Nothing better demonstrates President Obama's fundamental failure on climate change than his mealy-mouthed approach to the Dakota Access pipeline. Donald Trump has been elected president promising to throw all Obama's climate half measures — inadequate but still far better than nothing — in the trash, and so far Obama has done nothing but dither and procrastinate.
He could stop this pipeline today, and in so doing hand a big victory to the climate activists who are trying to confront the biggest threat to human society that exists. What's the holdup?
First, let's review what has happened over the last few months and years. Oil companies have been looking for new ways to get the oil fracked out of the Bakken Formation in North Dakota to market for years, and many pipelines are part of that effort. Construction on Dakota Access, which would move nearly half a million barrels of oil per day, began in 2014, and is now mostly completed. The only remaining portion is near the border between North and South Dakota.
Originally this was proposed to go north of Bismarck, but that location was nixed for a variety of reasons, one of them being the proximity to the local water supply. An alternative location through territory just north of the Standing Rock reservation was chosen — partly because it is a shorter route, but also because the only obstacles are politically powerless Native Americans.
But this pipeline would also threaten the Standing Rock water supply. It will go under the northern section of Lake Oahe (the fourth-largest reservoir in the United States), only just downstream from where the Standing Rock tribes get their water. So it is not surprising that the tribe — just like the residents of Bismarck — mobilized to try to stop or divert the pipeline. But because they have little money and hence virtually no political voice, direct action was all they had.
The native protest quickly garnered the support of thousands of outside sympathizers. Confrontations with police and private security guards have been consistently horrendous. The clashes are too extensive to summarize in detail, but private security dogs have savaged protesters, heavily armed police have beaten, pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, sprayed with freezing cold water, and arrested them. Journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now was charged with criminal trespassing because her coverage was "justifying the protest actions," according to the local prosecutor. A 21-year-old woman from the Bronx lost much of her arm when she was hit with what her father describes as a "concussion grenade," though police said it was a propane tank accidentally detonated by the protesters.
The massive force deployed against pipeline protesters fits into an old and very, very dark pattern. The U.S. government's record towards American Indians is frankly genocidal; the Standing Rock tribes are no exception. They claim, with perfect justice, that natives had clear title to the ground on which the pipeline is being built under an 1851 treaty. That treaty was, like virtually all such agreements, immediately breached by white settlers hungry for land and gold. Natives fought back, war ensued, and the government stepped in with the army to force a new treaty which took away vast swaths of land. The same process happened again in 1868; the extant reservations now are basically the only pieces of land thieving whites didn't want.
On political grounds, one can quibble with the precise choice of political arena for this protest. The Dakota Access pipeline is only a tiny fraction of U.S. oil-moving capacity, and will make little difference to overall carbon emissions. However, arguments that it will make no difference are unconvincing; restricting supply will of course nibble away at use — if the pipeline will not affect oil capacity in the slightest, why would they be building it in the first place?
At any rate, as with the Keystone XL pipeline, the real meat of the politics here is about symbolism and organizing. As I argued earlier, the election of Donald Trump is a screaming emergency for climate policy, and the American left writ large (and by extension the whole of human society) is crying out for some sort of organized movement to push for aggressive climate policy. The Standing Rock protesters, like the Keystone XL ones before them, are the most prominent and visible people in the country at the moment fighting on the most pressing political issue in the world — an issue which obviously requires an all-hands-on-deck pitched battle right now. Their actions might not be perfectly calibrated from an econometrics perspective. But they are right on the politics, right on the symbolism, and right on the movement-building. The oil industry, together with the natural gas and coal industries, is a clear and present danger to human society as it currently exists. It's time we started treating them like it.
All the pipeline needs now is a permit to build under Lake Oahe. President Obama could halt, or at least badly delay, the pipeline by directing a lot of environmental impact studies and other such foot-dragging. The only possible justification for not doing it is the profits of oil companies.