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AP Photo/James MacPherson

On Direct Action With Trump Around

The day before police evicted the Frontline Encampment directly in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Jesse Jackson appeared at the blockade on horseback. Celebrity appearances at the DAPL resistance always gave the sleepless days and nights of Native American ceremony, construction equipment lockdowns, and riot police deployments a surreal tinge. But as police violence escalated and the conflict land defenders had anticipated for months loomed, the appearance of the civil rights icon and 1980s presidential candidate riding toward the burning barricades on North Dakota State Highway 1806 pushed the confrontation into the territory of a dream.

Now Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered the eviction of the main encampment where thousands are resisting the pipeline—which is being constructed behind a fortress of razor wire fencing, floodlights, and armored vehicles—and is refusing to plow roads into the camp, refusing emergency services, and preventing delivery of supplies to water protectors. Police violence has already cost one woman her arm and potentially another vision in an eye and sent an elder into cardiac arrest, but now the state is simply trying to kill people.

This waking nightmare trajectory—events which simultaneously suspend one’s sense of reality and fill one with overwhelming dread—is of course paralleled in the ascendancy of a delusional fascist reality television star to the office of President and his subsequent appointment of a cadre of comic book villains to cabinet positions. In these moments of almost unbelievable human crisis and global change, in addition to political theory and movement history, one might look for guidance on how to respond in fictional narratives. As a friend recently said, “We are living in dystopian science fiction, and we better start acting like it.”

The following are a few thoughts on how to live up to that mandate. They begin with those narrowest in scope, pertaining directly to addressing the climate crisis and systemic ecological collapse, then move to inherent connections between movements attempting to do this and others addressing incarceration and repression, and finally into thoughts on general strategies against Trump’s assault on human dignity. What they have in common—the motivation for citing science fiction as a useful road map forward—is that they assume a situation that is so terrible it does not seem real engenders possibilities for liberatory action which otherwise would not be possible.


Trump and Climate

It is worth noting that Trump’s presidency is forcing mainstream media to acknowledge that current and prospective policies are ending life as we know it. What is so remarkable about this is that it was also true under Obama and would assuredly have remained so under Clinton, but because Clinton presented a facade of climate progress while acquiescing to the fossil fuel industry, her administration would have been characterized by NGOs, media, and other institutions placing a greater emphasis on federal policies and international climate accords which would have been weak or altogether immaterial. Because Trump flatly denies the reality of our burning world, these same entities must now join the rest of us in soberly contemplating how to address the crisis when mechanisms within traditional venues of institutional power clearly and unequivocally do not exist.

For instance, The Atlantic recently featured an article titled “The Electoral College Was Meant to Stop Men Like Trump from Becoming President,” arguing that he represented an unprecedented danger, and citing the climate crisis as the first justification. Had Clinton or another Republican become president, an equally convincing article could have been written arguing that this same crisis required some other action as remarkable and radical as electoral college intervention in the election, but it would have been more likely to appear in the Earth First! Journal.

During the era of Tar Sands Blockade, the Washington Post editorial board decried the fight against the Keystone pipeline and argued that protesters should, instead of fighting infrastructure projects, direct their energies toward pushing for a federal carbon tax (a legislative impossibility then just like it is now). Now that the Post is appropriately terrified of the power structure, it creates the possibility they’ll stop arguing for imaginary solutions within it and be forced to listen more closely to those who have already taken matters into their own hands. This should be seen as an opportunity to normalize heretofore radical approaches to climate change.

Direct action which exerts influence on sub-national entities was already a central strategy for addressing the climate crisis. Federal intransigence on climate is such that most plausible scenarios for significant near-term emissions reductions involve states, counties, and municipalities—who have managed to convince themselves that meaningful climate action is the job of someone with more power, like the federal government and the United Nations—to find diverse and creative ways to dismantle their fair share of the fossil fuel economy. There are many with non-federal institutional power who do truly understand the gravity of the climate crisis and do understand that no one is coming to save them, but the political steps necessary are so extraordinary and difficult that strategic direct action will be necessary to compel action.

