The recent decision by President Barack Obama’s administration, via the Army Corps of Engineers, to ask for a more in-depth environmental impact statement regarding a final section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline represents a clash of power. The simple story is one of environmental and health concerns, but in reality the full story is much more. It is a continuation of the populist fervor building up in the United States. It is a continuation of the pursuit of infinite growth. It is a story of physical power, political power and economic power.
The pipeline is designed to transport 570,000 barrels per day of U.S. light sweet from the Bakken and Three Forks production region of North Dakota to Patoka, Ill. That is 40 gigawatts of power — or the output of 20 nuclear power plants. A power level equal to more than half of the peak electric load in Texas on the hottest summer day, an amount of power that is not trivial.
This amount of physical power flow does not go unnoticed by those who lack economic and political power. In the early days of the Fossil Fuel Age, a small group of people could restrict the flow of coal and thus significant physical power. Those who can restrict or control physical power can command economic power, and those in control of economic power can command political power. The Dakota Access pipeline is no different.
In short, it is all about power.
Thus, by challenging the physical flow of power, the Standing Rock tribe challenged the current economic and political power. After months of protest, they saw local law enforcement treat them as the first African-Americans integrated into southern universities were treated: with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. These Native Americans and those joining them were on a slow path to defeat, with orders to vacate the protest camp. They simply did not represent enough political or economic power.
However, the power struggle turned in their favor as soon as a new political power arrived in the form of a group of 2,000 military veterans. Firing tear gas and water cannons at Native Americans is bad for business. Doing the same to military veterans is a public relations nightmare for business and politicians.
Obama’s decision on Dakota Access is an easy one to make as the outgoing president — and at the onset of winter in North Dakota.
As President-elect Donald Trump discusses approving the Dakota Access pipeline route, attempting to reverse the decision of his predecessor as quickly as possible, it will test his populist credentials that he sold to the American public. More physical power — oil flow — does translate to a larger economy. The oil in the ground is no use if it cannot flow to the pump. But alas, there is also less use in gasoline flowing to the pump if fewer and fewer people can afford to use it. More power flowing to fewer pockets is not what Trump claims to promote.
The Keystone XL oil pipeline debate centered on carbon and climate concerns and from where our physical power originates. The voters in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan who helped put Trump in White House were not thinking about climate change. These Americans felt left behind by increased global competition. They lost economic power and control over their lives. Trump told them he would give both back to them. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen.
The Dakota Access pipeline concerns the same story. It’s about the power of people to be in control of decisions that affect their lives. The Native Americans, protesters and veterans in North Dakota showed up as a test of power of the local people against broader business interests. They won this battle, but if history is any indication, they likely will not win the war for stopping or rerouting the pipeline. Obama bought them some time. Only time will tell just exactly what Trump will buy for them, and thus, which citizens of America he is helping to be great again. Trump needs to let us know if he thinks there is equal power for ensuring a right of way versus the right to get in the way.
King is a research scientist and the assistant director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas.