By December 4, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined, for now, to let an oil pipeline cross the Missouri River in North Dakota, 150 Native American tribes were represented at a protesters’ tent city near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Authorities had unleashed tear gas, fired rubber bullets, and blasted freezing protesters with water cannons. The standoff captured the world’s attention. Even the United Nations weighed in.
But the Army’s decision ultimately rested on rights asserted by the local Standing Rock Sioux. (Read about and see portraits of some of the protesters.)
The battle over this stretch of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline is just the latest in a string of controversial pipeline battles, many of which are probably not over. Just last month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have brought oil from the Alberta oil sands to the pristine northern British Columbia coast, after years of dogged legal battles by the local First Nations communities. (Read more about that controversy.)
But in the same breath Trudeau approved expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver—a move that would dramatically increase oil exports and tanker traffic through sensitive, difficult-to-navigate waters. Local activists and members of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation promised to continue fighting the project vigorously.
Meanwhile, a year ago, after years of heated national debate, President Barack Obama killed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have piped crude from Alberta's oil sands through the U.S. “The Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse,” Obama said at the time.
But his successor, President-elect Donald J. Trump, has vowed to revisit that decision. And in appointing Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, an aggressive defender of the fossil fuel industry, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump sent a strong signal of his desire to promote energy interests over environmental concerns.
As we head into what could be a new period of warring over energy infrastructure, here are three takeaways from a busy year on the fossil fuel front.
1. All Environmentalism Is Local
Environmental fights—even those with vast reach—are often local at heart. Whether it's a burning oil slick on Ohio's Cuyahoga River or a spill off the Santa Barbara, California, coast—two 1969 incidents that helped ignite the modern environmental movement—"local opposition or support is what matters," says Kate Gordon, a clean energy expert with the Paulson Institute, a sustainability think tank founded by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
"The people who fear them most directly will fight them the longest and the hardest," Gordon says of environmental threats in general. "Rachel Carson might write a book, but it's the local people who make a difference."
Earlier this year, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers rejected construction of a marine terminal north of Seattle, Washington, that would have exported Rocky Mountain coal to Asia. Environmental groups had tarred the project as a climate disaster, but it was the risk to fishing rights and ancestral grounds of the Lummi Tribe that motivated the Army’s decision.
"We're in the middle of a game of whack-a-mole," says Clark Williams-Derry, who analyzed coal-industry finances for Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank. "Folks who are fighting fossil fuel infrastructure products are just beginning to figure out how to do it right. I kind of get the sense that we're getting better at it."
2. The Global Impact Is Still Debated
There is a global context to these battles, of course. A worldwide industry is trying to get its product to market as quickly, cheaply, and safely as possible. An international environmental movement is trying to keep as much fossil fuel as possible in the ground, because climate scientists say that’s necessary if we’re to avoid dangerous climate change. Any attempt by the industry to build major new infrastructure, some environmentalists argue, has to be resisted, because it could delay the switch to clean energy.
"I think of it as a desperate last-ditch effort to sink a bunch of long-term capital into the fossil fuel economy and create more incumbency and inertia so it's harder to dislodge," says KC Golden, senior policy advisor with Seattle-based Climate Solutions. "When that's successful, escaping the old ideas becomes that much harder."
Globally, renewable energy investments in electric power last year outpaced coal and natural gas investments two to one.
It’s not yet clear from the data whether the pipeline battles are helping keep oil in the ground. Between 2007 and 2015 oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken field soared from under 200,000 to more than 1.2 million barrels per day, even without the Dakota Access pipeline. Since 2015, production has fallen below a million barrels per day—not for lack of a pipeline, but because a worldwide glut has depressed oil prices.
Meanwhile, even without the 730,000 barrels per day that were planned for Keystone, oil imports into the U.S. from Canada are still near an all-time high. And Canada is working on other ways of getting its oil out of Alberta. The expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline would increase the amount flowing to Vancouver from 300,00 to 890,000 barrels a day. And Prime Minister Trudeau also approved the replacement and expansion of Enbridge’s Line 3—which runs southeast from Alberta to a terminal in Duluth, Minnesota—from 390,000 to 760,000 barrels a day.
Individual pipelines don't determine how much oil gets produced, contends Guy Caruso, former head of the U.S. Energy Information Agency under President George W. Bush. Demand for oil does, and that’s determined by the price.
"I said all along, if Keystone doesn't ever get built, Canadians are going to find another way to produce and move that oil if the demand is there," Caruso says. "The net effect of pipelines themselves is virtually zero when it comes to climate." The way to reduce production and consumption of fossil fuels, he adds, is to reduce demand—by raising the price with a carbon tax, for example, or by imposing regulations such as fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles.
With a new and climate-skeptical administration about to take over in Washington, even some environmentalists worry, as Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund puts it, “that with so much attention being paid to pipelines, we lose sight of efforts to ensure that we're taking aggressive steps to not only keep in place existing auto-efficiency standards, but continue progress toward reducing total demand for oil, by encouraging other efficiencies like electric vehicles."
But Brownstein also understands the galvanizing effect that pipeline battles can have on the public.
"At the heart of many of the protests is a really deep frustration that the public feels about the slow progress that is being made towards addressing environmental quality and climate change," he says. "There may have been a time when people were more tolerant of spills and accidents and air pollution, but that's changing."
3. Indigenous People Are Central to These Battles
No group seems more galvanized now than North America's indigenous communities.
"I think what we're seeing is a shift in the face of what has been called 'environmentalism' to a different thing that is led by indigenous people and grounded in some fundamental notions about justice," says Jan Hasselman, the Earthjustice attorney who represented the Standing Rock Sioux. "From where I sit, it's very much about oil spills and who bears the risk."
At the center of much of this is Brian Cladoosby, leader of Washington State's Swinomish Tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians. He helped the Lummi fight the proposed coal export terminal in Puget Sound. He encouraged other tribes to come to Standing Rock.
Whether the Army Corps’s decision on the Dakota Access pipeline will stand under the Trump Administration is unclear. In declining to grant an easement for the pipeline to cross the Missouri a half mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, the Corps decided that a complete Environmental Impact Statement should be done, including a “robust consideration of reasonable alternatives.”
The main alternative considered previously was a crossing 10 miles north of Bismarck, North Dakota. Concern about threats to the city’s water supply was one reason that route was rejected, according to the Bismarck Tribune.
That decision and the lack of a thorough review angers and amazes Cladoosby. It fits the historical pattern, he says.
"For the last 100 years, we've been living under a pollution-based economy," Cladoosby says. “We've seen our water degraded, our soil degraded, and our air degraded. Much of this has happened in Indian country, or on former Indian lands or on stolen Indian lands. Many tribes have had infrastructure projects happen on, in, or near their homelands without them even having a say. Pipelines were constructed, refineries were built, easements were given away without the tribes even being consulted.
"Basically, now, we've said enough is enough."