The fact that those with the most power in the United States—those who share Trump’s poor grasp on reality and those who understand climate alike—are allowing the planet to die is a scathing indictment of the political system, but it ultimately might not be bad for global ecology. A significant federal or international climate strategy would have diminished prospects for alternate approaches at lesser scales of power. Such a strategy would have almost inevitably been market and technology driven and would have failed to achieve necessary emissions reductions. A heterogeneous patchwork of approaches at multiple scales of power is actually a far more plausible scenario for addressing climate, as it allows real world observation of the effects of multiple strategies. It also creates more opportunities to realistically advocate for conceptually distinct approaches from those utterable in the halls of federal power, like addressing fossil fuel extraction as well as consumption.

Now that we’ve descended into overt dystopian nightmare, cities, counties and states that have had trouble grasping it is their job to deny a permit for a coal export terminal or a natural gas facility on the basis of climate have no more hypothetical future federal strategies to defer to. This is an opportunity.

Infrastructure battles will remain critical. It is not altogether clear to what extent Trump will actually find ways to massively increase fossil fuel extraction through the elimination of federal regulation without the construction of considerable new infrastructure. Lack of infrastructure is already the primary constraint on extraction for many fossil fuel reserves. For instance, federal auctions of Powder River Basin coal were already receiving no bids before Obama’s moratorium on new federal lands coal leases, because the domestic market is at capacity, as are marine export terminals. More terminals need to be constructed for federal coal extraction to substantially increase. Infrastructure capacity also was the primary constraint on Bakken oil production in the Midwest before the price of oil declined.

The vast reserves of fossil fuels Trump wants to open up to corporations were in many cases already open to corporations, and the infrastructure necessary to expand extraction wasn’t constrained by federal regulation so much as local campaigns which have been killing infrastructure projects through state, county, and municipal mechanisms (with a few federal interventions thrown in). Obama made numerous policies that diminished federal barriers to the rapid construction of new pipelines and fossil fuel rail and marine terminals. In this area, Trump may have to look harder than he thinks for cumbersome regulations to undo.

The importance of campaigns against infrastructure will continue, but it will be different under Trump in that direct action has always been central to these campaigns, and the consequences for doing direct action are likely to increase.


Climate Direct Action, Mass Incarceration, and Mass Deportation

In order to intervene in the climate crisis, we must do direct action which guarantees we will experience state repression. This is true with or without a xenophobic bag of tanning lotion in the White House. Arguably the moment of most decisive confrontation with fossil fuel hegemony in the US from climate-specific direct action to date came when the #ShutItDown activists turned the valves of all five tar sands pipelines entering the United States from Canada, stopping the flow of oil. The action shut down 15% of America’s domestic oil supply, affected the market, and spread fear among investors. It also resulted in activists facing potential prison sentences of many decades.

In order to shift our current climate trajectory, we must engage in direct action which is deeply disruptive and which makes the climate crisis not just understood by those in power but felt. #ShutItDown illustrates that in order to do this, we must take action which pits us directly against the massive apparatus of surveillance, incarceration, and militarized policing that the United States has developed. We must attempt to cope with alarming tendencies to criminalize dissent in general and label activism terrorism.

The struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline of course also illustrates that the fight against the fossil fuel industry is inherently a fight against the apparatus of repression. Strategies against this industry are impossible to contemplate without simultaneously contemplating strategies for resisting, and maximizing the political benefit of, the state’s response. This should be seen as simply another dimension of the work—like having a media contact list and meetings—without which it cannot proceed.

The #ShutItDown activists facing criminal charges are attempting to argue the necessity defense in court—that their illegal actions were necessary to prevent the greater harm of climate catastrophe. In other words, these activists both took the kind of disruptive action that creates real crisis for the system and also anticipated the response of the legal system as an intrinsic part of their political approach. The necessity defense is only one such framework, but it seems imperative that something of this nature be integrated into many of our actions.

The fact that we must face repression and the fact that people are subject to mass incarceration and deportation creates a logical nexus for connecting climate action with other struggles. This is not to say that the conflicts with the legal system are identical in each case, but let us look to Standing Rock to see that there is a valid cohesion. Direct action drove Dakota Access Pipeline construction from the Missouri River for months and from a larger area west of the river for weeks. But ultimately, police and federal law enforcement deployed in enormous numbers, with heavy weaponry, armored vehicles, sound cannons, surveillance teams, and a penchant for brutality, and construction resumed in the area as a military endeavor.

