Rob sat across the fire at Sacred Stone Camp from me, hands deep in his pockets against the deepening chill of the night. He was recounting the difficulties he had faced in his home state of North Dakota as an environmentalist while all his neighbors baulked at the term. Rob, you see, had come to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to support the local Sioux tribes in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). As I pressed him more and more for what it was like where he was from and what people thought about the pipeline in the heavily oil-reliant North Dakotan economy, he finally professed that he wasn’t the best one to ask – his neighbors were reluctant to talk to him because he himself opposed the pipelines.
The idea was for DAPL to connect the newly burgeoning oil fields of North Dakota to an existing framework of pipelines in Illinois. Faced with the choice to truck it, transport it by train, or build a pipeline, Energy Transfer Partner decided the latter would be the most economical and, moreobver, they claim, the most “environmental.” However, the term “environmental” has often been co-opted by companies and used to greenwash more dangerous practices. Indeed, environmentalists, farmers who live downstream, and the Sioux people at Standing Rock (just to name a few) insist that all pipelines break and the threat to the water of the Missouri river is too great to risk such a project.
To understand why such a project would be pursued, we need to think for a moment about the economy of North Dakota and, more specifically, about Rob’s neighbors. In 2006, the Bakken oil formation was discovered in North Dakota and capitalized upon. These reserves had remained untapped up to that moment; what changed was the invention of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). When the process of fracking was created, in conjunction with a greater desire to become as a country more energy independent, the Bakken formation turned to gold. The area was quickly spun into production and produced job after job – so many in fact that during the Great Recession, unemployment remained low in North Dakota. However, in 2012, the oil boom peaked and turned to the downward end of the boom-and-bust cycle. With the global price of oil plummeting, the fields have become much less profitable and, in an economy so heavily reliant on the production of those oil fields, people have been hit hard financially. While it won’t have any significant impact on the global price of oil, the DAPL pipeline represents for many North Dakotans a step towards bolstering the oil industry and, therefore, jobs. Energy Transfer Partners have been very good at selling this pipeline to the people of North Dakota as a glimmer of hope in an economy whose gold plating has been scraped off. Why should Rob’s neighbors care about water quality downstream or the impending doom of climate change to be faced by their grandchildren when they can’t find a job to put food on the table?
The cruel irony is that the pipeline is set to run through native lands—both on the Standing Rock reservation and off of it where the peoples’ ancestral and burial sites are found. Standing Rock has one of the highest poverty rates of any reservation in the continental United States. However, while the people of North Dakota who work in the oil fields are sold the dream that DAPL would bring economic success to them and their families, the people of Standing Rock have nothing to win from the construction of the pipeline. The Sioux were never consulted in the planning of DAPL, and would receive no economic benefit; moreover, their water source and lands that hold great cultural significance to them are threatened and would surely become degraded. These are not just probabilities, since some are already realities – in early September, the company bulldozed a huge Sioux burial site in preparation for laying pipe.
Naomi Klein’s term for lands and experiences such as these is “sacrifice zones” – zones in which the people and ecosystems are sacrificed and hidden away for the profit of others, or areas which bear the external costs of others’ practices. What the Sioux are making is an understandable plea – to protect the water and their homes. They call themselves “water protectors” and peacefully march and non-violently chain themselves to bulldozers with the eloquent message that “water is life.” In the midst of extreme poverty, loss of traditions across generations, and generally tough living conditions on the reservation, they remind others that you need water and can drink water, but you cannot drink oil.
Nonetheless, even as obvious as it is that water, not oil, is essential to life and therefore must be protected, we cannot ignore Rob’s neighbors’ concerns about their jobs. Water is life, but the oil workers of North Dakota are trying to support their lives too as best they can. Too often in conversations about climate justice and calls to keep fossil fuels in the ground, as activists we forget (or conveniently ignore) what it means for those whose livelihoods and sometimes family traditions are so bound up in maintaining the status quo. When we talk about the transition to a 100% renewable energy economy, we need to think about all those who stand to lose while the desired transition unfolds. The fossil fuel industry and climate change don’t care about peoples’ lives or the health of ecosystems; the climate justice movement, however, has a responsibility to do better and ensure that the transition is a just one and includes everyone.
An economy so heavily reliant on the extraction and transportation of oil is an unstable economy; witness the relentless boom-and-bust cycles of so many American towns. Rather than plummeting these economies into a permanent bust and expecting the workers to train themselves up for a new job in renewable energy 1000 miles away, we need to think about how to plan a transition with these workers at the decision-making table, right alongside the indigenous folks who are on the ground fighting the pipeline. Planning ahead for diverse and varied economic activities to take the place of an oil-driven economy, working on job training programs, and asking the workers what they need before the tap is shut off are just a few ways to ensure that they come along willingly and have a stake in what replaces a way of life that can no longer be sustained if humanity is to have a future.
The transition to a 100% renewable economy is already underway and is going to happen whether or not everyone is on board. The only questions are how quickly it happens, and whether it can be done in a way that brings Rob’s neighbors to the table instead of the self-appointed few that got us into this mess in the first place.