The next Standing Rock: Fossil fuel battles loom across North America

From Virginia to Vancouver, B.C., communities are getting ready to fight big fossil fuel projects.

Protesters against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline block a highway in near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/James MacPherson
Protesters against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline block a highway in near Cannon Ball, N.D., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/James MacPherson

When news broke Sunday that the Army Corps of Engineers would not grant a permit necessary for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline to cross the Missouri River, the thousands of water protectors, environmental activists, and concerned citizens who spent months protesting the pipeline’s construction erupted in celebration.

“They formed a circle — a human circle all the way around the camp — and people were holding hands and singing and praying,” Kandi Mossett, a leader with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said via a Facebook Live video following Sunday’s announcement. “There are songs being sung and drums and people singing and happy and hugging each other.”

But through her tears of happiness, Mossett urged viewers to continue their support for both the water protectors in North Dakota and protesters fighting pipelines around the world.

“I’m sending a shout out to all the other pipelines that people are fighting,” Mossett said, “that we need to continue to fight and we need to continue to remain vigilant.”

The Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry up to 570,000 barrels of oil from the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota nearly 1,200 miles to a hub in Illinois, is far from the only pipeline under construction in North America.

Just last week, Canada’s Liberal government approved two major pipeline projects that, if constructed, would greatly expand the amount of tar sands oil being funneled from Alberta to refineries worldwide. One of those projects — the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion — would increase the pipeline’s carrying capacity by 590,000 barrels a day — and would also run through unceded land that both the Canadian government and several First Nation tribes claim sovereignty over.

“The First Nations are at the forefront of the protest [against the Trans Mountain expansion],” Stand.Earth Canadian director Karen Mahon told ThinkProgress. Mahon decribed the Trans Morgan expansion as “Keystone XL meets Standing Rock” — a project that promises to inspire both litigation and massive acts of civil disobedience. Prominent progressive politicians, including Gregor Robertson, mayor of Vancouver, and Elizabeth May, federal leader of Canada’s Green Party, have promised to continue to fight the pipeline, with May going so far as promising to go to jail, if necessary, for blocking the pipeline’s construction.

On the East Coast of the United States, the victory at Standing Rock resonated for opponents of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina.

“Their fight is the same fight as our fight,” said Nancy Sorrells, co-chair of Augusta County Alliance, told the Staunton Virginia News Leader. “What’s happening there is happening here.”

Dominion, the energy company behind the project, has applied for permits to run the pipeline through land designated for conservation — and the proposed route would take it through historic battlefields and near a Native American burial ground, which Sorrells argued was “sacred ground.”

Jane Kleeb, president of Bold Alliance and director of Bold Nebraska, told ThinkProgress that the decision to deny the easement at Standing Rock reinforces the power of having a diverse coalition rallying behind a cause.

“Standing Rock is yet another very concrete example of how when you fight a pipeline with an unlikely alliance you win,” Kleeb said. “We saw that on Keystone XL, on the Constitution pipeline in New York and Pennsylvania, and now we saw that with the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

And while environmental activism is often painted as a liberal issue, Kleeb said there are plenty of fights taking place in more conservative states like South Carolina and Georgia over pipelines and the question of eminent domain. There’s an economic populist argument against pipelines, Kleeb contends — rural Americans tend to balk at the idea of large corporations or big government coming onto their land and dictating how that land will be used. That presents an opportunity for traditionally disparate groups — indigenous communities, conservative farmers, progressive environmental activists — to band together and fight pipelines as a united front.

“Pipelines serve as this concrete thing that incorporates place-based organizing. You’re able to communicate to your neighbors why you care about climate change, or eminent domain, or water quality, or Native American sovereignty rights,” Kleeb said. “From my perspective, pipelines offer that like no other environmental issue does.”

But pipelines aren’t the only fossil fuel infrastructure projects that are bound to run into citizen opposition in the coming months and years. Along the coast of the Pacific Northwest and the Columbia River are three proposed projects that, if constructed, would constitute the country’s largest coal export terminal, largest crude-oil-by-rail terminal, and largest methanol refinery.

These projects haven’t been met with the same kind of sustained civil disobedience that helped water protectors succeed at Standing Rock. But the crude-oil-by-rail terminal, which would be built in Vancouver, Washington, just miles from Portland, Oregon, has attracted the attention of some environmental activists: In June, following the derailment of an oil train in Mosier, Oregon, 21 activists were arrested while protesting the practice of shipping crude oil by rail, with another 100 or so participating in the protest. As in North Dakota, the protesters used their bodies to form a physical barrier to the fossil fuel infrastructure — in this case, blocking railroad tracks to prevent train traffic.

Many of the proposed projects in the Pacific Northwest — and elsewhere — require federal permits to move forward. President-Elect Donald Trump has voiced support for projects like the Dakota Access pipeline — and signaled his willingness to reconsider the KeystoneXL pipeline — which means communities standing in opposition to these projects likely won’t have a friendly ear in the White House. But, according to Kleeb, communities on the front lines of fossil fuel projects aren’t planning on giving up the fight any time soon.

“For folks fighting pipelines it’s never about who is in the White House,” she said. “When you are down, when somebody has punched you in the gut, that is when you catch your breath and fight harder. And that is exactly what we’ll do with these pipeline fights.”