The fact that a government needs the capacity to wage domestic warfare on its citizens (and the capacity to imprison them in mass) is a scathing indictment of that government, and in the United States it wasn’t always the case. The current state of the criminal justice system is the result of a series of policies that began under Nixon as a response both to the political unrest and the increase in urban violence of the 1960s, policies which had noteworthy escalations under Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. Policies motivated by social unrest tend to result in police forces with heavier weaponry and more of a large-scale tactical emphasis, whereas policies motivated by fear of crime tend to result in not only more heavily armed cops but also the construction of lots and lots of prisons. Ultimately, though, however much these conceptually distinct motivations may exist for the current police state, many of the mechanisms that actually create it—such as federal funding for police tactical units and transfers of military equipment to local police forces—make no clear distinctions.

Obama’s recent words and gestures concerning mass incarceration, and a handful of other moments of mainstream political discomfort with the extent of America’s prisons and police forces, indicate there are plausible near-term scenarios in which legitimate gains could be made. Of course, with the Trump ascendancy, in the very near-term prospects for diminishing the scope of the police state look horribly dire. But again (this being an ubiquitous theme of organizing in this new world we find ourselves in), we should use the fact that a good deal of the power structure is deeply alienated from Trump as an opportunity to normalize heretofore radical positions.

Time and again, fear of crime and social chaos has proven adequately politically potent that mainstream opposition to ever-increasing police and prisons has been both sparse and tepid. We should be making claims and taking action against the criminal justice system which centers the elementally simple truth that using as much force against people as the United States does, and locking as many people up, is fundamentally immoral.

Of course, Black Lives Matter is a nationwide mass movement already engaged in a powerful confrontation with state violence. Explicitly and meaningfully connecting climate work to the movement for black lives should somewhat increase that movement’s political impact (if for no other reason than an increase in numbers, as many mobilized on climate aren’t on black lives). Something on the order of the very publicly visible and consciously articulated alliance of labor and environmentalism that occurred around the era of the WTO seems necessary for climate defense, indigenous rights, and movements against police violence. In the case of climate defense and indigenous rights, a significant proportion of the battles are in fact the very same battles, and these movements share a need to dismantle the police state with the movement for black lives.


Direct Action and Institutional Power

Direct action can influence the behavior of political entities which are capable of significantly impeding Trump’s agenda. This is true in many respects. The fact that so much of the political establishment, even on the right, is adverse to Trump likely creates unique opportunities. A number of his pronouncements of policy—like rescinding NAFTA and opening up vast new reserves of federal fossil fuels—clearly were made without a good deal of thought about the actual mechanisms or logistical realities in question. Often, establishment aversion to Trump seems less based on morality than on an abhorrence for his disinterest in time honored protocols. This underscores the fact that institutional collaboration at all levels is necessary for any of this madman’s visions to become reality, and in a way that has perhaps never been true of a US president, it isn’t at all clear where he will and will not receive that collaboration.

The city of San Francisco issued a resolution in response to Trump’s election that is so beautiful it honestly might make you cry. Crucially, the resolution does not simply denounce Trump’s agenda, but makes clear the city will not participate in it. The whole thing truly is worth reading in its entirety, but a characteristic passage reads: “…no matter the threats made by President-elect Trump, San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City. We will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population.”

Institutional countermeasures such as this are absolutely necessary, on a very wide scale, to neutralize the threats that Trump poses. These are important both as actual impediments to evil acts and as a means of diminishing the political empowerment of the administration to pursue further evil. We should take very seriously the notion that moments of crisis are moments of opportunity and be willing to consider the possibility that some institutions of power may be willing to act with far more principle and courage than before. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should begin appealing to city councils and state legislatures at every conceivable turn—we can also influence institutional behavior without directly engaging it on its terms, or even acknowledging the institutions in question as valid. But it is worth thinking very seriously about how our actions interact with the motivations, values, and likely behaviors of those who, however crazy, aren’t quite as crazy as Trump.


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An reddish evening photo of an oil refinery.

