Water Is Life, Oil Is Death: The People vs. the Bakken Pipeline in Iowa and the Dakotas

Published on
by

Water Is Life, Oil Is Death: The People vs. the Bakken Pipeline in Iowa and the Dakotas

Following the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' recent approval of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, a coalition of environmental activists held a rally in New York City's Union Square Park to oppose the project. (Photo: Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)

The American version of democracy focuses on elections and candidates. As the venerable left intellectual Noam Chomsky observed in June, “Citizenship means every four years you put a mark somewhere and you go home and let other guys run the world. It’s a very destructive ideology … a way of making people passive, submissive objects.” Chomsky added that we “ought to teach kids that elections take place, but that’s not [all of] politics.” There’s also the more urgent and serious politics of popular social movements and direct action beneath and beyond the election cycle.

We might refine Chomsky’s maxim to read “and let rich guys run the world into the ground” or “let rich guys ruin the world.” With anthropogenic (really “capitalogenic”) global warming, the nation and world’s corporate and financial oligarchs are bringing the planet to the brink of an epic ecosystem collapse.

We might also put some meat on the bones of Chomsky’s pedagogical advice by “teach[ing] kids” about the people’s politics being practiced in the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains by citizen activists fighting to help avert ecological calamity by blocking construction of what North Dakota Sioux leader David Archambault II calls “a black snake” of “greed.” The snake in question is the planet-baking Dakota Access/Bakken pipeline, what Iowa activists call “The Next Keystone XL.”

 Against the odds

While Iowa Berned, Dakota Access Worked Behind the Scenes

As progressives flocked to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ impressive rallies in Iowa (like this one) over the past year, the Texas-based company Dakota Access LLC, a division of the ecocidal corporation Energy Transfer Partners LP, moved methodically ahead with its plan to build the Bakken pipeline. This $3.8 billion, 1,134-mile project would carry 540,000 barrels of primarily fracked crude oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken oil patch” daily on a diagonal course through sacred North Dakota Sioux tribal sites and burial grounds, South Dakota, Iowa, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and many other major waterways, to Patoka, Ill. It would link with another pipeline that will transport the black gold to terminals and refineries along the Gulf of Mexico for export to the global market.

In March, five weeks after Sanders essentially tied Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus, the corporate-captive Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) approved the giant Iowa portion of the project, granting Dakota Access eminent domain across the entire route through 18 counties—the last major administrative hurdle for the project. The “regulatory” boards in the other three states had already signed off. There was still some slim hope that the Army Corps of Engineers could be persuaded to block the project. That hope was dashed July 25. 

Dakota Access construction crews have begun moving dirt and tearing up farmers’ crops along the pipeline’s projected path. Pipeline workers with out-of-state license plates are showing up in hotels, motels and camps—and on dating sites like “Plenty of Fish”—along the route. Construction began in South Dakota, North Dakota and Illinois in May. Pipe has been laid in Lee County in Iowa’s southeast corner and Lyon County in the northwest. Last week, a pipeline trench crossed the popular Chichaqua Valley Trail in central Iowa. A young woman from central Iowa reports that a local dating website is “swarming” with out-of-state pipeline workers staying in campsites and elsewhere.

Dakota Access first applied to the IUB for a pipeline permit in the fall of 2014, just before Sanders’ first visit to Iowa. Slowly but surely, as media-driven popular excitement over the largely Iowa-focused presidential contest built last year, the company quietly pressed ahead with a public relations offensive (with a strong emphasis on “jobs for Iowans”) against the opposition of environmentalists and concerned citizens. There was only one formal IUB public hearing, and it lasted just one day. The opponents of the pipeline represented a cross-section of Iowans. The proponents were almost entirely from construction unions, many from out of state. Opponents who attended multiple “informational meetings” staged by Dakota Access reported numerous blatant inconsistencies, contradictions and lies in the “facts” presented by the company. While the state dived further into the quadrennial caucus commotion, Dakota Access moved the pipeline through the required administrative and public relations hoops under the media-politics radar.

The stakes are high in the fight against the project. “If the Bakken Pipeline is built,” the progressive lobbying organization Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) notes, “it would seriously harm Iowa’s already impaired water quality, threaten the integrity of the fertile farmland of thousands of everyday Iowans, and contribute to our dependence on fossil fuels. This steers us away from developing renewable energy infrastructure and curbing the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.” CCI is part of a broad statewide anti-Bakken group called the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition (BPRC) that includes more than 30 organizations. BPRC is engaged in the difficult work of grass-roots politics and direct action—both legal and extra-legal—beneath and beyond the major-party and candidate-centered presidential election extravaganzas that take early root in Iowa (thanks to its first-in-the-nation caucuses) every four years.

A Fake ‘Public Utility’

The IUB’s decision in March was rich with Orwellian irony. Iowa law forbids the condemning of agricultural land for private development. It is true, as Dakota Access argues, that the law excludes utilities under the jurisdiction of the IUB from the private development limitation. And that includes pipelines if they serve a “public purpose.” But this pipeline would simply transport oil through Iowa and therefore serve no discernible public good for the state and, in fact, promises to do considerable harm to the state’s environmental and financial health. Opponents rightly point out that like all pipelines, it will eventually spill, and Dakota Access LLC will leave Iowa holding the bag for the cleanup.

