Standing Rock is only the beginning

After months of protests, the Army Corps of Engineers has denied the easement that would allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed beneath Lake Oahe, the disputed section of the Missouri River that widens just upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation. The decision came as at least 2,000 U.S. Army veterans flowed into the water protector camps to serve as a collective “human shield” between peaceful demonstrators and militarized police.

This looks like a big victory for the water protectors, for indigenous rights at large and for the power of citizens to hold an extractive fossil fuel industry accountable.

Remember, though, that President-elect Donald Trump expressed his support for the pipeline while his transition team claimed that this has nothing to do with his $500,000 investment in the company that’s leading the project. He promised to “eliminate every single wasteful regulation” and remove all “restrictions on the production of shale energy, oil, natural gas and clean coal.” 

On the campaign trail, Trump brazenly denied the existence of climate change and promised to dismantle related government programs. He has repeatedly referred to climate change as a “hoax” and has threatened to renege upon the 2015 Paris Agreement  —  perhaps the most comprehensive international climate accord to date. He has given teeth to his demagoguery by appointing Myron Ebell, a noted climate change skeptic, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even if Trump hadn’t just been elected to the highest office in the land, we’d still have a monumental task ahead of us. In 2008, NASA’s James Hansen and nine co-authors wrote: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.” Eight years later, as the global average carbon concentration careens into the 405–410 ppm range, scientists and policymakers now describe 450 ppm as the “danger zone” beyond which we may have no recourse.

The problem is compounding at a terrifying rate, and building new infrastructure for the fossil fuel industry certainly doesn’t help. Even though the DAPL has been delayed, there are still a number of pipelines in development throughout the U.S. and Canada. In fact, the Canadian government has just signed off on two new major pipelines that will capitalize upon the nation’s lucrative oil sands.

The day after the Army Corps decision, Energy Transfer Partners released a statement that the corporations behind the pipeline 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.” ETP will need to renegotiate various investment contracts for the DAPL when they expire in January, and the partnership is scrambling to reassure those who are funding the construction. Some of the investors may pull out for financial or political reasons, but many will decide to keep their money committed to the project.

All in all, it seems unlikely that the denial of this particular easement will prevent Energy Transfer Partners from redirecting and eventually completing the Dakota Access project. Even if the pipeline is built along an alternate route, it will almost certainly still cross the Missouri.

Indeed, these are tenuous times for environmental justice. Standing Rock is no isolated incident, and it’s always easier to ignore these things when they aren’t happening in our backyards. That said: In the past few months, I’ve seen so many good people stand up to be counted for their values. Together, we make up the social mycelium that creates or subsumes all governments, corporations and institutions. Together, we are powerful, and that’s why I have hope.

May this movement serve as an inspiration and a blueprint in the coming weeks, months and years. Remember the lessons of Standing Rock, and don’t stop caring. Mni Wiconi.

Tommy Alexander writes for various local publications about the intersections between community, politics and the environment.

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