Pipeline Activism and State Monopolies on Violence

by Graham Pickren

I’m teaching SUST 310 – Energy and Climate Change this semester in the Sustainability Studies Program at Roosevelt University, and over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been focusing on the increasingly important role that energy infrastructure plays in climate politics. The decade-long boom (which is already slowing down) in North American energy production has been driven by the extraction of oil and gas from what are referred to as ‘unconventional’ sources, namely, tar sands and shale. These harder to recover sources of fossil fuels have become game-changers in the North American political economy of energy primarily because high-prices and technologies such as horizontal drilling have made it profitable to recover these fuels.

Despite being widely (and justifiably) mocked, Sarah Palin’s mantra of ‘drill baby, drill!’ has largely defined both U.S. and Canadian energy policy, and leaders of both countries have embraced ‘energy independence’ while largely paying lip-service to the climate implications of that strategy. ‘Drill baby, drill’ may indeed mean that the U.S. is less-reliant on scary Russians for gas, but the immediate and long-term consequences of burning these fuels are far more threatening.

Consider that tar sands oil, a type of ‘heavy’ hydrocarbon, generates as much as 20% more carbon emissions that conventional oil when accounting for the full life-cycle of production (extraction, distribution, and consumption). No wonder James Hansen has said that releasing the carbon trapped in the Alberta tar sands would be ‘game over’ for the planet in terms of climate change.

The Alberta Tar Sands. Not at all like a post-apocalyptic hell-scape. Image from EliasSchewel (Flickr)

The Alberta Tar Sands. Not at all like a post-apocalyptic hell-scape. Image from EliasSchewel (Flickr)

Recognizing that the U.S. and Canada have loads of fossil fuels and fully intend to bring them to market, activists and citizens concerned with climate change have had to embrace political strategies that go beyond the traditional approaches of lobbying for regulation and legislation. Jim Robbins, in a great essay for the Places Journal, captures the core of the issue (emphasis added):

Tar sands mining is legal, and there’s no easy way around that. Climate advocates have concluded that the best hope for the planet is to keep carbon in the ground, and they intend to do that by making it financially painful to transport, by delaying or blocking pipeline and rail development. So the construction of new infrastructures is no longer a local or regional concern, but a global battleground — real and symbolic — for a coalition of native peoples, environmentalists, landowners, and concerned citizens. 

In the case of Canadian tar sands and Bakken oil and gas, the remoteness of these fossil fuel deposits means that huge investments have to be made in order to bring these resources to markets (see map below). Industry would prefer that infrastructure stay invisible, hidden in plain sight, but the politicization of infrastructure by activists has been a masterstroke of social movement organizing. Keystone XL was just another pipeline…until it wasn’t.

Keystone XL was a high profile project, but as the map above shows, there are many other important pipelines connecting unconventional N. American oil and gas to refineries and consumer markets. A more complete map of fossil fuel infrastructure can be found here.

One of these projects is the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, which carries Bakken oil from North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, via South Dakota and Iowa. While Native groups have been fighting DAPL in court since 2014, last spring the opposition to the project began physically occupying and blocking the pipeline construction. Over the summer, that opposition has grown as tribes from all over North America have rallied to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose land the DAPL passes through. An explainer from Bill Moyers’ website neatly summarizes what’s at stake:

The pipeline is being built near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The tribe says the pipeline disturbs sacred sites, infringes on past treaty promises and tribal sovereignty, and is a significant danger to their water supply since it passes underneath the Missouri River — the main source of water for the reservation. An earlier proposal had the pipeline crossing the Missouri north of Bismarck, but authorities were concerned about the risk to the capital’s water supply in the advent of a pipeline spill.

Hmm, so the pipeline was too dangerous to pass through Bismarck but was perfectly acceptable when passing through Native land!? While the details of the DAPL project are incredibly important, my attention is not to summarize them here (instead try this, or this). Instead, what I would like to point out is the continued relevance of sociologist Max Weber’s statement that the state maintains a monopoly on violence. The state requests that citizens and First Nations groups provide their consent to fossil fuel projects, but will not hesitate to use force if that consent is withheld.

As a case in point, on September 3rd, 2016, Amy Goodman’s crew from Democracy Now! captured video footage of a confrontation between private security forces and water protectors (rather than ‘protestors’) that showed security dogs attacking protectors. The video itself is quite dramatic and well worth watching. The woman who says that fossil fuel companies ‘no longer have a social license’ gives me chills every time I watch it:

Despite Obama stepping in and demanding a temporary halt to construction while permits could be reviewed, portions of the pipeline that are on state land (rather than federal land) have seen continued construction. As protests have continued, the governor of North Dakota has unleashed the big guns, literally:

This video, posted earlier today, shows what the militarization of America’s police looks like (Ferguson, MO already knows). Water protectors report being tear-gassed by aircraft (either helicopter or plane, it isn’t entirely clear which) and surrounded by large, military-style heavy vehicles. 21 people were arrested. It has also been reported that protectors on the ground were unable to access Facebook Live during the confrontation. Attempts to livestream the arrival of the police/military were reportedly blocked by Facebook for ‘violation of community standards’, which has led to charges by protectors that Facebook is colluding with state violence.

What these events demonstrate is just how high the stakes are right now. It is also clear that climate change isn’t just an environmental issue – militarization, surveillance, indigeneity, water, air, pipelines, petcoke, bomb trains, property rights, colonialism – they’re all intertwined, people! Furthermore, it is vital to recognize that the #NoDAPL movement is not a parochial, local event. It is about solidarity across geographies.

Pickren GGraham Pickren is Assistant Professor of Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University. A geographer by training, Pickren joined the RU faculty after earning his PhD at the University of Georgia and completing a post-doc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His research and blogging interests include urban geography, urban political ecology, and debates about transitions to a green economy.

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