands at the frontlines of civic activism that is elevating water safety as a rallying cry and disrupting the global energy sector. Targets of public opposition include oil and gas pipelines in North America, big hydropower projects in Brazil, Congo, India, Panama, and Vietnam, coal mines in Australia, India, Indonesia and South Africa, and big nuclear and coal-fired power plants on four continents.

Activism Stops Mega Projects, Influences Finance

The various campaigns are having the intended effects. They are delaying or ending disputed projects, raising costs, and discouraging developers from pursuing new proposals. Protests also are beginning to influence decisions by the world’s finance institutions to stop investing in massive new resource-consuming energy projects. In April, Norway’s $US 825 billion Government Pension Fund, the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, announced that it had started to remove its investments from coal sector companies and projects.

The transfer of capital out of the energy sector, combined with fierce public resistance to big new fossil and hydro energy projects, is starting to close down expensive electrical generating equipment and strand natural resources from use. Earlier this year, for example, public pressure to reduce dangerous air pollution, and widespread worry about its limited water reserves, prompted China to curtail development of over 200 coal-fired power plants. China’s diminishing demand for coal resulted in lower prices and has been an important factor in causing an economic depression in the coal sector. Almost every major American coal producer is bankrupt and losses are in the tens of billions of dollars.

Communities in South Africa are campaigning to prevent the permitting of three new coal-fired power plants in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. India has turned away from its 11-year-old program to build giant 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants, in part due to opposition from communities fearing competition for their water supplies. In Queensland, Australia two of the biggest financiers of the proposed Carmichael coal mine have withdrawn their support due to fierce concern about its potential to harm water reserves.

The Dakota Access pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, one of the world’s largest oil producers. Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

The Dakota Access pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, one of the world’s largest oil producers. Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

Public campaigns to block polluting and water-consuming energy projects also have been influential in the United States. In September 2015, Royal Dutch Shell abandoned its expensive Arctic drilling program due, in part, to an active West Coast opposition campaign. Two months later, a citizen campaign to protect water supplies across the center of the United States resulted in President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

Though each of the frontline opposition campaigns develop distinctive strategies, they all respond to the dangerous ecological and market trends of the era. Flooding, storms, and droughts caused by climate change, and intensifying water pollution from the world’s 7 billion people, result in immense damage to communities and growing financial losses. Governments in most of the world’s nations have shown themselves incapable of responding to the calamity.

The successful citizen campaigns also are helped by technology. They deploy proven online communications tools to collaborate, raise operating capital, and elevate their work to public attention. The heightened real world threats and the capacity to let more people know about them has helped to shift some of the political heft of the various struggles away from developers and towards opposition campaigners. The result is new rules of engagement.

North Dakota A Microcosm of Global Trends

The North Dakota pipeline battle is an apt example. Energy Transfer Partners began construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in May 2016 after securing permits from the four states it would cross, and from the federal government. The Army Corps of Engineers granted the permits for the pipeline to cross the Missouri and Cannon Ball Rivers, near the Standing Rock Sioux’s 930,000-hectare (2.3 million-acre) reservation. The agency made the decision in July without the approval of the tribe.

The tribe responded by calling for help online and through its networks. By late August and early September a crowd of more than 2,000 protestors, supported by almost 200 other tribes, had massed on the prairie to confront construction crews. Social media provided visual images of the size of the gathering and its significance. A spate of violence involving attack dogs and pepper spray added agitation and more attention. An unpredictable and close U.S. presidential race provided background support for a decision that temporarily favors the public interest.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is intended to be a link in the transport to Gulf Coast refineries of 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, one of the world’s largest oil producers. Shutting down the line makes it more difficult to market the vast oil supply, which has helped lower American gasoline prices. The Bakken field also is an important source of climate-changing emissions.

Just as with the shutdown of the Keystone XL pipeline, the bankruptcies of U.S. coal companies, and the halt to new power stations in China and India, the North Dakota struggle encompasses some of the biggest political, economic, and ecological issues of our time. Energy choices. Water safety. Financial stability.

The latter is gaining more attention as researchers probe the decisions and loans made by banks to support big and risky energy projects in the United States and around the world. The long delay in construction, even a permanent pipeline shutdown that the Sioux tribe seeks, could cause huge economic losses. More than a dozen major banks have provided $US 2.5 billion in loans and guarantees to Energy Transfer Partners, according to an investigation by Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher at Food & Water Watch.