Dakota Access protests poised to become political debacle for American oil and gas industry

Dakota Access
Dakota Access protestors. Photo: Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

Industry leaders, including Kelcy Warren, have mishandled Dakota Access pipeline protest right from the beginning

Six weeks ago, I warned that the Dakota Access pipeline protest was going to be the next Keystone XL issue for the American oil and gas industry. I was wrong. It’s going to be much worse.

Dakota Access
Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, builder of Dakota Access Pipeline.

Eco-activists have acknowledged that opposing Keystone XL was more than just the pros and cons of the pipeline project. It was about re-energizing the American environmental movement around climate change and against fossil fuels.

From that point of view, it was spectacularly successful. With an ally in the White House, the political momentum created by the process that led up to the Paris climate accord, and funding from the deep pockets of major charities and newly minted “green” billionaires like Tom Steyer, US eco-activists have probably never been as powerful as they are today.

But something is going on with the Dakota Access protests that is likely to make them even more powerful – and influential with the next president and Congress. Something that could be a turning point for the American oil and gas  industry.

That something is the decline of industry’s legitimacy in American political culture.

Erica Ciszek is an assistant professor with the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston. She says that if today were 1950 or even 1990, the American oil and gas industry would have tremendous legitimacy with the American public. Energy producers powered the economy, providing cheap gasoline for consumers and millions of good paying jobs for workers. Fossil fuels were seen as the backbone of the economy. 

Economic strength conferred political legitimacy, says Ciszek: “The oil and gas industry had a political legitimacy that was pretty secure…The companies were viewed positively and they enjoyed political legitimacy as an economic institution, as a social institution.”

dakota access
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Gallup public opinion polling shows how that legitimacy has been eroded over the past decade or so.

When asked, “Which of the following approaches to solving the nations energy problems do you think the US should follow right now?” – 73 per cent of Americans chose emphasizing “alternative energy” over oil and gas.  The partisan split was quite significant: 89 per cent of Democrats and 51 per cent of Republicans. Support for alternative energy was as low as 59 per cent in 2012.

A Pew Research poll conducted in March shows that “74% of U.S. adults said the ‘country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,’ compared with 23% who say ‘the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.’” A 2014 Pew poll found that increasing American oil and gas production didn’t change voters’ views about energy, with those favoring the expansion of “alternative energy” outnumbering those supporting oil and gas by six to three margin.

Changing national attitudes are not a pendulum swing in politics, but a structural shift in political culture driven by changes in energy technology and the way Americans think about energy, says Ciszek.

“These [oil and gas] companies are going to have to recognize the way the landscape has shifted over the past twenty years – it is not the 1990s,” she said.

dakota access
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“I think we’re having a national shift in terms of who we are as a nation, how do we fuel ourselves, both literally and metaphorically and ideologically. The oil and gas industry has a lot of soul-searching to do to figure out what role they’re going to play in the American political narrative in terms of the respective roles of oil and gas, and renewable energy.”

 The national “soul searching” around the energy narrative will not be aided by violent confrontation between Native Americans (supported by well-funded and organized environmental groups) and heavily militarized police forces enforcing the rule of law on behalf of a pipeline company.

That is a losing scenario for the American oil and gas industry already plagued by declining political legitimacy.

Energy Enterprise Partners had a chance to de-escalate tensions with the Standing Rock Sioux – as crisis communications experts always advise. Instead, the company chose to escalate and continue escalating, culminating with the clash Friday between protestors and police forces who looked like they were ready for a war.

Images of armored vehicles and SWAT teams and young women hit in the face with rubber bullets and rumors of arrested protestors being held in dog cages – and so much more – are buzzing around the world on social media. The Standing Rock Sioux are not going away; instead, they have vowed to continue their protest over the winter and have begun crowdfunding online to pay for provisions and housing. Protests have broken out in other parts of the United States in support of the Sioux.

And if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election only 10 days hence, protestors will have a powerful ally in the White House (and possibly in Congress if the Democrats take the Senate, as seems possible).

