Monday, December 5, 2016

Pointless Pipeline Protests

Dakota Access Pipeline - Still Going to be Built
The various factions of the #NoDAPL movement stood fast in the face of some very ugly tactics by the state, and eventually the Corps of Engineers decided to deny an easement for the route that crossed under Lake Oahe on the Standing Rock reservation and undertake an environmental study of alternate routes. This has been repeatedly declared a great victory, but that's a determination that requires a closer look at both the immediate and longer term outcomes.

Don't get me wrong - I'm in no way arguing that it wasn't a victory for the Sioux people - as in any classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protest, when the offending development is re-routed into somebody else's neighborhood, it must be seen as a local victory for the NIMBY faction.

But the first question that comes to mind is one of outcome. The determination of the US Government was to give in to demands to re-route the pipeline. But was this the actual goal all along? Were all those courageous people out there accepting that the pipeline would ultimately be built, and it was simply a question of which vulnerable population would be put at risk? Did they use the rallying cry #NoDAPL because #RerouteDAPL was somewhat less compelling? If the goal of the protest was to simply build the pipeline on US rather than indigenous soil, it was a small, local success of no larger significance. If the goal was anything more than merely changing the pipeline's route, the movement was a failure, not a success.

So six months of Sturm und Drang have ensured nothing but the 'protection' of a single community from the horrors and deprivations of an oil pipeline. But that's a victory, right? It's not obvious. We know that fossil fuels are adding to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and contributing to a rapidly warming climate. Burning fossil fuels is dangerous to human civilization, and needs to be curtailed. But here's the thing - burning fossil fuels IS being curtailed. Despite some political outliers - mostly in the United States - people, governments, militaries and corporations recognize that climate change is a problem and they need to radically shift the source of energy generation. The reason the price of crude oil collapsed in the last several years is lack of demand - the more people all over the globe build wind, solar, wave and other renewable energy sources, the less they will need to burn oil, gas and coal. This is an irreversible process - sure, it's one that would be helped by an enlightened carbon tax policy, but it's one that will continue, and will accelerate.

From a larger viewpoint, I have to confess I simply don't understand the recent fixation from the left on pipeline projects. I understand the opposition to fossil fuels, but to approach that goal with a 'no pipelines' policy agenda strikes me as being ideologically opposed to trousers and expressing it by boycotting suspenders. There's lots of other ways to hold up your pants, and most of them are inferior to suspenders. The same is true of pipelines. There are two and a half MILLION miles of energy pipelines in the US already - it seems a bit late in the game to decide to oppose them. But even more critically, if an energy company wants to ship its oil and we deny them access to a pipeline, they'll simply ship it by rail. In old, rusting, rarely inspected rail tank cars, through the center of cities and towns and across thousands of old, deteriorating bridges. Frankly, given a choice, I'd prefer a shiny new pipeline if you don't mind. The simple fact is you can't stop people from selling us a commodity we WANT to buy by trying to limit how they ship it to us. (Never lose sight of the fact that if one day we found we couldn't just drive around the corner and buy a tank-full of gas we'd be apoplectic.) There are times when protest is effective - this simply isn't one of them.

Of course, as of November 8, much of this is a moot point. The Trump administration is pro-fossil fuel, pro business, pro-corporation, pro-profit and anti-regulation. There is little doubt that we can expect much less of this kind of government flexibility in the next few years. But the argument is an important one, and I suspect we will keep having it.

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