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The Next Standing Rock Is Everywhere

The fight to stave off pipeline projects across the country is being led by tribal nations and marginalized communities. It's time to listen to them before it's too late.

Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrator in 2016 (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

There won’t be another Standing Rock.

At its height, the mobilization against the Dakota Access Pipeline, beginning in 2016, was a historic Native-led movement against the same kind of land grabs Indigenous people have been fighting for centuries. The protests, on their own, were similar to hundreds of others; but the brutality of the private security response, the grassroots and social media campaigns led by Native youth, and the nation’s tense political climate in 2016 combined to temporarily break through the barrier between Native issues and the mainstream media. There was no turning away from the images of police tear-gassing and siccing dogs on Native bodies, because there was nowhere else to turn. This was America as it has always been, only now for all to see. It was a wake-up call that many might still like to mash the “Snooze” button on, while pretending it never happened.

In the past three years, numerous media outlets, The New Republic among them, have predicted a variety of similar pipeline controversies could be the “next Standing Rock.” But the exercise misses something fundamental about the new age of environmental justice.

Pipeline companies—and their lobbyists and ex-employees they’ve planted in the government—are learning. The pitch-to-pipeline process, so often practiced at the expense of marginalized communities, has been honed to perfection. Every day, energy companies participate in the political process that sets the rules of play. With each passing state legislative budget session and hurried community consultation town hall, their roots sink deeper—not just here, in America, but in Canada, in Europe, and in Asia. They are everywhere.

For those that see the latest fad of American natural gas pipeline projects for what they are—a last-gasp attempt by energy companies hoping to capitalize on juicy government subsidies as the planet careens into a climate crisis—it’s difficult to channel the necessary energy for opposition to a single project. Many Americans are also accustomed, whether consciously or unconsciously, to tuning out the environmental justice battles roiling communities of color and the underprivileged.

But Standing Rock was one node in a vast web. As the world’s carbon emissions approach the no-return threshold, as more black and Indigenous and poor communities are pushed into environmental catastrophe, that web is still expanding. There won’t be just one battle in which marginalized communities attempt to defend themselves against capitalists extracting the last bit of value from the fossil fuel economy. There will be many. And they’ve already started.

When the pipeline companies come to town, they promise jobs. Whatever the particulars of the presentation intended to persuade communities to support a pipeline, the jobs promise always makes an appearance.

The process is simple. The companies set up a town hall and attempt to convince community members that their financial situation—typically one defined by an absence of decent jobs and economic stability—will be buoyed by the sudden influx of pipeline-related jobs. For the denizens of Robeson County in North Carolina, this is the lie they have been fed for the past five years.

Like a great deal of former tobacco farming communities across the Tar Heel State, Robeson County is still searching for a permanent economic replacement for the agricultural industry. Tobacco, once the area’s main crop, has been declining since the 1980s, but received the decisive blow when George W. Bush signed the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, ending a treasured piece of New Deal legislation that offered farmers a federal subsidy and set a price floor on various crops, including tobacco. By 2012, the number of people the industry employed had been halved in comparison to its 1992 totals, per the Charlotte Observer. The people of Robeson County have struggled to rebound. The promise of future employment has been the main reason to support the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas plan to build through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Dominion Energy and its fellow ACP backers have leaned on the popular line that the pipeline will create an estimated 885 jobs in North Carolina and 2,873 in total in the three states it would run through. But these alluring numbers are temporary, applying only to the construction phase. A 2017 capstone project completed by students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the projected number of permanent jobs would drop to 20 following the completion of the ACP.

You can copy and paste the above situation, swapping out the regional specifics, with whatever pipeline project you desire. Jobs usually sneak to the front of the conversation sooner or later, and the figures cited tend to be the higher numbers of the construction phase. Just last week, six state senators in New York, all Democrats from Long Island, deployed the argument in calling for the expansion of the Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline, citing the “economy.” Republican Senator John Cornyn and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan rolled out the job promise to defend Keystone XL—so too did eleven Senate Democrats, led by former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp. The problem is, by the time the empty promise has unraveled, it is almost always too late to do anything about it.