The North Dakota Access Pipeline: Indigenous Resistance Is Stopping the Spread of Fossil Fuels

An reddish evening photo of an oil refinery.
Photo credit: Wikepidia

In 1990, world leaders—if “leaders” is indeed an apt characterization—met in Rio De Janeiro to proclaim climate change a truly fundamental crisis which urgently needed to be addressed. At the time, existing fossil fuel infrastructure represented 107 Mt of “committed emissions” of CO2: emissions predicted to occur if power plants, automobiles, and factories continued to operate for their average lifespans. In 2012, this political resolve had translated into 307 Mt of infrastructural committed emissions.

New American fossil fuel developments have contributed to this frenzy primarily in the last decade or less, with the advent of fracking. Throughout the Unites States, high-pressure water mixed with toxic chemicals is being injected underground to break up rock formations and release horrifying quantities of previously inaccessible oil and gas. One of the most dramatically transformed landscapes has been that of North Dakota, where fracking of the Bakken Shale has covered a landscape of gently undulating hills, grasslands, and vast fields of wheat and sunflowers with drilling rigs.

Ever obsequious to industry, Obama has been eager to accommodate this intensifying fossil fuel extraction. Presidential actions like Executive Order 13604, authored in the seemingly interminable years we wondered if he would approve Keystone XL, expedite federal permitting of new oil infrastructure, including pipelines. A Department of Energy memo on the Bakken states explicitly that if industry can contrive a means of extracting oil, it’s the job of society and economy to “adapt” in order to facilitate said extraction.

On the coasts, climate killing projects are proposed at astonishing rates, but these projects, as a result of grassroots opposition, have tended to die ignominious deaths somewhere in the pre-construction regulatory approval phase. Not so in the Midwest. In the three short years of 2010-2013, twelve new crude oil terminals railroad terminals were constructed in the Bakken, increasing transport capacity from 100,000 barrels per day to a cool million. And every year a new pipeline is being constructed in North Dakota.

The Midwest’s boom of infrastructure construction has had immediate repercussions in the Pacific Northwest, most notably in the trains which carry the particularly flammable crude fracked from North Dakota to refineries and distribution terminals throughout the region. The trains promise climate catastrophe if they reach their destinations “safely,” while promising fiery explosions, like the one that rocked the town of Mosier, Oregon when an oil train derailed next to a kindergarten there, if they do not.

To put it into the simplest terms: in order to shift this nation’s greenhouse gas trajectory, it is absolutely necessary to abandon new committed emissions in all haste. For this to happen, fights against infrastructure construction must succeed not just on the coasts, but in the middle of the continent—if we somehow defeat the oil trains in the Pacific Northwest, it won’t much matter from a climate perspective if they just replace the train’s capacity with pipelines. But states like Missouri, Iowa, and North Dakota just didn’t have the climate movements to get the job done. Everyone knew if pipelines were going to be defeated, it would be primarily the result of an indigenous uprising against industry’s continued depredations of their land, water, lives, and treaty rights.

Enter the North Dakota Access Pipeline.

At about half a million barrels per day, it’s a climate monster. Rerouted from predominantly white urban areas through a Mandan sacred site central to their creation story (the pipeline is slated to cross the Cannonball River where the Mandan are said to have first emerged after the great flood), a massive—many claim unprecedented—indigenous resistance sprang up at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers. In August, indigenous grandmothers, horse-mounted warriors, religious societies, and many others thwarted drilling of the pipeline route under the river.

At the camp that sprang up in resistance, all nations of the Sioux are meeting in the Seven Fires Council for the first time since 1850. Over 150 indigenous nations have come to the camp to plant their flags in opposition to Dakota Access.

A misconception exists that construction in general has been halted on the pipeline route. While Dakota Access Pipeline has retreated from the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball (where a federal permitting morass is also temporarily impeding work), they are actively constructing the pipeline throughout North Dakota and Iowa, as close as ten miles from the camp of over 2,000 indigenous resisters and supporters who have vowed to stop it.