The Dakota Access protests have the making of a disastrous political and public relations debacle for the industry. One it brought on itself at time when its legitimacy with voters is on the wane.

Industry leaders, including Energy Enterprise Partners CEO Kelcy Warren, should do some immediate soul searching before Dakota Access becomes a much bigger political disaster than Keystone XL ever was.

Unfortunately, it may already be too late.

dakota access
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  1. Delighted to see that this issue, providing strong national support for the South Dakota and numerous other Native Indian tribes is finally becoming publicized and causing national and international reaction. The arrest of peaceful protestors and protecters as well as news reporters is unconscionable and despicable and violates Constitutional rights of the arrestees. It’s time for President Obama to come forward to put a stop to the illegal activities of the BIG OIL Company who refuse to recognize the rights of the tribes.

  2. George Wallace and the Bridge at Selma Alabama resulted in our the civil rights act. Kent State was the end of the Vietnam War. The images of dogs attacking women and children, people being shot with rubber bullets, old people being attacked and wounded by military attired law enforcement is an image the American people can not stomach. The company that is building the pipeline have destroyed the Gas and Oil Industry. The only thing that can change the outcome is to come out against the pipeline that actually will change nothing if completed.

  3. Hillary is pro-fracking and sadly has not made any attempt to speak on behalf of halting the project or to acknowledge the efforts of the protectors taking a stance for the land, water and future for millions of people.
    Hopefully, congress does get flipped so it can be addressed by Bernie.

    • You are right that Hillary is pro-fracking and it is also a fact that under Obama’s tenure as POTUS there has been an unprecedented increase in fracking throughout the USA. So he is also pro-fracking make no doubt about that.. Bernie did write an open letter to President Obama demanding that he halt construction of the pipeline until federal officials conduct a proper environmental and cultural review also asking him to show the same opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline that he took against Keystone. Bernie also urged Obama to send federal observers to see for themselves what is happening to the protesters First Amendment rights.

  4. The statement Hillary put out regarding the water protectors should give them great pause before considering her an ally in the White House. The oil and gas industry loves her and supports her campaign. She’s bought and paid for.

  5. This is an international outrage and a Kelsey Warren needs to be brought up on war crimes as well as Governor Dalrymple and Sheriff Kirschmeier.

    • I have looked on both of the candidates and they have their hands get into the big oil!
      At this moment I pray for my people up and Standing Rock that Justice will be served!
      Our only cause was for our water and not only for the natives but the surrounding area and it turned into a big Warfare.
      My people are called Protectors not protesters and that’s what they became because of the way we were treated!Prayers to all who are involved

  6. This is a thoughtful article, but I think that several other important issues need to be discussed as well.
    1. The oil companies lost the sympathy of many Americans because there has been the perception that our recent military conflicts and alliances are tied to oil. 2. Many of us view the current stand off as just one more example of Americans and the American government not respecting treaties with Indians. The militarization
    Of our police forces is frightening, but it is even more horrifying when the police are enforcing racism and repeating the history we claim to regret. This is especially true when the protestors are striving to keep their side peaceful, even spiritual. Why isn’t the National Guard protecting treaty rights and sacred grounds?
    3. The pipeline was diverted from a city because of perceived danger to the population. Apparently Indian tribes do not matter. In the past, water sources of various tribes have been contaminated with methane and uranium. It is time to draw a line. 4. Water is increasingly becoming a precious commodity to be guarded. It is the cause of migration and conflicts in some parts of the world. Some states, like mine, have faced drought for years and have experienced rationing. We need to protect our water sources for all Americans. .

    • These actions make Big Oil look bad, but they also make many of us wonder about the allegiance of our militarized police. BLM looked like a lot of violent protesters supporting an otherwise reasonable request for change. Now we are Seriously reconsidering that opinion. Infiltrators, violent treatment of well behaved, peaceful water protectors seen by our own eyes on live feeds. That was a very smart move by the water protectors, and the turning point for getting past the otherwise apathetic national media.