Although energy companies might prefer to loosen regulations further, there are still a few boxes they are required to check off before the first chunk of pipeline is embedded into the earth or propped up over a river. That’s largely thanks to two pieces of paper.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898. This order mandated federal agencies to consider environmental justice when reviewing any potential infrastructure projects or public or tribal land grabs. Six years later, Clinton signed Executive Order 13175, which required these same agencies to engage in a process known as tribal consultation. The process is one in which government regulators have to reach out to any affected tribal nations along the proposed route and see if the construction will affect any culturally or environmentally significant areas.

Tribal consultation rarely happens in any meaningful form. A report from the Government Accountability Office in April 2019 made clear that this is not a problem specific to any one project. Based on interviews and comments from 100 tribes in 2016, the report concluded that the federal agencies tasked with consulting with tribal nations for infrastructure projects have repeatedly failed to contact tribes, either at the appropriate time or at all, when completing these reviews.

Demonstrations on the National Mall in 2017
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The lack of tribal consultation and, subsequently, shoddy environmental justice studies, are due in large part to the fact that the consultations and environmental justice studies, unlike clean air or water, are not protected by federal law, but by executive action. As the past three years have shown, such protections therefore depend on the individual presidential administration. Whereas President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015, President Donald Trump waltzed into the White House and approved it this past March, over-turning Obama’s directive and giving KXL the green light (the courts then switched it back to red and then green again.) With but a thin protective veil flapping between tribal and minority communities and the construction companies for whom they are easy political opponents to overcome, there has been little regard for these stopgaps.

In one of the more brazen attempts to skip out on tribal consultation entirely, Atlantic Coast Pipeline backers initially pointed to an environmental impact statement completed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that claimed the proposed route did not disproportionately affect any marginalized communities. But in an article for Science last fall, N.C. State associate professor and Lumbee Tribe member Dr. Ryan Emanuel reached strikingly different conclusions. “The nearly 30,000 Native Americans who live within [one mile] of the proposed pipeline make up 13.2 percent of the impacted population in North Carolina, where only 1.2 percent of the people is Native American,” Emanuel wrote. “Yet, the [draft environmental impact statement] reported that fewer than half of the areas along the proposed route had minority populations higher than county-level baseline proportions.”

“By ignoring that demographic disparity, they’re basically proliferating invisibility of Native people in North Carolina,” Emanuel told me. “If you ignore our existence in the preparation of these environmental documents, then you don’t acknowledge that we have any right to decide what happens on lands that are historically our territory, or places where our communities live today. Environmental justice and tribal consultation go hand-in-hand.”

FERC and the companies behind ACP, chiefly Dominion and Duke Energy, backtracked after Emanuel’s article and began consulting with the tribes. For the energy companies, this meant sending tribal leaders packages explaining how useful the pipeline would be for their communities. Tammie McGee, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, told The Technician, N.C. State’s student newspaper, in March 2018 that the company was pleased with its progress. “We sought an audience with them for a couple of years, without success,” Mcgee said. “But lately, in the past six months, we’ve had much better [ways] to get with some of their leaders and talk about the benefits. The project has seen some dialogue with the tribes. We’ve worked really hard to ensure that this environment and those historical and cultural resources are protected.”

Yet just one month prior, the Lumbee Tribe had published a resolution in which it stated outright its opposition to the project. Duke Energy’s spin also came a year after the Lumbee, the Coharie, and the Haliwa-Saponi tribes, as well as the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, all wrote letters to FERC complaining about the lack of consultation, officially requesting that they be looped in on the formal process.

On the other side of the country, the Jordan Cove Pipeline, which will cut through southern Oregon, is largely disdained by the tribal nations along its route. One Klamath tribal member, artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, refused to allow Democratic Governor Kate Brown to hang her work in her office due to Brown’s ongoing silence on the matter. Klamath tribal chairman Don Gentry wrote in The New York Times that “As long as this proposal hangs over the river, the Klamath will stand in fierce, firm and unwavering opposition.” The Yurok Tribe recently declared rights of personhood for the Klamath River, partly in hopes of further protecting it from harmful infrastructure projects.

