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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