Standing Rock is an unpredicted history lesson for all of us. More than any moment I recall since Wounded Knee, the Vietnam War, or the time of Martin Luther King, this moment stands as a crossroads in the battle for social justice. It is also an economic issue, in a time of economic system transformation, and profoundly a question of the future of this land. The world is watching.
As the US Army Corps of Engineers issues a December 5 eviction notice for thousands of people gathered on the banks of the Missouri River, we face our truth. Those people at the Oceti Sakowin and Red Warrior Camps, along with the 550 people who have been arrested so far, are really the only thing standing between a river and a corporation that wants to pollute it. That we know, because absent any legal protections, and with a regulatory system hijacked by oil interests and a federal government in crisis, the people and the river remain the only clear and sentient beings.
In short, this is a moment of extreme corporate rights and extreme racism confronted by courage, prayers, and resolve. This moment has been coming. The violence and the economics of a failing industry will indeed unravel, and this is the beginning.
The Deep North
North Dakota did not become Alabama – or the Deep North, as it is now called – overnight. Native people in North Dakota have been treated poorly for more than a hundred years, whether by the damming of the Missouri and the flooding of millions of acres of tribal land, or by poverty and incarceration, North Dakota is a place of systemic and entrenched racism. Two of the poorest counties in the country are on Standing Rock, Native people comprise almost a fourth of the people in prison, Native suicide rates are ten times that of North Dakotans, infrastructure (like the fifty year old hospital with four doctors for 8000 people, and a now blocked Highway l806, without a shoulder) is at an all time low, and people freeze to death and overdose in the shadow of the Bakken Oil fields. That’s the first layer of abuse, aside from the day to day racism, emboldened by Morton County and the incoming Trump government. It is visible for the world to see now.
For many who come, North Dakota is something unknown. Americans fly over the state, talk about how the movie Fargo was funny, and wonder sheepishly about how it’s working out in the Bakken. Very few visit, and there is almost no civil society to advocate for the environment or the people. Let me put it this way, until this year, the Sierra Club had one staff person in North Dakota, and the American Civil Liberties Union had one staff member covering both North and South Dakota. It is as if North Dakota is just too uncomfortable for a progressive movement to visit or work in. Instead, we have watched.
After all, the sex trafficking, violence, and corruption has overwhelmed most of the state’s capacity to address it, and a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found widespread groundwater contamination in the fracking fields. For North Dakotans it has become just how it is… That is to say: accommodating corporations is the North Dakota way. This last year, North Dakota health officials excused more oil spills without penalty, and increased the allowable levels of radiation in municipal and county dumps to accommodate the fracking industry. The corporations direct state policy.
It’s been easy to put it out of mind because after all, it seems so far away when we view the world from our television or smartphone. In the midst of this, we find ourselves facing a larger set of forces. As of November 18, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department inventoried their troops at 1,287 deputies, including police from 25 North Dakota counties, 20 North Dakota cities, and 9 states (Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming). Over 550 people have been arrested, many of them strip searched and cavity searched for misdemeanor charges, and a number of them held overnight in dog kennels. Now the state has fired on unarmed people who want to protect the water from contamination. After all, that’s what this is about.
To serve the convenience of a deadline for Energy Transfer Partners’s corporate profits, the police have fired teargas canisters, water hoses, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tasers, and bean bag rounds at unarmed people trying to protect their water supply. Most of them are Native, and the North Dakota media has continued to portray the water protectors as outlaws.
When 21 year old New York resident Sophia Wilansky’s arm was blown off by a concussion grenade, Morton County Sheriff Kirchenmeir suggested that the water protectors caused it. A statement of her father, attorney Wayne Wilansky, differs: “At around 4:30am after the police hit the bridge with water cannons and rubber bullets and pepper spray, they lobbed a number of concussion grenades which are not supposed to be thrown at people directly, at protesters or protectors as they want to be called. A grenade exploded right as it hit Sophia in the left forearm taking most of the undersurface of her left arm with it. Both her radial and ulnar artery were completely destroyed. Her radius was shattered and a large piece of it is missing. Her medial nerve is missing a large section as well. All of the muscle and soft tissue between her elbow and wrist were blown away. The police did not do this by accident – it was an intentional act of throwing it directly at her. Additionally police were shooting people in the face and groin, intending to do the most possible damage…”
January 1 Energy Transfer Deadline
On January 1, the Dakota Access Pipeline may turn into a pumpkin. This is to say, that the Dakota Access Pipeline was proposed in 2014, when the Bakken was at a peak. The Bakken is presently producing 900,000 barrels a day of oil, and steadily declining. All of that oil is already being refined locally, or shipped out by train or pipeline. The state of North Dakota has announced that they project to have the same 900,000 barrels of oil a day coming out of the Bakken in 2019, two years from now, and even that may be optimistic. In other words, there’s already plenty of infrastructure to move all the oil from North Dakota; this pipeline is not needed. We call it the Dakota Excess Pipeline.