The more they build, the more likely they are to finish: there is clearly no path forward but to actively attempt to thwart construction however we can. This is a political moment with vast possibilities and a real need for dedicated people of all backgrounds to arrive and help grassroots resistance reach its fullest potential. Potentials which many of us who spend our lives organizing would never conceive of—like horse-mounted warriors defending blockading elder women from the police—are abundant, while some basic tools of direct action and political campaigning in general are more scarce.

When action happens, it is almost dreamlike in its potency. On August 31st, as two indigenous men—Maya and Happy—traveled to the site of Dakota Access construction on Highway Six, west of the Missouri River, the dark sky was illuminated by an endless succession of brilliant lightning flashes. As the sun rose, the men walked onto a construction site, halted earth-moving equipment with the aid of friends, and locked their bodies to it.

Police cut Maya away from a truck after about an hour and a half. Happy, positioned on the hydraulic arm of an excavator, actively moved his arms in every conceivable direction in order to thwart the hacksaw which cut at his locking device. As he continued to prevent the police from making progress, he seemed to be gaining rather than losing strength from the struggle. Chanting and indigenous singing ebbed and flowed in intensity with the ferocity of the struggle. You can conceptualize political action, and thus victory, in infinite ways, but it suffices to convey the power of this day to say this: there was never, ever a moment where the police or the fossil fuel corporations felt more powerful than the pipeline fighters who gathered there. Many veterans of direct action movements said they’d never seen anything quite like it. I have rarely—or never—seen someone resist the destruction of the earth with such emotional force.

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Police extract Sunny Glover from the blockade tripod by incrementally shortening the legs.

Police Risk Protester’s Life to End 9-Hour Oil Train Blockade

Authorities incrementally shorten the legs of the tripod used in the blockade.
Authorities incrementally shorten the legs of the tripod used in the blockade.


Contact: David Osborn, (503) 516-8932,

Scott Schroder, (510) 842-5747,

Clatskanie, OR—Yesterday afternoon, climate justice group Portland Rising Tide and allies from Columbia County erected a 20-foot-tall tripod of steel poles to blockade the Port Westward oil terminal. Dozens of police, working at night under floodlights, were mobilized to remove 27-year-old Sunny Glover from the tripod’s apex. After an initial attempt to remove her with a bucket truck—which she foiled by locking her neck to one of the tripod’s poles—the police resorted to far more drastic and perilous measures.

In a surreal scene, the amassed law enforcement officers began using a circular saw to cut through the tripod’s legs in approximately foot-long increments, gradually lowering the structure to the ground amidst a shower of sparks from the saw. Glover’s neck remained locked to a pole the entire time. Each precarious cut threatened to topple the structure. About 40 protesters shouted words of encouragement from a nearby road until she was arrested and driven from the scene around 11:30pm.

“The courage my friend Sunny exhibited tonight was tremendous,” Scott Schroder said. “Unfortunately, she lives in a world of terrifying scenarios. She can either have her life jeopardized by the police or by catastrophic climate change and exploding oil trains. She chose to resist because she understands acquiescence is the greater peril.”

The terminal, operated by Massachusetts-based Global Partners, has been controversial since its inception. At the protest today were residents of the Columbia County towns of St. Helens, Scappoose, and Clatskanie, whose homes and businesses are within the blast zone should an oil train derail and explode. Rising Tide activists are demanding a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels in order to avert a climate catastrophe that would be felt for millennia.

Protesters were critical of the tremendous mobilization of public resources to dismantle the blockade—there were approximately 40 combined fire, police, and medical personnel on site—saying it amounted to essentially another subsidy for the fossil fuel industry.

“Taxpayers have already given Global Partners millions of dollars in clean energy construction subsidies, when we thought their facility was going to be an ethanol plant,” said David Osborn. “Now the public is handing over thousands more to keep the train tracks free of people outraged by their bait-and-switch.”

This summer, Rising Tide collectives have blockaded oil train facilities in Washington and Oregon five times. The groups say they are working toward mass mobilizations that will significantly impede the ability of oil to be transported by rail in the Pacific Northwest.

“We will be back,” Schroder said. “Over and over again. And we’re bringing more people every time.”




