Commentary: “Finally, some good news out of 2016.” That exclamation on Facebook seemed to sum up the public response Sunday to the Army Corps of Engineers’ announcement that it wouldn’t allow an easement for an oil pipeline across lands held sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux people.
And indeed, the announcement was cause for jubilation among pipeline opponents, whether at the various encampments or in communities around the world.
But the issue isn’t over.
That’s not intended to downplay the significance of Sunday’s announcement: the Water Protectors at Standing Rock have every right to celebrate this as a victory, and as vindication for their cause. But as the late environmentalist David Brower was fond of saying, in environmental activism all victories are temporary; only the defeats are permanent.
That means that for pipeline opponents’ win this weekend to be maintained, they’ll need to stay vigilant. And in that spirit, here are a few things for supporters of the movement at Standing Rock to keep in mind in the months ahead.
Credit where due
Less than an hour after the news of the Corps’ announcement hit social media, names of prominent non-Native figures started being mentioned as deserving credit for the win. Some partisans of Senator Bernie Sanders, who lent conspicuous public support to the Standing Rock cause, started claiming credit for the Senator. The same is true for other Democratic politicians, from Al Franken and Tulsi Gabbard to President Barack Obama.
That last deflection of credit is a little troublesome. Some analysts have correctly pointed out that earlier action by Obama, whether to stop the pipeline or help protect activists from police violence, would likely have come in the form of an Executive Order or other mandate that could have been retracted with the stroke of a pen by the next president. The slower route, of using the Army Corps of Engineers’ molasses-like compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, will almost certainly prove harder to reverse than an Executive Order.
But the President could certainly have done more to rein in police excesses, even by using his bully pulpit to call for cooler thinking on the part of law enforcement.
More about Oil Companies
As Native activist Lee Sprague, who has been organizing cold water rescue efforts at Standing Rock, said in a public Facebook post on Monday,
President Obama gets no credit for coddling the DAPL Oil Police. When our peoples and allies were attacked by dogs, Obama was silent. Obama has said we are to be evicted today. Why doesn't Obama evict the Oil Company instead? This is the right question to be asked.
But it’s just as problematic to grant credit to Sanders, Gabbard, or Franken – a sentiment with which I suspect those three would agree. The Corps’ decision was prompted by an inspiring, sustained, often heroic campaign sparked by the Standing Rock Sioux. It is the Standing Rock Sioux that deserve credit for this win, along with the thousands of Native allies who converged on the scene to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. Of secondary but still crucial importance were the hundreds of thousands of non-Native people who stood with Standing Rock, whether by traveling to the encampments, coordinating logistical support, or donating funds and needed items.
The credit, in other words, goes to a startlingly broad mass movement led by the Standing Rock Sioux and their Native allies. We non-Native people may be in the habit of taking a whole lot of things that rightly belong to Native people. A good way to start to reverse that trend might be to not coopt credit for the win at Standing Rock.
The pipeline isn’t killed
It’s easy to find comments on social media along the lines of “the Black Snake is killed!” (The Black Snake being a figure in Sioux prophecy that many Water Protectors interpret as representing the pipeline.) But what people say in a moment of understandable exuberance isn’t always the most accurate assessment. Again, from Lee Sprague’s Facebook post:
The DAPL Oil Police are bringing in more troops and convoys of militaries vehicles. They are not stopping construction of the pipeline, they are not disassembling any drilling operations under the Missouri River, or Lake Oahe. There are more lights, more helicopters, dust croppers, and black militarized drones flying overhead.
The owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline project, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Sunoco Logistics Partners (SXL), admitted in a press release Sunday that they have no intention of complying with the Corps’ decision not to grant them an easement:
As stated all along, ETP and SXL are fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.
The companies claim that the Obama administration has “abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency.” The phrase “abandoned the rule of law,” aside from being a bit of a cliché among far-right circles to describe situations in which the government enforces laws the speaker doesn't like, may well signal the pipeline companies’ intention to drag the Corps into court.
Even if the pipeline owners don’t sue, the Corps didn’t kill the pipeline project. The Army merely agreed to conduct a full environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, to include an Environmental Impact Statement that considers alternate pipeline routes and offers room for public comment.
I say “merely” with some hesitation: this is a huge win over a project that was set to proceed without a rigorous NEPA analysis. But here’s the thing about NEPA: it doesn’t guarantee that extremely destructive projects won’t be built. The Environmental Impact Statement process will take many months, perhaps several years. That puts a likely final decision well into Trump’s first term – if he doesn’t find some way to circumvent the process. (Trump recently owned a large amount of stock in the pipeline companies.) And with Trump’s Defense Department overseeing the environmental assessment, it’s not at all impossible that the same old route will be selected.
Make no mistake: Sunday’s denial of an easement was huge. But that “black snake” is still wriggling. And declaring ultimate victory may well cause potential supporters to shift their attentions to some other interesting thing on the internet.
The Standing Rock encampments will continue to need help from supporters.
Many of the activists in attendance at Standing Rock, aware that the pipeline isn’t dead yet, have vowed to stay on site for as long as it takes. (The press statement by ETP and SXL certainly suggests the firms intend to press on with construction.) It’s early December: winter hasn’t even started yet. People at Standing Rock will likely continue to need warm clothing, food, shelter, medical attention, and other necessities of extreme-cold-weather survival until April or later.
What’s more, even if the Water Protectors were to fold up their tents this week, cleaning up after a crowd of tens of thousands of campers is no easy task, even if every last one of those campers is incredibly meticulous about leaving nothing behind. (And we both know they won’t all be.) Cleanup, when it happens, is likely to cost many thousands of dollars. There’s a chance that allies outside the Dakotas will be less stoked about helping crowdfund for trash bags and truck rental than they have been for the more exciting action-related needs so far. Just something to keep in mind as the Standing Rock encampments continue.
Native Rights and clean water issues aren’t limited to the Standing Rock Reservation.
The Water Protectors have won a reprieve for the Missouri River, its water, and the landscape around it. But as I mentioned in September in my article From The Dakotas to The Desert: Energy Companies Threaten Native Culture, there are many more issues like Standing Rock that haven’t gotten as much outside attention. Native people are fighting across the Americas to defend their cultures and their ways of life from industrial society. In the United States, along with renewable energy in the deserts, Native cultures are faced with threats from post-fire logging, from dam building, and even from for-profit wildcrafting. If supporters of the Standing Rock movement turn their new awareness of Native Rights issues to other realms, that would truly be a victory.
And you don’t have to look too hard to find examples of water pollution crises that are still in progress. Wes Clark, Jr., who spearheaded the convergence of veterans on Standing Rock this month, has said that Flint, Michigan is next on the list of communities his group will be supporting.
Most people have heard of Flint’s lead-tainted water by now. Some noticed the press attention paid to last year’s mine waste spill in the Animas river watershed, which contaminated drinking and irrigation water used by many Navajo people. Fewer have heard of the radioactive contamination in the water supply on the Navajo Reservation, and fewer still of the horrendous water pollution dumped by oil and gas companies on the Wind River Reservation, using disposal methods that would be illegal off-reservation, and exposing the local Shoshone people to pollutants such as hydrochloric acid and benzene.
The Water Protectors’ work isn’t anywhere close to finished, in other words, and it would be a shame if those who supported them turned away due to premature declarations of victory.