Oil? Bad. Standing up for human rights and the environment? Good.

By Maia Wikler
Jul 09, 2020 @ 6:22 pm
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

If there’s anything that people in traditional power structures would like to have us believe, it’s that activism doesn’t work, and that youth are not capable of leading large scale political change. (We’re still up against the stereotype that young people are “too lazy” to even vote, after all.) But this historic week has shown the world that an unwavering, bold vision for justice that is grounded in community really does work. Within the span of a few days, progress on the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and the Dakota Access Pipeline were brought to a halt — and grassroots activists are responsible for that feat. In an American culture that emphasizes instant gratification, convenience, and selective histories, the activists’ marathon resistance against the pipelines — at this point years-long — is a revolutionary act in and of itself. 

Four years ago, in 2016, a group of Sioux youth pitched their tents in below-freezing temperatures. They had a bold vision for a ceremonial resistance camp, Sacred Stone, inspired by the resistance camps erected in opposition of Keystone XL. It was an “unlikely seed from which the movement had grown: an anti-suicide campaign among a tight-knit group of youths, most younger than 25, impelled by tragedy and guided by prophecy,” the New York Times reported. The youth saw water — the purity of which they say was threatened by the pipelines — as a unifying issue, and they decided to ramp up their efforts to protect their access to clean water with a 500-mile relay run from the Sacred Stone Camp to Omaha to deliver a petition to the Army Corps of Engineers. With a social media campaign and calls to various reservations, what started out as a dozen youth soon became over 10,000 supporters at the resistance camp to protect Indigenous rights and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). 

The controversy behind the ill-fated pipeline lies within its racist underpinnings. DAPL was initially re-routed from the 90% white community of Bismarck, N. Dak., to the 84% Native community on traditional lands of the Sioux, whose reservation was not even acknowledged on the proposed pipeline map. The re-route meant half a million barrels of oil a day moved beneath the Missouri River, the main source of water for the Standing Rock Sioux. Standing Rock Sioux supporters made a clear statement that they were water protectors and land defenders, rather than “protesters,” claiming that the word has negative, colonized connotations that undermine the greater message and cause they were advocating for. As international attention and solidarity for Indigenous sovereignty ramped up, so too did the militarization of the pipeline, with the violent forced removal of water protectors and land defenders. The legitimacy of concerns over risks to waterways and the environment from the pipeline didn’t take long to materialize. DAPL was touted as “one of the safest, most technologically advanced pipelines in the world'' by Dakota Access, LLC (controlled by Energy Transfer Partners). Yet, within the first few months of operation in 2017, the pipeline leaked at least five times.

Now, four years after the youth staked their tents, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to be emptied (it carried 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day) and shut down within 30 days. In its reasoning, the court said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This ruling falls one day after Dominion Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp decided to abandon the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline in West Virginia. In another win for the activists, the U.S. Supreme Court on that same Monday blocked construction that was to begin on the Keystone XL pipeline; the Court blocked the use of a key federal permit that allows dredging work on pipelines across water bodies. After years of risking arrest, not to mention, their well-being, the activists finally saw their hard work pay off. 

The victorious, people-powered fight to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline began six years ago in 2014 with more than 50 organizations joining together to form the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance. The proposed 600-mile fracked gas pipeline would have crossed the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, over steep mountain slopes, through rugged national forests and thousands of rivers and streams, and African-American and Native communities. The pipeline was slated for operation by 2018, but years of mounting public pressure, legal challenges and grassroots organizing paid off in costly delays that nearly doubled its estimated costs from $4.5 billion to at least $8 billion. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette’s recent press statement quells any doubts that activism is a lost cause. “The well-funded, obstructionist environmental lobby has successfully killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Brouillette wrote, adding that the project is “no longer economically viable due to the costly legal battles they would continue to face.” 

The recent sweeping losses for the fossil fuel industry show that companies and governments must heed Indigenous rights and account for environmental and social risks when investing billions of dollars into their pipeline dreams. The multi-pronged approach of legal and direct action, visionary youth leadership, and grassroots mobilization can achieve change in the face of oppressive corporate greed.

Standing Rock, Keystone XL and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are part of a greater movement for climate justice that is grounded in an ongoing resistance against colonial violence, which prioritizes profit over lives and seeks to erase Indigenous people from their ancestral lands. The recent arrests from the July 3 Mount Rushmore protests in response to President Trump’s rally, show that the legacy of silencing Indigenous peoples through violence is far from over. The Black Hills are part of the broken Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, lands which the Lakota have not relinquished, and which they are demanding be returned to tribal authority. However, a historic ruling by the Supreme Court recognizing the treaties between the U.S. and Indigenous people may prove that once again, advocacy and resistance in the face of injustice are effective, as long as we persevere. 

Nick Estes, citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and co-founder of The Red Nation wrote, “The flurry of anti-protest laws that have been considered in dozens of states in the wake of Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL proves that the people themselves and their demands for a dignified life threaten the powerful. It has been forgotten that the current Green New Deal (GND) legislation was only possible because its main proponent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was inspired by the NoDAPL uprising. Indigenous people are, and have always been, at the forefront of the struggle for climate justice.”

The fight for climate justice is a fight for sovereignty, for the freedom from the suffocating oppression of capitalism and colonialism. Each pipeline that is stopped and each waterway protected, is a testament to the power that exists in community and a step toward the restoration of our collective humanity.

Maia Wikler is a PhD candidate, filmmaker, writer and climate justice activist.