Oil Trains in Oregon: The Bakken Shale, the Uinta Basin, and the Climate Crisis

In order to maintain a liveable world, fossil fuel use must radically decline in the immediate future. This will require foregoing new mines, drilling projects, and pipelines; it will also require decommissioning a great deal of the ones that already exist. This is hardly an extreme proposition. Whatever economic, political, or logistical difficulties it entails, they are insignificant in the face of the social chaos, human suffering, and mass extinctions we face. As the climate crisis rapidly escalates toward a point of no return, we must begin an immediate phase out of coal, oil, and gas.


Instead, fossil fuel production in the United States is skyrocketing.




From around 5 million barrels per day (bpd) in the late 2000s, American crude oil production has increased in just a few years to over 7 million bpd. (1) The reason for this is mostly the development of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques that allow oil to be extracted from previously inaccessible sites. Fracking is best known as a method of extracting natural gas; however, whether oil or gas is the target, the process is the same. Highly pressurized solutions of toxic chemicals are injected underground in order to fracture rock formations that contain fossil fuels, releasing them to the surface.


The Bakken Shale, in North Dakota and Montana, and the Uinta Basin, in northeastern Utah, are two regions that have experienced an enormous increase in oil production with the advent of new extraction technology. From around 200,000 bpd in 2008, Bakken oil production exceeded 750,000 bpd in 2012. (2) It is projected to reach 1.6 million by 2015. (3) Utah oil production has risen from 60,000 bpd to 90,000 bpd in the last five years, (4) and is projected to nearly double by 2022. (5)


In both regions, escalating production has required new infrastructure for transporting oil to refineries.


Pipelines are the cheapest way to ship crude oil, and a huge number of them have been constructed in the Bakken in the last few years, totaling around 520,000 bpd in new oil capacity. Pipelines, however, are costly and time-consuming to build—their capacity has remained well below production in the region. Oil trains have made up the difference. Bakken crude oil rail terminals had the capacity to transport 115,000 bpd in 2011. By 2013, about a dozen new facilities had been constructed, increasing overall capacity to over a million bpd. (6)


Over a million. That’s an awful lot of new oil infrastructure. For some perspective, Keystone XL is an 830,000 bpd pipeline.


As in the Bakken, crude oil production in Utah has exceeded existing distribution and refining capacity. In recent years, three new oil by rail facilities have been constructed in the state. (7) There are proposals for two new Utah refineries, with 55,000 bpd capacity between them (8), a $2 billion, 100 mile rail line to connect the Uinta Basin with the national rail network (9), and a 65,000 bpd pipeline between the Uinta and Salt Lake City (10).


Oil from both the Bakken and Utah travels on rail lines to refineries and distribution terminals throughout the country. In 2007, 659 oil cars traveled on Oregon railroads. In 2013, over 19,000 tank cars transported more than 11 million barrels of oil through the state. (11)




There are two crude oil distribution terminals in Oregon: the ArcLogistics facility in industrial Northwest Portland, and Global Partners’s facility in the Port Westward industrial park, north of Clatskanie. Both offload oil from trains, store it, and transfer it to oceangoing ships, which make their way to refineries on the West Coast.


With essentially no public involvement or regulatory proceedings, the ArcLogistics terminal began operations in January of 2014. (12) This was possible because the site did not require construction, and thus a permitting process, like other controversial fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the region. It operates under modified permits issued to the facility’s previous owners, who were in the business of producing asphalt. (13)


Union Pacific trains carry oil along Interstate 84 in eastern Oregon and into the gorge before reaching the ArcLogistics terminal, which has the capacity to store around 1.5 million barrels of oil (14). The volume they are currently transporting is unknown; it is telling, however, that in recent months, for the very first time, UP trains carrying nothing but oil have been seen in the Columbia River Gorge. (15) The facility is currently undergoing construction that will increase its operational capacity, anticipated to reach 16,250 bpd. (16)


Global Partners’ Clatskanie oil terminal was constructed in the late 2000s to refine ethanol from grain, with $36 million in public loans and tax credits for clean energy, and went bankrupt after less than a year. It was then purchased by its current owners and, with virtually no public input or regulatory process—again, because no construction was required—began to ship crude oil. (17)


