Free Will: When the pipeline breaks

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Will Kebbe


In an interview with NPR, Standing Rock Sioux tribe leader David Archambault II was asked about the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is set to run through the sacred lands at Standing Rock, a place generations of Sioux have called home.

The pipeline, which is being funded and carried out by Energy Transfer and Crude Oil Company, will develop a route for crude oil, extracted from the rich deposit of natural gas in the shale of northwest North Dakota, and transport it into the refineries located in central Illinois.

This pipeline, along with the countless other deep earth oil extraction projections taking place across the midwest, are apart of a growing narrative the United States is seeking to develop. The efforts of projects like the pipeline, as well as the hydraulic fracking, are aiming to make America an energy independent country.

There is great power in releasing the international need for energy. The United States can lessen foreign impact in Middle East countries that have grown disdainful of the persistent presence of our necessity for oil. Furthermore, sustainability efforts are more easily within reach, for oil has a negative environmental impact, adding heat-trapping carbon molecules into the atmosphere.

The country’s consciousness can morph, taking on a greater environmental awareness.

But there is no power found in taking what belongs in the ground, and even less power found in the denigration of our country’s indigenous people.

In the interview, Archambault was asked if he sees any benefit from the implementation of this pipeline. Here is, in part, what he said:

“There’s no benefit to Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the members for the destruction of land in North Dakota to extract fossil fuels. Here’s what’s happening. The price of a barrel was dropping… So they want to pipe this oil and threaten fresh clean water, threaten the environment, have eminent domain takings for the purpose of who? Who benefits from it?”

Archambault gave this answer with a soft tone, exuding grace and class in the midst of a highly contentious project that promises to destroy his peoples’ native lands. Perhaps underneath the gentle answer, the righteous response to a tricky question, Archambault was holding back the grief of his ancestors. Maybe he was holding back years of broken promises.

The United States, rooting from the origin of our country, has always manifested its own destiny, often at the expense of others. That includes sucking the land away from the tribes that called it home long before we arrived here.

As the frontier mindset materialized and people began seeking their own journey out west, the land these native tribes called home was ripped away, forcing the indigenous people to relinquish to the might of America and relocate to smaller parcels of land.

The 150 years since then hasn’t seen any diminished exploitation. In fact, this pipeline is the continuation of our country’s past endeavors. And as seen in the protests, there is a growing anger directed toward the exploiters. It is the culmination of over a century of being reduced to what can only be seen as nothing.

So Archambault, despite his people’s collective suffering, attempted to calmly articulate the issues with constructing this pipeline. He explained that the fresh water sources his tribe relies on are at risk for high levels of contamination. He is being told that this particular pipeline is being held to a high standard of safety and reliability.

But pipelines spill three times as much oil than trains carrying liquid gold, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It’s reasonable to conclude that it’s just a matter of time before the pipeline breaks, along with the promise it carried.

The pipeline will add 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs, and Archambault should surely see the benefit in that, right? But does the allure of temporary job placement solve the higher rates of unemployment for Native Americans, which in 2014 stood at 11.2 percent, nearly double the national average?

Or will it solve the fact that more than one out of every four Native Americans live in poverty? Out of the nearly five-figure job placements mentioned above, only 40 will be permanently hired for operating duties. These jobs do very little to alleviate those pains.

Moreover, the pipeline will become a fast and efficient means of crude oil production, to the delight of many. Our country is still in a love affair with natural gas – cheap, seemingly abundant natural gas that unfortunately comes from the ground and is in fact, not abundant. One day it will be gone, and if this antiquated systems persists, our country will find it more difficult to develop and implement clean energy technologies and a workforce to manage them.

There will be a time where we can no longer rely on this form of energy, when natural gas extraction no longer fits the mold of America’s energy needs. When that day comes, the pipeline running through the sacred lands of Standing Rock will be obsolete. It will be more than an aberration on the land. It will be a harmful reminder of our abuse of the people who cherish this land, seeing it as more than an economic opportunity.

In the last question of the interview, Archambault praised the support from those standing with the people of Standing Rock. He admired their stand against the interest of oil companies, and more broadly the federal government. Except for a temporary halt to construction, little has been said or done by the current administration.

In his answer, he said something that has rung true for hundreds of years:

“We have no power.”

There has not been a time in our history where indigenous people have had power. Their current disenfranchisement should come as no surprise.

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