Originally published in The Living Church magazine, 2016.
On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would deny permission for the Dakota Access Pipeline to pass under Lake Oahe, the sole source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux. Protesters at Standing Rock and their supporters, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, celebrated the announcement, even as the pipeline’s builders, Energy Transfer Partners, vowed to complete the project without rerouting it.
The Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests surrounding it are underwritten by a tangled web of related issues ranging from climate change, to the need for energy independence and clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels, to the injustices done to indigenous peoples. This knotty political mess our society has gotten itself into is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out equitably.
I was struck recently by a Web meme showing a special forces soldier — a SEAL, judging from his uniform — holding a sign that obscured his face. The sign read, I didn’t join the Navy to fight for Al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war. Following the thread of political motives and national interest, one observes how our nation has involved itself in Middle Eastern conflicts based on our alliances with societies with whom we have very little in common, other than a shared humanity and a shared interest in extracting oil from the Persian Gulf region. One observes too that hundreds of thousands of people have died, just in the last decade, because of this shared interest, even as untold others have been injured, bereaved, or displaced.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for a Manhattan Project-style clean energy initiative. His call fell largely on deaf ears as U.S. opposition to the 2005 Kyoto Protocol built during the Bush administration. Yet Friedman’s idea remains good and has arguably become only more urgent as a scientific consensus has coalesced around anthropogenic climate change in the intervening years.
Yet it remains true that even if the political will for such a project existed, the world could not simply and suddenly stop burning fossil fuels without bringing about a global economic catastrophe, and the immense human suffering that such a catastrophe would certainly entail. Like the prehistoric animals who got stuck in petroleum seeps and died, global society now finds itself bogged down in an oily mire. Like it or not — and few informed and farsighted people like it — carbon-based energy is the patrimony of contemporary mankind. The broad question is how we will elect to spend that patrimony. As David Biello has written: the short-sighted option is to continue to burn fossil fuels until there are none left to burn, or until climate change forces a radically different way of life on us. The alternative, though, is to use fossil fuels in the service of finding clean, renewable energy alternatives, and building infrastructure for those alternatives. I devoutly hope that we will elect to pursue the latter course.
The research and development for clean energy alternatives, still in their infancy, to say nothing of building a global infrastructure to support them, will take years if not decades. The immediate need to extract, move, refine, and burn fossil fuels seems inescapable. Yet this fact evinces another conundrum: easy access to fossil fuels drives down prices and reduces economic incentives to search for clean alternatives.
What should we make of the situation at Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, in light of such broad considerations? Energy Transfer Partners claims that the pipeline is state-of-the-art, and that the contamination of drinking water from leakage is extremely unlikely. Yet concern for the contamination of drinking water seems to have led the Army Corps of Engineers earlier to reject a proposed route for the pipeline under the Missouri River near Bismarck. And just one day after the corps announced its refusal to permit an easement for the pipeline under the Missouri River, the North Dakota Department of Health announced that a rupture had been discovered in the Belle Fourche Pipeline in Billings County, about 150 miles from Standing Rock: more than 130,000 gallons of oil had leaked into the Little Missouri River.
These developments hardly instill trust in the assurances from producers that potential ecological harm is negligible. And in any event, there is a very long track record of the U.S. government, and the economic interests it too often represents, breaking its promises to Native Americans. To my mind, the strongest argument against the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline has less to do with its ecological effects and more to do with just deference to the Standing Rock Sioux. As David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, said in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff on Dec. 2:
It’s unfortunate that this nation continues to treat our tribe, and tribal nations around the country, in this manner. … History will show that the federal government, the state government, has always built the economy … off the backs of our nations. And this is another example.
That is indisputable. Native American society has paid a heavy price for the economic greatness of America. Writing in The American Conservative, Henry Chappell quoted the Sioux writer Vine Deloria, Jr., whose book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (University of Oklahoma Press, 1969) rebukes the hypocrisy of the United States in its declamations on the importance of keeping international treaties, in particular with Russia:
Indian people laugh themselves sick when they hear these statements. America has yet to keep one Indian treaty or agreement, despite the fact that the United States Government signed over four hundred such treaties and agreements with Indian tribes. It would take Russia another century to make and break as many treaties as the United States has already violated.
From coast to coast for four centuries, from the Jamestown Colony to the Treaty of Temecula, the Trail of Tears, the Comanche Wars, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and on and on, it seems too much to hope that Standing Rock might mark a turning point in the nation’s dealings with American Indians, that a just and durable solution might be found, and that such a solution might serve the pressing need to use the natural resources at our disposal to find cleaner and more sustainable energy alternatives.
Let’s be audacious enough to hope this, and as we await the fulfillment of that hope, to find less poisonous ways of living.