When the plant transitioned to oil, a permit modification was issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for the facility to process no more than 50 million gallons (about 1.2 million barrels) yearly. In 2012, the terminal’s operators notified DEQ that they intended to significantly increase their shipping volume; the agency responded that greater oil quantities would require a new permit. The company then resorted to the simple expedient, time-honored whenever the public interest has the potential to limit profits, of breaking the law. In March of 2013, it began shipping more than was permitted, and by November, the facility was processing around 7 million barrels in a single month—far more than the legal limit for an entire year. (18)


One might think that, with climate change killing Washington coast shellfish (19) and threatening to quadruple the size of Pacific Northwest wildfires from 20th century levels, (20) the DEQ, confronted with a facility shipping crude oil, at quantities that wantonly break the law, in a facility paid for with public clean energy money, would do everything in its power to shut that facility down.


Instead, it is reviewing a permit for the facility to expand the scope of its operations. (21)




The frenzy of Bakken oil production can best be described as an explosion—in the metaphorical sense, certainly, there is an “explosion” of new oil extraction activity like, say, the “explosive” growth of the computer industry in the 1990s—but also in the far more literal sense that Bakken crude is exploding all over North America, killing people and wreaking havoc on communities.


In April 2014 an oil train derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people and spilling thousands of gallons of burning oil into the James River. (22) In December 2013 an oil train accident in North Dakota resulted in a 400,000 gallon oil spill and a fire, forcing the evacuation of 1,400 people and causing $8 million in damage. The month before, a 90 car oil train derailed in Alabama, caught on fire, and spilled an unknown quantity of oil into nearby wetlands. (23)


In June 2013, 47 people died in an oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. (24)


In May of 2014, the US Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring rail lines to notify state emergency responders of any train carrying 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude through a given state. The order is written in surprisingly scathing language, describing the number of oil by rail accidents in the previous year as “startling,” and the quantity of oil spilled “voluminous.” It describes the ongoing series of oil train accidents as an “imminent hazard,” defined legally as “a substantial likelihood that death, serious illness, severe personal injury, or a substantial endangerment to health, property, or the environment may occur . . . ” (25)




One might think that, in a world where climate change is killing crops and raising oceans, the federal government, when confronted with an oil boom so hasty and perilous it is deemed an imminent hazard, would do everything in its considerable power to put an end to that boom.


Instead, regulators said they would “urge” companies to use safer cars. (26)


Much like the federal government, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has “deep concern” about oil trains, at least insofar as safety is concerned, but apparently feels he can do little about them. (27)


Of course, even if stringent regulations were implemented, ensuring that no more oil train fires would occur, there is still the fundamental issue that fossil fuels are only transported in order to be used. The gravest threat is not from an accident but the deliberate, systematic production of CO2 emissions in an era of rapidly changing climate. Bakken oil presents the risk of burning trains and cities—and the guarantee of a burning world.




There can be no doubt that many policymakers understand the gravity of the climate crisis, at least well enough to make lofty speeches about our duty to confront it. For instance, in June of 2013 President Obama said: “. . . science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind. The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years . . . I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” (28)


His policies, however, do exactly that—perpetuate and even escalate greenhouse gas emissions, and thus condemn us to a planet that’s beyond fixing. In March of 2012, he issued an Executive Order expediting the federal review and permitting process for infrastructure projects. (29) The same day, he issued a Presidential Memorandum specifically directing agencies to expedite oil pipelines, citing the southern half of Keystone XL as an example of the need for a more streamlined process of environmental review. (30)


Obama might consider firing his policy staff and replacing them with his speechwriters.


Governor Kitzhaber, too, has made numerous statements indicating he is well aware that we live in an age of looming global catastrophe. In a letter to federal agencies regarding coal export facilities he said:


Oregon faces particular threats from climate change, including the reduction in the amount of precipitation falling as snow and the resulting effects on water supplies and fish and wildlife as well as power production from hydroelectric dams, more frequent and intense storm surges, more flooding, likely loss of land in coastal area, more frequent and severe forest fires and increased forest pests and diseases, and detrimental impacts on shellfisheries as a result of ocean acidification.” (31)


There can be no doubt that Kitzhaber understands the climate impacts of the Bakken and Uinta oil frenzies. Nonetheless, he has allowed an unprecedented increase in oil train traffic in the state, and his agencies are currently reviewing permit applications to expand those operations. Just like he issued permits for the coal export facility whose horrific consequences he described in his letter.