  7. Exxon Mobile had a hand in destroying the industry when it covered up their study results that outlined climate change due to gasses released from burning fossil fuels. That egregious act must be repaid.

  8. Oil companies…no more crude oil. Seriously it threatens life. Eventually..there will not be people left to buy the oil you poison them with. Water is life. We can use alternative and renewable energy so please, get on it and make us proud!

  9. Well reasoned essay. I’m afraid it is altogether too optimistic. We no longer live in a democracy. We are no longer represented by a government “by the people and for the people”. Corporations, big money, and the 1% will have their way at any cost. The reality of mother earth on the precipice is of no matter.

  10. This harkens back to the day when disarmed Lakota people were shot down with Hotchkiss guns at the hands of federal troops that is better known as The Wounded Knee Massacre that occurred on December 29, 1890

  11. Hi:
    Excellent article. The only thing I question is the following, “And if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election only 10 days hence, protestors will have a powerful ally in the White House.” I’m not so sure about that. I think for Hillary to be moved to stand up to big oil – the Senate must have the strong leadership of Sanders and Warren to push Hillary to do the right thing and that we, the people, will have to push her and not back down.

    Every citizen should be outraged by what they saw take place at Standing Rock. I agree with Thomas and pray that no-one will die from the militaristic, criminal violence that took place by police. I read a sad article from a Iraq and Afgan war Vet… he went to Standing Rock (as many others have) and he said this is the first time he feels like he is actually fighting for Americans and not corporations.

    Also, just saw for the first time, a Navy Vet, Whistleblower, speaking out about the a town called Enbridge and horrific oil spill on a river: https://www.youtube.com/user/johnbolenbaugh. Very scary, extremely sad, and gutwrenchingly disgraceful of a country. We have to change our ways. Or else…. Be well.

    • Congress has not done their job. They write the corporate laws. They could shut down pipelines.
      But they try to sabotage Clinton.

  12. It is remarkable how much the Standing Rock situation reflects our history of the 1800’s; history which industry apparently didn’t learn and is here repeating. The white man can never morally subjugate a people, violate treaties, ignore the environment’s constraints to exploit a commonly held resource for their own personal economic advantage. It’s just wrong. Pressing what violates our human social contract is going to lose. Lack of communication hid these wrongs with the 19th century Robber Barons. With social media the whole world can arise to oppose this fundamental injustice. “Even the stones will cry out.”

  13. I’m a Canadian and don’t really have a dog in this fight BUT as a resident of N.America I feel an anger over what is being at the DAPL site.
    I’m so angered by this whole debacle that I feel Mr Warren and the stock holders of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) should be made to account for what is being done at that sight in their name! If these people don’t find a way to seriously deescalate this incident and pull back the armored troops they have onsite, they are going to find themselves seeing more and more worldwide protests against them. How do you think it’s going to go if Anonymous decides to publish the names and addresses etc of the ETP board and stockholders? How do those folks think their children and grandchildren are going to feel when the world knows who the people are that back this ridiculous money making disaster for an industry that is being made a villain at every turn? Every single oil spill the public becomes aware of is only making this whole industry look worse and worse and the “water guardians in N.Dakota the sane ones in all of this. How much worse do they need it to get before they find another way around that site? This incident will be long remembered if there is even ONE death on that site related to the struggle going on there. What will that do for the struggling energy sector then?

  14. The Fukushima disaster is killing our oceans it is still leaking Tons! Of radioactive waste into our ocean if you look at a map of the world all the Ocean’s connect somehow with each other. Now you want to ruin the fresh water don’t you realize everything EVERTHING ON MOTHER EARTH NEEDS CLEAN FRASH WATER TO LIVE!!! EVEN that book case, table, you think it doesn’t need water then why are there humidifier’s? Think about it you can provide a mask to breath oxygen, put on a protective suit to provide protection from the sun’s rays but you can’t make water to drink if there is none! You can’t eat or drink your Money! Please think! I would love for my Grandchildren to enjoy a world like I had growing up we could use in real lakes, breath the air and run and play outside! Please think of the ones left after yourself on this OUR MOTHER EARTH! PLEASE?