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis with Sightline Institute just released a new report on the shaky finances of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The report, “The High-Risk Financing Behind the Dakota Access Pipeline: A Stranded Asset in the Making in the Bakken Region of North Dakota,” delves into “the project’s financial weaknesses, and the fact the pipeline may represent a substantial overbuilding of the Bakken’s oil-transport infrastructure.” The report notes that the pipeline’s principal backer, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), has conceded in court proceedings that it is contractually obligated to complete the project by January 1. ETP will most likely miss this deadline, if for no other reason than lack of clearance. The company recently informed investors that it would take from 90 to 120 days to complete the pipeline after it receives an easement from the Army Corps of Engineers to cross the Missouri River. The Corps has yet to give that permission and last week recommended further study on the question.
If the deadline is missed, companies that have committed long-term to ship oil through the pipeline at 2014 prices will have the right to rescind those commitments. “In the interest of protecting their investors and shareholders, these companies may well renegotiate terms, seeking concessions on contracted volumes, prices, or contract duration.
The impetus for striking new deals on Dakota Access Pipeline contracts is rooted in radical changes in the broader economic context in which the project was proposed in 2014 and in which the majority of the contracts were signed. Global oil prices began to collapse just a few months after shippers committed to using DAPL, and consensus market forecasts see no recovery for at least a decade….”
In short, greed is expensive, and if Energy Transfer Partners does not meet that deadline, many prudent shippers may want to renegotiate or withdraw their contracts. In other words, the pipeline could become a pumpkin, in the terms of Cinderella, and there are a lot of people who would not be sorry about that.
So, let’s be honest, all of the aggression is to see if North Dakota can make sure that Energy Transfer Partners can make a deadline and not lose money and continue to bilk potential shippers.
Evicting Native People
On the day after Thanksgiving, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction notice to the thousands of people camped on the banks of the river. Creating the legal fiction of a “free speech zone”, in no relationship to anything significant. District Commander John W. Henderson sent an email to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stating that on December 5, the Oceti Sakowin camp would need to evacuate Army Corps land. The letter claims that evacuation “is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions. The necessary emergency, medical, and fire response services, law enforcement, or sustainable facilities to protect people from these conditions on this property cannot be provided.” At no point did the Army Corps point out that Highway 1806 was closed by Morton County and that all the sustained injuries were from Morton County.
Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault responded to the Army Corps: “Our Tribe is deeply disappointed in this decision by the United States, but our resolve to protect our water is stronger than ever. The best way to protect people during the winter, and reduce the risk of conflict between water protectors and militarized police, is to deny the easement for the Oahe crossing, and deny it now. We ask that everyone who can appeal to President Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the future of our people and rescind all permits, and deny the easement to cross the Missouri River just north of our Reservation and straight through our treaty lands. When the Dakota Access Pipeline chose this route, they did not consider our strong opposition. Our concerns were clearly articulated directly to them in a tribal council meeting held on Sept. 30, 2014, where DAPL and the ND Public Service Commission came to us with this route. We have released the audio recording from that meeting.”
The fact is that the Dakota Access Pipeline is not complete because of the people camped on that land- whether in the Oceti Sakowin, Sacred Stone, or Red Warrior Camps. The arrests of 550 people have been at a high cost to people, but also at a high cost to Energy Transfer Partners, because they are unlikely to meet their deadline.
None of us know how this moment in history is going to work out. On December 4, thousands of military veterans are coming to support the people and the river – veterans of Iraq, Vietnam, and every war in between. I am interested how the Army Corps will speak with the veterans. The veterans join the thousands of elected officials, religious and cultural leaders who have come to stand with the river and the people. In the end, that’s what will remain, long after Energy Transfer is bankrupt and the state of North Dakota has come to reckoning. The river will remain.
I am reminded of a quote originating from Thunder Valley. “ How long are you going to let others determine the future for your children? Are we not warriors? When our ancestors went to battle they did not know what the consequences would be, all they knew is that, without action, things would not go well for their children . Don’t operate out of a place of fear, operate from hope. With hope everything is possible. The time is now. “
That is this time.