Dakota Access pipeline could be stranded asset in the making.
Heavy snow and winter cold settled this month on thousands of Native Americans and their supporters encamped on the banks of the Cannonball River, some 30 miles south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Nearby, the Missouri River slipped past. The river’s clean waters serve as the wellspring in what has steadily become one of the storied confrontations over energy development, justice, finance, and human rights in the American West.
Viewed in one dimension, the standoff over construction of a 1,172-mile, $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline pits thousands of protesters massed on the prairie to safeguard a sole source of tribal drinking water from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government and finance. But so many other dimensions of history, law, human rights, justice, finance, and climate change motivate the campaign to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. What has emerged on the wintry plains of North Dakota is a distinctive, if not unique event in the history of American environmentalism, and a seminal struggle over civil rights and Native American sovereignty.
Risky proposals for big dams and mines, and actual environmental disasters like oil spills and chemical plant explosions have long stirred public protests. Such campaigns form the lifeblood of environmental advocacy.
Rarely, though, has such a big and expensive American industrial project, in the midst of construction, encountered opposition significant enough to threaten its opening. Perhaps the only comparable campaigns, according to environmental historians, are the direct actions to protect the endangered spotted owl that halted timber cutting in California and Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If the Sioux succeed in halting the Dakota Access pipeline, it would be comparable to the legal battle that re-established Native American fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest in 1979.
“It’s so obviously driven by civil rights issues on top of environmental concerns,” said Bill Kovarik, a professor of journalism and an environmental historian at Radford University in Virginia. “That’s a dimension that’s been hidden for so long.”
The campaign to halt the pipeline gained even greater gravity after the election of Donald Trump, who owns, or owned shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s lead developer. Trump’s spokeswoman claims that he sold the shares this summer. Other companies with ownership stakes include Marathon Petroleum Corporation, Enbridge Inc., Sunoco Logistics, Phillips 66,and Energy Transfer Equity, the parent company. Trump vowed during the campaign to void U.S. commitments made in Paris last year to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, and to tear down regulatory barriers that he viewed as impeding development of coal, oil, and natural gas.
Campaign With Momentous Implications
In sum, what started last April with a call to action to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent a mega fossil energy project from threatening a primary source of fresh water has grown into a public interest campaign with powerful implications for energy development, the environment, and the rule of law. Next week 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive in North Dakota to establish what they call a “human shield” to protect the thousands of “water protectors” that have already joined the campaign.
“The fight in North Dakota has attracted a lot of national and international attention,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a noted authority on tribal treaties and law. “But you have to remember tribes have been on that land a long time. Tribes are amazingly resilient.”
Two 21st century tactical innovations are empowering the protest and putting government authorities and Energy Transfer Partners on the defensive. The first is social media, especially Twitter and streaming video, which provide immediacy to the hour-by-hour shifts in strategy on both sides. The images of resistance, confrontation, and camaraderie have drawn thousands of tribal members and supporters to frontline demonstrations that have turned ugly.
In October, security forces hired by Energy Transfer, used attack dogs to contain demonstrators. Pictures and video flowed from the banks of Missouri and helped prompt the White House to intervene to temporarily halt pipeline construction. On Thanksgiving weekend police hammered protestors with a water cannon and stun grenades, events that also were first captured and disseminated globally on Twitter and streaming video.
Banks Under Pressure
The second tactic derives from research done by Food & Water Watch and Rainforest Action Network to uncover the web of international financiers that support the Dakota Access pipeline.
Seventeen global banks have provided $US 2.5 billion in project financing. Investigators also identified about three dozen banks that are providing an additional $US 11 billion in credit lines to Energy Transfer Equity, Energy Transfer Partners, Sunoco Logistics, Phillips 66, Marathon, and Enbridge.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allied organizations — Indigenous Environmental Network, Honor the Earth, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, BankTrack.org, and others — have mounted pressure on the financiers to withdraw their pipeline investments. “People have responded in great numbers,” said Hugh MacMillan, a researcher at Food & Water Watch. “They are posting testimonies of their having withdrawn funds from the institutions banking on the project. They are staging protests at bank locations around the world.” Kelcy Warren, the Energy Transfer Partners chief executive, called the social pressure on the pipeline financiers an act of “terrorism.”
The findings, and global calls for banks to withdraw their loans and cancel credit agreements, have destabilized the pipeline’s investment terrain. Two of the pipeline financiers have withdrawn their stock investments in Energy Transfer Partners and other companies involved in the pipeline. Management of Energy Transfer has been shifted to Sunoco Logistics, a sister firm. The Royal Bank of Scotland claims to have exited its credit agreements with Energy Transfer Partners a year ago.
In November, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a Cleveland-based research group, reported that Energy Transfer faced a January 1, 2017 deadline to complete the project or the group of oil producers scheduled to use the pipeline would have the freedom to renegotiate their contracts. The initial shipping contracts were signed when oil sold for nearly $US 90 a barrel. The new contracts will come when oil is roughly half that price, a drop in value that could reduce pipeline operating revenue by millions of dollars a day and ruin the pipeline’s business strategy. The IEEFA report also found the Dakota Access pipeline may be superfluous in the energy transport industry.
The Dakota Access pipeline could be a major stranded asset in the making. Photograph from wikipedia.org creative commons.
Pipeline Not Needed
North Dakota’s daily production reached a peak of 1.2 million barrels two years ago. Due to low oil prices production has steadily dropped, to around 960,000 barrels per day in September 2016.
The Dakota Access pipeline was designed to transport up to 570,000 barrels of oil daily from a Bakken oilfield that before the price collapse was heading to 2 million barrels of oil a day. “The region’s existing pipelines and oil-by-rail facilities, together with local oil refineries, can handle nearly 2.5 million barrels of Bakken crude throughput per day,” wrote the authors of IEEFA report. “The region’s oil transport infrastructure is already overbuilt, with some 60 percent of its capacity currently unutilized.”
“The project is obviously in deep trouble financially, and it’s in deeper trouble with enormous global opposition,” said Doug Norlen, director of the Economic Policy Program at Friends of the Earth. “It’s a major stranded asset in the making.”
To some extent Native American leaders anticipated the sound and the fury that has enveloped the pipeline battle. The northern Great Plains is a region all too familiar with brutish land and resource struggles between the Sioux Tribe and government security forces. A mid-19th century treaty ceded much of the northern Great Plains to the Sioux Nation for their sole and sovereign use in perpetuity. But after the Civil War, as settlers of a growing nation eyed western lands, timber, and minerals for development, Congress steadily withdrew treaty rights and obligations, and put new and much tighter boundaries on tribal lands.
Sioux tribes fought back. U.S. cavalry, responding to Native American activism to protect their land and retain customs, killed over 300 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in December 1890. The massacre occurred about 330 miles south of the contemporary frontlines formed this year on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Before Wounded Knee, in a military action stirred by gold mining on tribal land, Gen. George Armstrong Custer and 200 U.S. troops were killed in 1876 by Sioux warriors at Little Bighorn, in what is now present day Montana, about 400 miles west of the Standing Rock battle.
The struggle continues. On November 25, the Army Corps of Engineers issued an eviction order to require Sioux tribal members and water protectors to abandon protest camps on federal land closest to the place where the Dakota pipeline was meant to cross beneath the Missouri. The next day, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, issued a similar eviction order for state land close by. The authorities issued a December 5 deadline for complying with the orders, but also noted they would not use force to move demonstrators.
Like so much else that is unfolding in North Dakota, the orders were fraught with cultural and historic significance. General George Custer was born on December 5, in 1839.