  15. Hillary is no an ally. She will collude with the elites as she seeks to serve corporate interest. “Oil lives matter” to Hillary.

    • I don’t think it’s as dramatic as that. She’s a pragmatist who is very unwilling to act quickly or push to change the status quo in any area. Her comment about acting in ‘the largest public interest’ is akin to prior comments about current energy usage and demand. I doubt any issue is about people to her, whether people getting the short end of the stick or elites, she and the current administration are much more about ideology and statistics.

      • Seriously? Killary IS BOUGHT AND PAID FOR BY THE ELITE! Your comment reads as if you work for her campaign.

    • I have looked on both of the candidates and they have their hands get into the big oil!
      At this moment I pray for my people up and Standing Rock that Justice will be served!
      Our only cause was for our water and not only for the natives but the surrounding area and it turned into a big Warfare.
      My people are called Protectors not protesters and that’s what they became because of the way we were treated!Prayers to all who are involved

  16. Corporations want to be people when it comes to influencing elections but they are bad citizens. They refuse to pay taxes and when change occurs in the marketplace, as is happening now in energy, they think they are owed that income and will complain, bribe, lie and cause death to keep it. No one is guaranteed a job in an industry that has seen it’s time come and go. How about listening to your hallowed Free Market and take a hint – your days are numbered, oil and gas industry. Bet a good citizen and learn a new trade. And pay your goddamn taxes.

  17. I sat with friends a few weeks ago discussing this issue…we have all worked in the petroleum industry and recognize the value of oil & gas to our economy and lifestyle. But we also respect citizen concerns and environmental issues, so we were deeply troubled by how this had been handled. Dialogue is always preferred to violence and it puzzled us as to why the company was digging its heels in instead of having discussions. That hard line has intensified and a solution is drifting out of reach; the company has overplayed its hand to its own detriment.

  18. If the pipeline were on The Reservation land, then they should have final say. If it is on US soil then they need to back off on the construction aspect of this. We do not tell the Natives how to manage their resources. With that said, they should just let them protest, it will die down & the Feds do not need to go in there armed like they are in Iraq. That is excessive, sit down and negotiate, the ground water needs to be safe and protected from contamination no matter who’s land it is on. WORK IT OUT without the attack dogs.

    • The Rules are different when Native American tribes are involved. It is not just a matter of private vs. Tribal land. They are sovereign nations and by law must be consulted about actions off the reservation which may impact the reservation. They claim they were not consulted. There is also a claim that the tribes never ceded the land on question under a treaty.

  19. The ONLY high profile politician who has come out in support of the Sioux of Standing Rock and steadfastly opposes the Dakota Access Pipeline is Senator Bernie Sanders.. Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is also another politician who stands with the Sioux of Standing Rock but I would say with certainty that it is Bernie Sanders who is much more high profile.. As for Hillary Clinton she has not gone to South Dakota to show her support for the Sioux of Standing Rock unlike Bernie and Jill have in the past so I seriously doubt Hillary will go against the wishes of those corporations who have contributed heavily to her presidential campaign. Hillary has taken the typical stance of “waiting for more information” which politicians use when they don’t want to get dragged into anything that is controversial.

  20. The business-government partnership model has changed the way federal and state business regulations are being applied and enforced.  Regulations were meant to control business practices and operations to protect the health, safety, and other interests of the general public.  Now they’re being used by big businesses to increase and enforce their control over the general public.  Enabling them to decrease our rights to protect our health, safety, property, and local economies, businesses, and ways of life to maximize their growth and profits.  As if they have a right to grow larger and increase their profits by whatever means they see fit no matter what their growth, operations, and profits cost anybody else.