While capitalist interests continue to target the land and resources of Native communities, as they always have, their sights have never been narrow.

“It’s not just Indigenous communities,” Nick Estes, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, Lower Brule Sioux citizen, and author of a book on the Standing Rock protests, told me. “All along the production line—from extraction, transportation, to production and export—you have marginalized communities.”

Demographically, Robeson County, which the ACP will cut through, is 40 percent Native. But it’s also 25 percent black and 33 percent white, standing out as both one of the most diverse counties in America and the poorest and most unhealthy in North Carolina. The ACP’s northern route also cuts through black communities throughout Virginia, with ACP developers proposing a compressor station in Buckingham County, a rural community that was settled by free blacks and former slaves following the Civil War.

Speaking with Energy News Network, 75-year-old Ella Rose, who recalled nostalgically the whippoorwills that fill the trees of her childhood, was candid when asked why ACP developers chose her town. “I do believe that this location was selected because we are African Americans,” Rose said. “People need to know our lives count, too [...] I feel abandoned by a process that does not serve me. This pipeline is intruding on our life and we’re not benefiting at all.”

The battles in Buckingham and Robeson County are not unique. Black and Native residents in the St. James Parish in Louisiana—nicknamed “Cancer Alley” for its oil and chemical developments—went to court in 2018, arguing that the construction of the Bayou Ridge pipeline through their parish would in fact make emergency evacuation impossible. (The judge ruling in their favor ultimately found the state had violated its own laws in issuing the construction permit.) The people of Albany, Georgia voiced concerns about noise pollution, toxins, and cancer in 2015 when Spectra Energy and its partners tried to run their natural gas pipeline through their town, which is 70 percent black. Their concerns were echoed by four congressional representatives that same year in a letter to FERC that noted the southern part of Dougherty County was already housing “259 hazardous waste facilities, 78 facilities producing and releasing air pollutants, 20 facilities releasing toxic pollutants, and 16 facilities releasing pollutants into the waters.”

While the lawyers and organizers representing Indian Country, and demonstrators in various marginalized communities across the nation, fight for a right to be heard in the planning process, other avenues of expressing dissent are quickly being closed.

In the past five years, several state legislatures, including South Dakota, have introduced bills that would turn protesters into felons by reclassifying basic impeding actions as crimes rather than misdemeanors. The move could prevent future Standing Rock-like standoffs and their associated corporate embarrassment, with devastating consequences for the local population: Natives in South Dakota—a state with a particularly harsh, violent history against its Indigenous population—currently make up nine percent of the state citizenry, but 50 percent of the state’s incarcerated population. On top of that, South Dakota already jails more people per capita than any other state in America.

Other states have also moved to support pipelines, often in a bipartisan fashion and even working against other initiatives politicians say they support. Oregon, a predominantly Democratic state, is committed to going green, yet Jordan Cove, if ever allowed to reach full functionality, would be the state’s number one source of carbon emissions. The counterargument offered by the CEO of Pembina, the company behind the pipeline, predictably touted the economic benefits of the project in a letter to the state’s Democratic Governor Kate Brown; this was echoed by the Portland Business Alliance and recently by a trio of county commissioners.

North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, a supposed breath of relief following the retrograde reign of Republican and ACP supporter Pat McCrory, is a staunch proponent of the ACP, raising eyebrows in Raleigh. A week after a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the governor and the energy companies, Lee Lilley, a former federal lobbyist for Dominion, was hired as Cooper’s legislative liaison. Throughout 2017, the CEOs of Dominion and Duke Energy both had exclusive access to Cooper’s office, per NCPolicyWatch’s review of public documents. Dominion and Duke Energy have given over $57.8 million for a pipeline “mitigation” fund to be deployed at the governor’s discretion. The state legislature quickly passed a law directing the escrow fund out from under Cooper’s control and diverting it to the public school districts in the pipeline’s path.

