Dakota Access grass fire could turn into American oil/gas industry inferno

Dakota Access
Native American protestors and their supporters are confronted by security during a demonstration against work being done for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) oil pipeline, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, September 3, 2016.  BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadian First Nations have caused Canadian energy projects to be significantly delayed – in a few cases, maybe cancelled

Indigenous peoples’ opposition to pipelines has been a huge issue in Canada, and could become one in the United States if the Dakota Access pipeline protest by Native Americans isn’t handled more diplomatically.

Dakota Access
National Guardsman called in by North Dakota governor.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has opposed Dakota Access, which will provide badly need pipeline capacity for Bakken crude oil, which has mostly been getting to market via rail – with tragic results in the case of Lac Megantic, Quebec in 2013.

The Rock Sioux’s protests were largely off the national media radar until last Saturday, when the tribe says contractors for the pipeline builders (agroup of firms led by Energy Transfer Partners of Texas) bulldozed tribal burial grounds and sacred sites.

“This demolition is devastating,” Tribal Chairman David Archambault II said in a press release. “These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings there cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground.”

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Tim Mentz, the Standing Rock Sioux’s former tribal historic preservation officer, says he personally surveyed the land and confirmed “multiple graves and specific prayer sites…portions, and possibly complete sites, have been taken out entirely.”

The Standing Rock Sioux have filed suit in US District Court for the District of Columbia to stop construction and a decisio is expected by Sept. 9.

“We’re days away from getting a resolution on the legal issues, and they came in on a holiday weekend and destroyed the site,” said Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “What they have done is absolutely outrageous.”

Violent clashes between site security guards and protestors on Saturday after the bulldozers went through grabbed international headlines. Several protestors were allegedly bit by security dogs.

The site became a public relations disaster for the pipeline company. North Dakota’s governor even activated 100 National Guard troops in anticipation of the Friday’s ruling.

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Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein visited and after defacing a bulldozer blade, maybe charged with vandalism. More importantly, Dakota Access has become a flashpoint for Native American activists from across North America. Representatives of 200 tribes have set up camp in the rolling hills near the confluence of the Missouri and Cannon Ball rivers in sight of the proposed pipeline route, North American Energy News reported Wednesday.

And not surprisingly, the conflict has attracted the attention of national and international eco-activists, who have flocked to North Dakota to support the Standing Rock Sioux and continue their strategy of “Keystoning” every energy infrastructure project in America. (You can read my column on Keystoning here.)

Now, comparing the North Dakota conflict to Canadian First Nations opposition to pipeline projects is difficult. The constitutional, legal, and political context is very different.

But there is one principle that is applicable, and it doesn’t bode well for the pipeline industry.

To explain it, I need to briefly return to an idea I’ve been writing about a lot lately, the shift in political culture over the past decade or so from cognitive legitimacy (facts, science, rule of law, logical argument, etc.) to normative legitimacy (emotional connection, moral questions, etc.).

More emphasis on normative legitimacy shifts the advantage to the protestors. Voters connect emotionally with their plight, which in this case isn’t difficult.

How would we feel if Grandma’s grave was bulldozed to make way for a mall or interstate? Especially if we told the contractor and he didn’t seem to give a flying fig.

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Canadian First Nations have wreaked havoc with energy infrastructure projects. They have launched numerous legal challenges in court and have a string of victories. They enjoy significant political support within the mainstream community on the pipeline issue. And they have plenty of political clout, which they use very astutely to further their aims.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian oil and gas industry has not responded well. It was late grasping the significance of First Nations opposition. And has still not come to grips with the unique cultural and political challenges represented by First Nations.

Even though the industry’s social license to operate is under heavy attack from an alliance of First Nations and eco-activists like Greenpeace, the National Resource Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups that communicate and co-operate across the border.

The entire American oil and gas industry – not just the pipeline proponents – must take the Dakota Access protests and Native American activism seriously.

If it doesn’t, it should prepare to be bulldozed.

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