    Here on the south most tip of Texas (think South Padre Island, TX), the Valley Crossing Pipeline is heading our way.   To be built for Mexico by the Canadian company TransCanada that’s presently suing the United States for $15 billion dollars under NAFTA for stopping its Keystone XL Pipeline.  TransCanada has partnered with Spectra that’s seeking a merger deal with Enbridge that’s funding the North Dakota Access Pipeline.  Valley Crossing is a subsidiary of Spectra.  In all, by 2018 at least six pipelines are supposed to be supplying Mexico with natural gas from Texas across the Rio Grande River.  It looks like the first was put into operation at Rio Grande City, TX, December 2014.

    But right now our attention is focused on three LNG export companies seeking FERC approval to build and operate at our local Port of Brownsville (see saveRGVfromLNG on Facebook) even though four communities close in to the Port have passed resolutions opposing LNG there. 

    And our Port is building a new oil dock and repairing a new one so we can expect oil trains heading our way starting Summer 2017.  Also Summer 2017 a condensate processing and distribution operation at our Port is scheduled to start running two trains a day through a number of our local communities, 120 rail tanker cars each, each full of highly flammable West Texas condensate.  And Shell is drilling deeper and pushing the limits harder than BP’s disastrous Deepwater Horizon 135 miles due east of Brownsville, TX, and isn’t the only company drilling there (the Perdido fold belt).  And there are three drilling/fracking sites of some kind just off the coast of South Padre Island.  And . . . .

    And most people around here aren’t up to speed on the LNG threat let alone all the other threats headed our way.  Stand with Standing Rock or you and your community could be next.

    • John Young, this sounds like what is happening in Florida with the Sabal Trail Transmission Pipeline and the LNG plants and LNG applications and the All Aboard Florida trains. Now we are learning about even more pipelines and taps, and tonight I learned about more wells being drilled. Of course there are elements that are wanting to frack Florida, so that is what is coming if we don’t stop Sabal Trail and all this other mess. Here we call ourselves the “Sunshine State,” but do we promote solar here? No. The utilities have a “wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing” “Solar Amendment” on the ballot now, but it is deceptive and it is designed to keep them in control of our energy supply. Anyway, I will go to saveRGVfromLNG Facebook page. Check out Stop Sabal Trail Pipeline (also a Facebook Page.) Also, #STOPSABALTRAIL. Thanks for posting about your situation with the Valley Crossing Pipeline. I was not aware of that, but I had read about the Trans Pecos Pipeline. Of course the Natural Gas Act allows these private companies to use eminent domain on people and take their land for these pipelines so they can profit. The Sabal Trail attorney admitted publicly that this gas could be sold for export. This is abuse of eminent domain, in my opinion, and I am not alone. People are angry, and we are not going to take it any more.

  21. May it not end only the industry and its standards but hopefully it will bring down all corporate power over the government and bring back the government to We The People.

  22. The gas and oil industry is used to getting their way throughout history in this country. Isn’t that why they even killed a president right infront of all of us…in Texas in the 60s. over the oil tanker that sank near Cuba.

  23. You folks at North American Energy News must realize that you are engaged in an obsolete energy technology.
    You are the horse drawn cart as the automobile first hit the streets 110 years ago. Solar Electric, Wind Electric, Tidal, Wave and Ocean Current Electric as well as Sewage Methane Electric all go online daily and improve efficiency by the minute. Did ya know ya can drive coast to coast in a full size all electric car today for 1/4 the cost of dead dinosaur fuel?
    But don’t worry, you can still sell Fossil Fuel to the vintage car and bike collectors and museums. Oh and don’t forget my vintage oil lamps.

  24. If you think Obama and Clinton are green “allies”, you are out of your mind. Obama has expanded drilling in the Gulf with no change in policies as well as supporting pipeline projects… and Clinton single-handedly expanded fracking worldwide more than any person in history.

    If those are “allies”, I’d like to know what it takes for you to consider someone an enemy – ?