Federal authorities have been likewise supportive of pipeline projects. Law enforcement, including the FBI, have been reportedly monitoring the social media activities of the Jordan Cove protesters. Using the broad stipulations of a 1996 Clinton-era emergency response bill, police forces across the country poured millions of taxpayer dollars into sending their officers to Standing Rock, where they deployed drones with infrared technology to monitor the protester camps and protect a private company’s construction project.

FERC—the regulatory agency in charge of overseeing pipeline permits, the same one the North Carolina tribes appealed to in 2017—has rejected just two pipelines out of roughly 400 project applications since 1999. A federal judge for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals described FERC as a “Kafkaesque regime” in August: “Under it, the Commission can keep homeowners in seemingly endless administrative limbo while energy companies plow ahead seizing land and constructing the very pipeline that the procedurally handcuffed homeowners seek to stop.”

An abandoned pipeline caused a devastating spill along the California coastline in 2015.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Support from law enforcement and rubber stamping by regulators has been enabled, in part, by tepid doublespeak from politicians. Even leftists have rarely taken a consistent stance on fossil fuels and environmental justice. Former President Barack Obama, who has grown more outspoken about climate change since leaving office, recently posed for a photo op handshake with Greta Thunberg just a few months after he openly and unapologetically bragged about ramping up domestic oil production. Hillary Clinton was silent for months before issuing a let’s-hear-both-sides response to Standing Rock. And Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ambitious plans to ban fracking and lift up Indian Country seem to have obscured the time in 2014 when she muted her microphone and cracked a smile as she had the Senate sergeant-at-arms remove Native Keystone XL protesters from the chamber, or when she waited until the Standing Rock protests had neared their end to offer any kind of public support for the protesters. That support, when it came, included a plea to think about the pipeline construction workers, who were never subject to the same violence as those on the other side of the police barricades. The political party that prides itself as the only major party taking part in a seven-hour marathon chat on climate change currently has, by way of front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has offered a half-measure approach to climate change and hired campaign officials who sit so deep in the pockets of the fossil fuel companies that energy executives might understandably mistake them for their keys or wallet.

Pipelines are more than an eyesore. Spills, which occur with troubling frequency, can ruin water systems that people depend on for survival and economic stability. And the temporary “man camps” for outside workers building the pipeline can bring their own problems: This past June, Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released a report that found a link between such camps and violence against Indigenous women.

The open question, as pipeline projects proceed across the country, is whether America cares.

Every evil the United States has foisted upon its Indigenous people has been accompanied by the message that, no matter the range of violence or unfairness at hand, the actions doled out by the troops or the politicians were in the best interest of Native communities. This argument undergirds the religious assimilative efforts of the original colonists, the displacement and the ensuing death marches, and the Allotment Era legislation that sought to chisel away at tribal lands piece by piece. While the services promised as compensation remain chronically underfunded to this day, Native communities have been ushered onto smaller and smaller pieces of territory—territory now defaced and endangered by pipeline projects which, across the United States, experience roughly 300 spills per year.

Black Americans, among a host of other inequities, have faced repeated assaults on their right to representation. Their living locations, too, have been constrained by generations of segregation-promoting policies and norms. And their communities, once established, are then saddled with a host of toxic neighbors—pipelines, industrial hog farms, and landfills.

Some politicians consistently oppose these policies. South Dakota state Representative and Republican Tamara St. John, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of Dakota, was one of the few in her chamber to vote against the criminalization of protesting; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, lead champion of the Green New Deal, cut her teeth at Standing Rock; Senator Bernie Sanders was among the first major national politicians to stand against Keystone XL.

But politicians calling out natural gas development for the money-grab it is are outnumbered by those stuffing their pockets while the checks still cash. Even state politicians can receive hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars from energy companies they then are tasked with regulating. There are no guarantees, even with growing alarm about global warming, that efforts to change that will succeed.

There is only one sure thing. There will not be another Standing Rock. There will be dozens, maybe even hundreds, by the time the fight to avoid the encroaching crisis is finished, if it ever is. Anyone waiting for the next #NoDAPL hashtag to scroll by on their news feed is already too late.