Like something out of Kafka, the IUB will have no power to enforce any kind of public regulations whatsoever on the operators of the private interstate pipeline they approved as a “public utility.” 

The IUB’s decision was another example among many that Iowa is up for sale to big business under the right-wing administration of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

The giant Canadian pipeline company Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum are impressed by Dakota Access’ success in gaining the approval of “regulators.” The two corporations recently put up $2 billion ($1.5 billion from Enbridge and $500,000 from Marathon) to purchase 49 percent of the Bakken pipeline. A likely consequence if the project is completed is that Canadian tar-sands oil will flow through the pipeline—and Iowa—toward the Gulf Coast. That oil is one of the most carbon-rich, planet-cooking fossil fuels on earth. Dire environmental concern about the mining of Canadian tar sands oil was the main reason climate activists like Bill McKibben engaged in high-profile protests of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—a leading news story a few years ago.

Enbridge’s big buy-in is unsurprising to knowledgeable environmental researchers and activists. In February, a coalition of leading environmental groups produced a report showing that the company has been carefully patching together a massive pipeline network across the Great Lakes region. Enbridge wants to boost the volume of tar sands crude flowing through its pipeline system—collectively known as “Enbridge GXL”—to more than 1 million barrels a day. That is considerably more than what was expected from Keystone XL. The report, titled “Enbridge Over Troubled Waters,” finds that the Canadian firm has worked behind closed doors with government regulators to dodge the kind of open public environmental review that undid Keystone XL. The study also highlights Enbridge’s terrible environmental record, noting that the company was responsible for the largest inland pipeline disaster in U.S. history—a July 2010 spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Enbridge pipelines caused more than 800 spills in the U.S. and Canada between 1999 and 2010, pouring nearly 7 million gallons of oil into North American woodlands, fields and waterways.

Enbridge is coming off a major defeat at the hands of Native American and other activists who mounted a successful four-year campaign to block the company’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline in Minnesota. The firm is turning to the Bakken project as an “alternate route.”

Following the business press, one might conclude that the project’s completion is a slam dunk. A report in Bloomberg Business News three weeks ago reported that in the judgment of the paper’s “intelligence analyst” Michael Kay, “The Bakken Pipeline System is under construction and expected online by the end of 2016.” Bloomberg thought it was a done deal.

But it’s not, thanks in no small part to popular opposition and struggle beneath and beyond the quadrennial electoral extravaganzas that pass for the only politics that matter in the U.S.

Out-of-state pipeline workers report that “people around here hate us” in Iowa. In two central counties, arsonists have damaged $1 million worth of Dakota Access equipment (bulldozers and backhoes). Edward Abbey and his “monkey wrench gang” would have approved.

A central Iowa county sheriff arrested a 63-year-old Fort Dodge military veteran named Homer Martz on the charge of “desecrating the American flag.” Martz had hung the flag upside down on a flagpole outside his home, underneath a Chinese flag. He put up a sign that read: “In China there is no freedom, no due process. In Iowa? In America?” 

Martz told the Fort Dodge Messenger that he did this as a protest because of his frustration over “having no say in the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline near the well that serves as the drinking water source for his home.” (The charge against Martz was dropped because it was based on a law ruled unconstitutional two years ago.)

Wednesday, the normally staid editorial board of the state’s leading paper, The Des Moines Register, defended Martz’s action for “rais[ing] a valid point about infringement on liberties.” The paper said that the proposed pipeline was “creating legitimate fears about oil spills, ruined farmland and contaminated water.” It noted that “like many Americans, Iowans don’t take kindly to their land being seized or jeopardized.”

Legal Resistance

Fifteen of those landowning Iowans have filed a lawsuit against the IUB’s eminent domain authority; hearings began Friday at Polk County District Court in Des Moines. The suit challenges the spurious “public utility” claims behind the agency’s decision and could result in the suspension of the project statewide.

The project also faces legal challenges in North Dakota. On Thursday, Dakota Access agreed to halt construction on the western side of the Missouri River in southern North Dakota until a federal court hearing in Washington this week. The partial and “temporary” (according to the company) shutdown follows months of protests and growing tensions over the company’s attempt to drill beneath the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota.

Iowa’s leading anti-Bakken activists have been playing by the official rules. They’ve gone through all available official procedures and appeals. They’ve written and delivered carefully worded petitions and given polite, fact-filled testimony to all the relevant, corporate-captive regulatory bodies. They’ve met and communicated with the Army Corps and numerous other relevant federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. They’ve sued in court, defending farmers’ traditional American-as-apple-pie private property rights. Along the way they’ve caucused for Sanders (who denounced the pipeline in some of his Iowa speeches and ads) and reached out to Hillary Clinton, who switched from pro- to anti-Keystone pipeline for campaign purposes (but who nonetheless cozies up to leading fracking companies) after leaving her position as secretary of state. They hand residents fliers asking them to call the White House and give President Obama this message: “This is the new Keystone XL. You can stop this pipeline. You must stop this pipeline.”