  25. It seems that one of the consciously dismissed elements here is the absolute good that oil pipelines, and any organic form of energy in general, do for most of the people in a civilized country. By allowing production, industrious people to fuel their dreams and actually build things, they also benefit others, who they employ, as well as those who benefit from more, less expensive energy. All I see here are a bunch of let’s not allow big energy companies to do anything. Is it possible that an oil pipeline ‘nearby’ the indian reservation could have provided jobs for the 85% of natives who are unemployed, leading seemingly listless lives and dreaming of that which no longer exists? Most all of the comments regarding this are totally bogus. And anyone who has watched the current administration block most of the energy development in this country that isn’t ‘renewable’, must have some doubts about the collusion between them and the energy companies. I mean why not at least make arguments that aren’t filled with venon towards anything that produces energy, and allows people to improve their lives. Just imagine how much good the money and energy could do the nearby natives were they to actually step out of the 1800s. Fracking, btw, is a totally safe method of extracting natural gas from deep in the ground, and isn’t the ugly monster underground that all the ecoids make it out to be. If you buy into the ecoid scare mongering, of course it sounds horrible, but sound science shows us otherwise. Why not step out of your progress hating bubbles and actually speak the truth.

    • Brad, there are plenty of pipelines already: we don’t need more! If we put as much effort into alternatives as Germany, just think how far ahead we’d be towards bringing our greenhouse gas emissions down to reasonable levels. Did you know there are more new jobs in renewables than in the Oil & Gas Industry for all their expansions? But we have a long ways to go yet. Why aren’t there solar panels over every parking lot and on every roof? Solar heat stored underground–BTES (Borehole Thermal Energy Storage)–has been ‘fulfilling 90% of each home’s space heating requirements from solar energy’ in a solar community in Alberta, Canada! Installing such systems could put a lot of oil drillers to work! http://www.dlsc.ca.
      Your comment about enabling ‘nearby natives…to actually step out of the 1800s’ is patronizing at best, and smacks of racism. I’m sure they would much prefer solar and/or wind power to contaminated water or poisoned wildlife if they were looking to change anything about their lives–just as most people would.
      As to your contention that fracking is ‘totally safe’, then why are the chemicals in the billions of gallons of water used not made public but continue to be ‘proprietary privilege’, as well as being Illegally injected into public reservoirs in California? Your ‘sound science’ doesn’t seem to include people’s water that has been contaminated to the point that you can light it! If those are ‘progress bubbles’, we do hate them!

    • Oil spills ruin land, water, environment, wildlife, the list goes on and on, just as the list of spills in the below link. Fracking has been documented many times in many areas to ruin water wells close by, and fracking companies have been shirking their responsibility…Oklahoma has had a sudden spike in earthquakes since fracking started there, and at first it seemed apparent that fracking was the cause…fracking companies countered that it was due to natural causes, and now have discovered a loophole, since scientifically, the actual fracking has little or no effect on the lower strata as the water and chemicals are being pumped into previously drilled wells. This is true, however, what’s causing the earthquakes is the reclaimed water and chemicals coming from those operations, along will well drilling operations being pumped into to new deep drilled disposal wells where the strata hasn’t been disturbed previously…no matter how the coin is flipped, no matter the huge campaigns currently launched to claim innocence and deny complicity, and there are plenty out there, the drilling and fracking companies are responsible. Their ploy wasn’t even an artful dodge. Of course then global warming is non existent, has nothing to do with air pollution, gas emissions have nothing to do with it, and the earth was formed 6000 years ago. Sorry, science isn’t on your side regarding your statements, unless of course you side with bought and paid for oil industry ‘pundit’ climate deniers who have no credentials
      and draw big checks to spread lies…



  26. If you’re trying to fly by the seat of your pants
    You’ll never reach reality
    Government runs on conditional romance
    Promises never to be…
    So many liars, too many thieves
    Some are just better than others
    When their ‘for profit’ gain turns entirely insane
    Compassion gets choked till it smothers

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