The Pipeline Playbook

Earlier this year, DC began compiling research on a paper about pipelines—how they get built, what laws support their creation, and (perhaps most importantly) why all the high level environmental review processes we learned about in planning school are not effective at halting what is an obvious environmental problem and water security threat.

This paper was a first in several respects. This was the first time we’ve given any substantial ink over to the federal review process (rather than municipal), and the first time we’ve approached research by focusing largely on law and legal history, rather than statistical or demographic data. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is the first time we’ve focused on a case study outside of Austin, TX. The text focuses primarily on the (much televised) permitting of a section of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, but also examines similar projects across the southwest and Appalachia.  

What was the purpose of this exercise, and what did we learn, and how might it help or inform others with the same concerns? Ho boy, we learned a lot. Below are some thoughts and primary conclusions:


1.Oil and gas pipeline companies enjoy a special status in large part because they are legally conceived of as a public utility with a public good. Like the construction of sewer pipes or the hanging of electrical lines, oil and gas infrastructure is legally protected as public infrastructure. While many pipelines do not directly economically benefit the communities that they run through and engage only in extraction, the risk individual communities incur is considered a reasonable tradeoff for the valuable profits made from oil and gas sale in foreign markets. This generous interpretation of what constitutes the ‘public good’ (in this case, profits for large American corporations) continues to corrupt and endanger conversations about equity and access to resources for all citizens. 


2.Not all communities equally bear the costs of putting in public infrastructure. It is the most vulnerable communities that will be asked to sacrifice their space, resources, and autonomy for a perceived ‘public good’. In our previous work in Austin, we saw black communities having their neighborhoods taken for highways. In the cases we looked at in this paper, it was indigenous people in North Dakota; their experience with the taking of their land for the construction of dams informed their response to and framing of the impacts of the pipeline on their community. 


3.Local knowledge about environmental issues is critical to understanding the full impacts of any type of infrastructure project on the ecology and people of a region, because it is at this scale where the long-term effects will be experienced.In the course of researching this, it was activist blogs and local media (supported and run by the actual communities affected by the issue) that were the groups with the best and most timely reporting on these issues. In a time of crisis and no shortage of fake news, accurate local information becomes more important than ever. 


3. In a related fashion, environmental sovereignty—the right to have control over ones environment and to manage it accordingly—is an integral part of environmental protection. The UN recently produced a report on the importance of indigenous stewardship to biological and species diversity. Supporting local knowledge about ecological management, supporting slow growth and people-centered approaches to land management (bottom -up rather than top down) creates healthy environments. This is one explanation for why federal level environmental laws, while well-meaning, offer inadequate protection against the most systemic, violent, and toxic abuses of extractionary systems and industries.

Communities that have experienced the impacts of having their local knowledge and needs constantly overrides in favor of mega projects that are meant to serve other populations have connected the dots. They see their own environments being eroded again and again. They track and have important knowledge about the systemic abuse of one community for the benefits of another, and this knowledge is critical to understanding environmental justice issues.  

In short: we learned a lot from this project and have still more to follow up on. Check out our paper below, but also check out the resources of the activists and journalists who are on the ground dealing with these issues, and who inform us and enlarge our understanding of these issues.


1.Nick Estes is a Lakota activist and historian. Our History is the Future, which we reviewed on this blog previously, is a concise history of indigenous activism in the Dakotas. He is in the process of publishing a new Book, Standing With Standing Rock, which will be available August of 2019.

2.Winona La Duke is an activist, economist, environmentalist, and prolific scholar how has spoken and written about DAPL. Learn more about her on her author page at Orion Magazine or on her wikipedia page.

3.The Indigenous Environmental Network is a 20 year old national group that develops strategies to help indigenous people protect themselves and their environmental resources. Their facebook page is a good resource for the most recent environmental news, court cases, and actions. Donate to their organization at their website.

4.Environmental Blogs: The Desmog Blog , Ecowatch, and Earthjustice all post regular updates on high profile environmental cases, including pipeline litigation and actions.

5.Libraries Respond: As you would expect, the librarians are on top of this. The American library Association (ALA) has compiled a list of resources and articles related to this case: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/diversity/libraries-respond-dakota-access-pipeline-dapl


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