Still, the environmental necessity of stopping the project and the possibility that playing by the rules will be to no avail have convinced Iowa activists that they also need to plan significant acts of civil disobedience. And here they are taking notes on the struggle and tactics of Native American comrades to their north and the long history of the success of civil disobedience in forcing social and political change.

The direct-action leaders in the fight against Bakken are indigenous activists in North Dakota. Militant action already is underway along the Missouri River, led by indigenous Sioux from the Standing Rock Reservation, the onetime home of Sitting Bull. These activist Native Americans are heirs of the continent’s first human inhabitants, who always understood the need to live in harmony with the natural environment.

The Standing Rock Sioux have set up a “Camp of the Sacred Stones,” a prayer and protest site to monitor and resist Dakota Access’ effort to lay pipe beneath the Missouri River. In the words of a camp spokesperson in April, the “proposed Dakota Access Pipeline” is “a direct life or death threat to the Dakota, Nakota and Lakota people. We must save sacred water for the future generation.” For many weeks now, tribal members and supporters from around the region and country have used the camp as a base from which to conduct peaceful protest marches, river flotillas and prayer groups. They have faced arrest by standing and sitting in the path of the pipeline, “ready to halt crews from drilling beneath the Missouri River and endangering the water source of Indian Nations with crude oil,” Brenda Norrell reports. Native American female warriors have blocked and occupied construction machinery. Dozens of indigenous “pipeline fighters” have been arrested, some in brutal fashion. An inter-tribal relay team of Native American youths even ran from Standing Rock to the White House this summer to deliver a No Bakken petition with 160,000 signatures.

The Standing Rock Sioux have received solidarity and reinforcements from the Oglala Sioux at the legendary Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. As of Friday afternoon, the number of anti-pipeline activists in and around the camp had grown from an original 15 to over 1,000. Local and state police were setting up barricades and redirecting traffic to reduce the number of protesters, while a state police surveillance plane flew above. Drones and helicopters also buzzed overhead.

No Prior First Nation Consent

Anti-Bakken activist attorneys have discovered that one of (Dakota Access parent company) Energy Transfer Partners’ leading creditors and investors is the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). Five and a half years ago, RBC pledged to honor the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by refusing to invest in development projects opposed by “First Nations” people. The declaration requires “free, prior and informed consent for development impacting Indian land, territories and waters.” Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director the Science and Environmental Health Network, says that while RBC’s pledge may not be legally actionable against Dakota Access, it is a valuable part of the moral and public relations case against the pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American groups in Iowa and the Dakotas have clearly withheld consent to the partly RBC-funded Bakken pipeline. And last week, the tribe and the International Indian Treaty Council appealed for help to the United Nations, citing the declaration.

Anti-pipeline activists in the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains have adopted the Sioux saying Mni wiconi: “Water is life.” It’s a fitting maxim in the river- and stream-filled state of Iowa, which is bordered by the great Mississippi and Missouri rivers. 

Peaceful civil disobedience to block construction is imminent in Iowa. At the very white and middle-class Iowa City Farmers Market two weekends ago, anti-Bakken organizers signed up people ready to face arrest. One of the activists and signatories is Richard Lamb, 73, a courteous, retired educational psychologist and Vietnam War veteran who owns a 300-acre farm that has already been partly torn up by Dakota Access. The farm has been in Lamb’s family—just one step removed from original Native American ownership—since the 1870s. Lamb is one of the 15 landowners suing the IUB, but he has also recently received civil disobedience training alongside fellow environmentalists.

It’s no time for “Iowa nice.” Big Carbon is not bashful about pushing legal limits and offending the state’s famously polite “farm folks” along the way. The cowboy-boot-wearing officials of Dakota Access—rich guys out to ruin livable ecology—hope to build as much of the pipeline in Iowa as possible before a ruling comes down from the Polk County court. They don’t mind having their workers rip up farmers’ crops and trees along the way.

In the days leading up to the electoral holy day that is the Iowa presidential caucus, the state was briefly home to a large number of Bernie Sanders-backing political visitors. They had out-of-state license plates and banners on the sides of their vans and SUVs proclaiming that “The Revolution Starts Here.” The slogan was printed inside an outline of the state of Iowa. Now is a good time for activists concerned about preserving livable ecology from the profit gluttony of capitalism to return to the upper Midwest for a different, more “revolutionary” kind of politics.

The nation’s unelected dictatorship of money and oil knows very well that politics is about more than elections. The petro-oligarchs pursue their government-corrupting pillaging of the common good and profit-addicted poisoning of the well to fuel their never-ending growth on a year-round, 24/7 basis.

You can contribute to the Sacred Stones protest camp here and to the Iowa Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition here.

Paul Street

Paul Street

Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books, including “Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis” (2007), “The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power” (2010), and “They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy” (2014), and a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Z Magazine/ZNet, Black Agenda Report and teleSUR English. He has taught American history at several Chicago-area colleges and universities and currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Share This Article