Epicurus, attempting to disprove the existence of God, said:


Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”


A similar logic could be applied to our policymakers. They are either unwilling or unable to do the work of rapidly transitioning society away from fossil fuels which so desperately needs doing. Whether they are truly powerless or simply evil, they have abrogated their responsibilities: the power to create a liveable world, therefore, lies with us.




  1. US Energy Information Administration. 2013. Energy Outlook 2013.

  2. Davies, Phil. 2013. “Busting Bottlenecks in the Bakken.” Fedgazette: Regional Business and Economics Newspaper. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

  3. Platts. 2013. “New Crudes, New Markets.” Platts Special Report. Price Group/Oil Division.

  4. US EIA. 2013. ibid.

  5. Maffly, Brian. 2014. “New pipeline would get Uinta’s waxy crude to Salt Lake City.” The Salt Lake Tribune February 4, 2014.

  6. Platts. 2013. ibid.

  7. Fielden, Sandy. 2013. “Uinta Basin Crude Price Discounting.” Oil and Gas Financial Journal September 17, 2013.

  8. Fielden, Sandy. 2013. ibid.

  9. Davidson, Lee. 2014. “Wells to rails: Utah may build $2 billion line to ship oil.” The Salt Lake Tribune June 13, 2014.

  10. Maffly, Brian. 2014. ibid.

  11. Davis, Rob. 2014. “Oregon oil train shipments increased 250 percent in 2013.” The Oregonian April 17, 2014.

  12. Schick, Tony. 2014. “Crude Oil Terminal Planned in NW Portland.” OPB EarthFix. February 14, 2014.

  13. Oregon DEQ.

  14. Schick, Tony. 2014. “Oil Trains Now Delivering Utah Crude to Portland.” OPB EarthFix. May 16, 2014.

  15. Davis, Rob. “Behind discovery of Columbia Gorge oil train, an amateur photographer looking for wildflowers.” The Oregonian April 24, 2014.

  16. United States Securities and Exchange Commission. 2014. “Current Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Arc Logistics Partners LP.” January 21, 2014.

  17. Learn, Scott. 2013. “Ethanol plant in Clatskanie, built with $36 million in Oregon loans and credits, now shipping crude oil.” The Oregonian May 13, 2013.

  18. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. 2014. Notice of Civil Penalty and Assessment Order. Cascade Kelly Holdings LLC. Case No. AQ/AC-NWR-14-014.

  19. Valentine, Katy. 2014. “Ocean Acidification, Wildfires Are Taking Their Toll On Pacific Northwest.” ThinkProgress. May 9, 2014.

  20. U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2014. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.

  21. Oregon DEQ. 2014. Notice of Civil Penalty and Assessment Order. ibid.

  22. Gebrekidan, Selam. 2014. “CSX train carrying oil derails in Virginia in fiery blast.” Reuters.

  23. US Department of Transportation. 2014. Emergency Order. Petroleum Crude Oil Railroad Carriers. Docket No. DOT-OST-2014-0067.

  24. Mouawad, Jad. 2014. “U.S. Issues Safety Alert for Oil Trains.” The New York Times May 7, 2014.

  25. US DOT. 2014. Ibid.

  26. Mouawad, Jad. 2014. Ibid.

  27. Davis, Rob. “Gov. John Kitzhaber has ‘deep concern’ about oil train safety, tells feds to move faster.” The Oregonian May 2, 2014.

  28. The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2013. “Remarks by the President on Climate Change.” June 25, 2013.

  29. Executive Order 13604 of March 22, 2012. Federal Register 77(60):18887-18890.

  30. The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2012. “Presidential Memorandum—Expediting Review of Pipeline Projects from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas and Other Domestic Pipeline Infrastructure Projects.” March 22, 2012.

  31. Kitzhaber, John. 2012. Letter to John McHugh, US Army, Merdith Temple, US Army Corps of Engineers, Ken Salazar, Department of the Interior, Robert Abbey, Bureau of Land Management. April 25, 2012.


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