The pipes for the North Dakota oil pipeline that will pierce through the state's fields and rivers Photograph: (Others)
The Dakota pipeline project reveals that developmental objectives of the nation-state take precedence over people's choice
Daniel Martin is fourteen, plays basketball, fishes in the Missouri River that winds past his village. His placid life, like many others of the area, suddenly got ruffled by the decision of Energy Transfer—the “Big Oil” company—to build a huge oil pipeline in the area. As people flocked in from all parts of the US protesting the construction of the pipeline in the Missouri riverbed, Daniel wrote an open letter to the Army Corps of Engineers and Jo-Ellen Darcy, the US assistant secretary of the army from the civil works department. Daniel’s letter, along with those of other local kids, conveys a deep sense of anguish at the dangers a leakage in the oil pipeline will pose to their home, to the environment, and to the planet. The letters contribute to the political exchanges that have developed around the pipeline; they bring to light the complicated relationship development shares with the notion of a “living community” of humans and nonhumans.
The pipeline, which will be approximately 1,172-miles long, is designed to connect Bakken and Three Forks production areas in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. Once built, the pipeline will enable domestically produced light sweet crude oil from North Dakota to reach major refining markets across the Midwest, East coast as well as the Gulf Coast. Designed to travel through 50 counties in four US states, the pipeline has triggered a huge democratic protest movement, involving the Native Indian tribes, such as the Meskwaki and Sioux, farming communities, landowners associations, as well as various conservation groups.
The movement has closely braided multiple issues related to environmental safety, property rights, and natives’ ways of life. In response to the growing movement, Energy Transfer has come up with an equally forceful argument in support of the construction project. Use of numbers has become a forceful tool to justify the project. The official documents published by Energy Transfer is replete with enticing figures, such as how much oil the pipeline will be able to carry: 470,000 barrels of crude oil/day; how many work opportunities it will create: 40 permanent jobs; how far-reaching will be the tertiary economic impact: 8,200-12,000 temporary jobs; how will it impact the agricultural sector: by bringing down tariffs on transported crops which has shot up from $50 to $1400 per car. The march of numbers continues in different official sites. This quantitative rationale has understandably outshone protests of the people who are, primarily, relying on a subjective and personal interpretation of the world around them.
Thus, when Anna Lee, 13-year-old from Standing Rock Middle School critiqued the pipeline project, fearing what it might do to the garden, chickens and horses that her grandparents have raised in their farms along the banks of the Missouri River, it does not sound as pertaining to the national interests as does the energy needs of the American citizens; a point which Energy Partners have consistently emphasised. The purpose of the Dakota pipeline, evidently, is to act as the “critical link”; to help close the gap between production of oil in the USA and what the country actually consumes. This independence will not simply be economic in nature, it implies that the US will be now “truly” independent from the “unstable” region of the world. It is not difficult to assume how much political economic leverage the US will gain from the successful completion of this project.
In talking about the danger of oil seepage, the letters of the school students exhibit an enormous power of inclusion. Rather than talking exclusively in terms of dangers to humans, the letters include “horses” and “fishes”, “dogs” and “birds”, who are considered to be equally at peril by the possibility of oil seepage. Lannelle, a 13-year-old from Cannon Ball, North Dakota, refers to the web of life that human and nonhumans have woven through evolution. She writes, “Water is important to me and everyone else. The animals could die because of oil spills. We need our water and animals to help us live.” Missouri, just like any major rivers of the world, is a strong yet supple thread, which binds different regions and life forms together. The pipelines, on being passed through the river channel, carry the threat of puncturing these valuable linkages.
On the other hand, Energy Partners’ response to the potential threat of an oil disaster is a very technocratic one. For instance, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) authority understands environmental safety in terms of design, construction, operation, and maintenance. They talk about inspection with x-rays, installing pressure and temperature sensors, conducting hydro-tests, having provisions for a remote controlled emergency shutdown, so on and so forth. It is clear from their statement that the company is satisfied with their safety standards, having implemented all state and federal standards. In some instances, the claim is, they have “exceed(ed)” government safety standards to “ensure a long-term, safe and reliable pipeline".
Having said that, it is equally clear from the company’s action of physically countering the protestors—in injuring and intimidating them—that DAPL not only disregards the people’s right to dissent but have shown complete contempt to the environmental ideas of the protesters too.
The bank of the Missouri River has, therefore, become the contesting ground where the technocratic developmentalist vision plays out against the worldview that champions the intricacies of ecosystems, deeper social factors, and ethical issues. The letter of Ethan Thunder Hawk embodies the latter position; his concern for “the environment” as a whole, how “the air will turn brown” and “no birds will fly in sky and other animals will die” reflects a holistic worldview. Such an outlook is, however, not peculiar of the Native Indian environmental discourse, but significantly overlaps with recent developments in environmental science.
Since the 1960s, the scientific discipline of ecology branched out into an in-depth study of the ecosystem. The principles of ecosystem do not acknowledge the distinctions among the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms: an idea that all letters from the school children of North Dakota have alluded too. Ecology talks about innumerable ecosystems, comprising of the microscopic as well as the planetary. Moreover, this branch of scientific study emphasises that all elements—living or nonliving—are essential for the continuation of webs of life. Thus, the care and reverence for the environment that we commonly adjudicate to the realm of metaphysical is actually upheld and practised by the scientific communities worldwide, and not exclusively by Native Indians.
An oil pipeline is an uber expensive project; it is meant to serve generations. But oil being an exhaustible resource, an oil pipeline always stands the chance of being abandoned. Between 2015-16, the Royal Dutch Shell Company abandoned two drilling ventures on economic grounds. The environment, on the other hand, is not a dispensable commodity. Soil and water, air and light are shared across generations. Damaging these elements causes death, dislocation, misery and impoverishment, as have been evident in the Great Smog of 1952 in London, Amoco Cadiz oil spill in 1978, Bhopal gas tragedy and Ok Tedi disaster in 1984, among others.
For ages, humans have been trying hard to fit the earth’s contour to its development goals. Environmental historian William Cronon writes that when the Europeans first reached north America, they wanted to transform the “remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness” into “a second England for fertileness” in matter of a generation. Time has passed, and we still continue to aspire to bring industrial development to all corners of the world. It continues to be seen as a civilisation act: a progressive movement from savagery to ever more sophisticated living. It is that mindset again which is driving companies, such as the Energy Partners to teach, however, forcefully, the essentials of modern living to a group of recalcitrant people.
The project at North Dakota reveals that developmental objectives of the nation-state have taken precedence, again. The people’s voices are stifled in the very name of bringing development to the people of the country.