The Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Which Isn’t Really About a Pipeline

Protesters of the Dakota Access pipeline and officers face off at a work site of the pipeline south of Mandan, N.D. photo by Michael Knudsen of Bismarck

Things are getting heated on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation as activists strut before the news media and bait law enforcement into arresting them, ostensibly in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

There is even at least one celebrity involved. Actress Shailene Woodley, star of some movies you probably haven’t seen, has been on the scene vowing to camp out on the North Dakota prairie until the pipeline project is brought to a halt.

The protesters say the pipeline, which crosses the Missouri River at its confluence with the Cannon Ball river near the reservation, puts clean water at risk. That’s certainly an important issue for the reservation, which draws its drinking water from the river near the pipeline crossing, but it’s worth remembering that the American landscape is dotted with pipelines crossing rivers. There are thousands upon thousands of pipelines in America, and building them would have been impossible if we didn’t know how to get them across rivers.

The activists air-dropping into North Dakota from all over the country, and even the world, are not anti-pipeline so much as they’re anti-oil.

Which makes the claims of the protesters about the Dakota Access project curious. This project is nothing new. It’s an important bit of infrastructure for America’s renewed energy industry. It’s of particular importance to North Dakota’s oil industry in that it will ease oil transport headaches and make development in this state more resilient to low prices.

As new infrastructure, it’s a game changer. But in terms of its actual construction? This isn’t groundbreaking stuff.

But then, these protests aren’t really about the pipeline. They’re about obstructing infrastructure which would support the on-going development of oil resources.

The activists air-dropping into North Dakota from all over the country, and even the world, are not anti-pipeline so much as they’re anti-oil. That’s an important distinction. While it may be within the realm of the reasonable to protest a specific infrastructure project, I think most Americans would consider trying to choke the domestic oil industry to death by blocking infrastructure to be an extreme goal.

Don’t believe me? Consider the website for EarthJustice, an activist group which has filed a lawsuit against the pipeline on behalf of the Standing Rock tribe and is currently seeking an injunction to block legally the on-going construction protesters like Woodley are trying to block physically.

The group describes themselves as “opposing infrastructure development that could lock us into decades of dirty fuels.”

“We are working with affected communities to fight pipelines, export terminals and other major infrastructure projects that will spur more gas drilling and burning for decades to come,” the group says in the portion of their website dedicated to describing their work.

Block the infrastructure, block the development.

Consider, also, the words of Woodley herself describing her activism against the Dakota Access line as motivated by a role she took in a movie about a dystopian future ravaged by global warming:

Woodley said she wanted the futuristic Divergent role because of her beliefs about fossil fuels causing climate change and her fears that a water-starved planet could someday resemble World War III.

“I had that awareness; that’s why I did the movie. I can imagine a day when people are dying and paying for a drink of water. Every day, we choose the course we take and I don’t want that to happen and think I could have chosen to act,” she said. “Native Americans understand what we don’t, that water and the land is life. What happens to the water here on Standing Rock affects people in Los Angeles.”

In other words, according to Woodley, we have to stop developing oil to stave off the sort of global apocalypse predicted in shallow science fiction tropes. And the best way to do that is to obstruct pipeline projects.

I very much doubt that Woodley and her fellow protesters have ever considered what the quality of life might be for the average American if we stopped producing oil and all petroleum-based products. But then, deep thinking isn’t exactly a hallmark of this sort of activist.

Sadly, though, this sort of war of attrition against pipelines has been effective. It has successfully derailed the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum have now invested in the Dakota Access project, switching allegiance from the Sandpiper line which would run east instead of south, seemingly because the latter project has successfully been blocked by activists in Minnesota.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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