Beyond Just Water: Why We Should All Be Taking a Stance on Dakota Pipeline

Last week, newly released data by the Climate Change Institute from the Arctic confirmed that, yet again, winter temperatures in the North Pole have reached unprecedented highs. This year, the temperature is 36 degrees Fahrenheit above the historic average. This is already greater than what many experts consider a tipping point that could lead to climate and security impacts on a global scale. In the face of a drastically changing climate, it is even more imperative that we as environmentalists not just collect information, but also question how exactly we are contributing to creating a more sustainable future.

This week, a group of concerned students, alumni, faculty, and staff from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Science added their voices to a growing number of environmental institutions speaking in support of Standing Rock and against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The legitimate concerns raised by the tribe regarding threats to the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act, as well as the ongoing violence against unarmed protestors is justification enough. However for many environmentalists, the debates around the Dakota Access Pipeline also represent a set of larger issues surrounding the future of our planet, climate change, and the role that our energy infrastructure plays in that.

Opinions are strongly divided about the 1,172-mile pipeline that would connect the oil-rich Bakken Formation with a larger network of pipelines and refineries that transport and process crude oil. This large underground oil deposit stretches from the Canadian border south through eastern Montana and western North Dakota. The main developer of the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), estimates that DAPL could transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day, representing approximately half of the daily current Bakken crude oil production.

ETP and supporters of DAPL argue that the pipeline will increase national energy security, generate needed jobs, and actually create more climate-friendly infrastructure by reducing dependency on other fossil-fuel burning methods of transportation like trucks and trains. Recently AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization for American unions, came out in support of DAPL stating that they, “support pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive and addresses the threat of climate change.”

The political arm of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), American Energy Alliance (AEA), who previously supported extension of the Keystone pipeline, added its voice to the other side of the debate last week by publishing a report highlighting the weaknesses in the financing behind the Dakota Access Pipeline and questioning the long-term viability of the project. Their report points to how the financial incentive of the company to complete the project overshadows the very real risk of the pipeline becoming a stranded asset in the region’s overbuilt oil-transport infrastructure.

The financial incentives for Energy Transfer Partners were created by shipping contracts for crude oil negotiated in early 2014 when oil prices were more than double what they are now. Global oil prices began to collapse just a few months after shippers committed to using DAPL, and market forecasters do not expect oil prices to regain 2014 levels for at least a decade. According to the report, if Bakken oil production continues in the downward trajectory it is currently experiencing, they will produce less than 800,000 barrels per day by the end of 2017. With such a reduction in oil production, existing pipelines and refineries would be more than able to process the entire oil output of the region, putting into question the very necessity of the DAPL.

However, as is the case with such large and powerful organizations, the financial losses like will not actually be carried by the company. We can, for example, look for examples from another fossil-fuel industry — coal. In April of this year, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately-owned coal producer followed other coal companies like Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources in filing for bankruptcy. This comes in the wake of the collapse of the coal industry, and as China’s appetite for coal begins to wane.

During this collapse, Peabody Energy went through an internal restructuring and folded much of its health obligations to a partner company, Patriot Coal, which subsequently went bankrupt, ending up with $3 billion in liabilities for almost 22,000 miners, retirees, and spouses. While these miners, many suffering from black lung as a result of coal mining working conditions, fight to sue Patriot, Peabody Energy’s revenues for 2015 topped $5.1 billion. Judging by ETPs violent attempts to protect its own economic interests at Standing Rock, if the DAPL is constructed and demand for Bakken shale oil continues to collapse, as it has been doing for the past two years, it will likely be the regional economy and local workers that suffer.

We can look towards the EU for how a transition towards a more sustainable energy infrastructure can be achieved. According to a recent report published by the European think-tank E3G, the EU in 2013 cut demand for fossil fuels by 110 Mtoe, which is equivalent to nine percent of all fossil fuels used across the EU and equal to the annual fossil fuel consumption of France. In 2014, the profits generated from wind and solar over the past 10 years delivered significant gas savings, leading to a reduction in CO2 emissions equivalent to the yearly greenhouse gas emissions of Poland. In part, the success in the EU is due to heavy investment in renewable energy sectors, such as wind and solar.

Fossil fuels are not inherently more efficient or better energy sources from a market standpoint; they are only more efficient because they have a strong financial, political, and infrastructural network to support them. Fossil fuels are, however, inherently more “efficient” producers of atmospheric C02, releasing up to 10 times more C02 than other sources of energy such as nuclear and wind. It does not come as a surprise that the fossil fuel industry is fighting attempts to transition to a low-carbon economy. The targeted, multi-billion dollar campaign by the fossil-fuel industry to deceive the public on climate change has been well documented, and the profits of these companies depend on continuing to create the political, economic and material infrastructure that makes fossil fuels cheaper. The $3.7 billion DAPL project would change the landscape of crude oil supply in the US, further embedding the political, economic, and infrastructural support for fossil fuels.

As environmentalists we know that keeping remaining oil and gas reserves in the ground is an imperative if we want to have a chance at keeping average temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. If DAPL is constructed, it will further cement the fossil fuel industry’s grip on our energy infrastructure. This is just as much a local, historical issue as it is a global issue that will impact our future in a myriad of ways. Speaking out against DAPL is not just about speaking out in favor of water rights and environmental justice; it also means speaking out against the development of an energy infrastructure network that will make oil and gas cheaper energy sources than renewables. It also means speaking out against the ability of the oil industry to put their own economic profit above the well-being of humans and the environment. We have the obligation to use the knowledge we have to show how this specific local issue impacts on a broader global scale. The current resistance in North Dakota is not just a local act of resistance; it is an act of resistance that will ultimately define if we are able to live sustainably in the world. The water-protectors have clearly positioned themselves. Now begs the question: will we?