Pipeline, Standing Rock conflict is all about power

The following is the text of an opinion editorial I wrote that was placed in many major Texas newspapers on December 8, 2016. I also include comments received via e-mail, from readers, and only include names when persons specifically gave permission to do so.

Links to version in Austin American StatesmanHouston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News

The recent decision by the 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 that can restrict or control of 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: 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 (e.g., 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 that help 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 people to be in control of decisions that affect their lives.  The Native Americans, protestors, 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.

Carey King is a research scientist and the assistant director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.

11 thoughts on “Pipeline, Standing Rock conflict is all about power

  1. CareyKing Post author

    Thank you for your column about the Dakota Access Pipe Line.
    I resonated with the way you see what is really happening. Yes,
    for which ones of us will Donald make America great? – ANONYMOUS

  2. CareyKing Post author

    I found your op ed piece on the Dakota pipeline interesting and thought provoking. I did have some difficulty with how you characterized a few of your points. Your inference that “more power flowing to fewer pockets” with respect to gasoline at the pump defies supply/demand considerations. In fact more, not fewer, people will be able to afford gasoline if the oil flows. Sure, powerful interests, i.e., investors and oil companies, will benefit, but they too are part of our economy.
    The issue is the good of the “commons” vs. the pain inflicted on a minority. Surely a compromise can be found. But should a minority position, based on a concern that is moot given the natural gas pipelines running through the same area, force the country to import more oil from abroad? And many of the anti-pipeline advocates object to any alternative route, for their concern is not with the Standing Rock tribe but with fossil fuels. They of course saw no irony in their massive use of fossil fuels to drive/fly to the picketing site.
    The energy revolution alone saved the economy and gave the President some sense of economic vindication not granted by his 8-year economic recovery policies. So the hypocricy leaves me bewildered. We must view non-coal fossil fuels as the transitional bridge to renewables that are decades away from being economically viable. Energy is complicated but when it reduces to the political absurdity of “Big Oil” and the common folk, we do ourselves a disservice.

  3. CareyKing Post author

    If you haven’t been up here keep your opinions to yourself. You are reporting fake news. I live here and have seen the so called peaceful protesters. The natives would do it right but the outside interests are the ones doing the damage. Report that. Also look at who organized the vets. It was Westlie Clark Jr son of retired Army General Westlie Clark Sr, who is a retired Gen of the Army and die hard Clinton and Obama supporter. The law here has the duty to protect private property and that is what they are doing. Search out Rep Kevin Cramers remarks to the House of Representatives if you’re interested in the truth. Get all the facts before you throw gas on the fire.

  4. CareyKing Post author

    I read with amusement your explanation of the pros and cons of the oil pipeline that will move oil from the oilfields of North Dakota to the refining centers for distribution as fuel for the nations economy.
    As a graduate of the University that you supposedly represent, I have been disappointed in the strong lean to the left since I graduated. It has been gradual, but relentless.
    Now that we have a uniter in the White House instead of a divider, the media will not be able to spew their lies through vehicles such as PC college professors like yourself and especially since you reside in the energy department.
    Fortunately, a new POTUS and new EPA director will bring sanity back to this nation and reverse all of the Climate Change BS the media says is settled. It is not settled, and the EPA that has been corrupted by Obama and the liberal department leaders will be gone and their unauthorized rule making with it.
    Hope for the demise of your agenda, and HOOK EM HORNS!

  5. CareyKing Post author

    If I understood your point, you are asking if Trump will support the small number of protesters and their difficult to fathom rationale over the perhaps millions who will benefit from the economic and environmental benefits of moving this oil via modern pipeline rather than truck and rail. Trump’s not an ideologue or a fool. He’ll support the pipeline.

  6. CareyKing Post author

    Yes they have the right. Yep they won the round. Yes Obama stepped in and halted it. Most of these people are ill informed. Their supporters are hypocrites as well. Most of the hippies don’t even believe in God and yet they support this detouring because of water and burial ground concerns. Never mind the fact that a train runs right though it currently. These same people don’t understand that the movement of this oil lowers the price across the board, supports jobs along the way, and keeps us as independent as we can be from foreign oil. Once the process is completed and the pipeline has been approved to proceed, these people need to obey the lawful order of police to move out of the way or they will be law breakers and arrested where it will go on their record. Sure wish these same people cared more about babies being murdered in the womb. Sure wish these same people would be out in force in ND to feed the poorest out there that are alive instead of trying to protect some burial grounds that so far they have failed to prove exist. Why would trump back a small band of hippies who convinced the liberal government? They weren’t populist like you said. Here is you “they are populist trump. You said you are for the people having power. Cmon man look they did it. They rose up. U going to deny them and kick them out of be way? Oh look then you aren’t pro people”. That’s a weak argument since this small small small minority just happened to get the hippie presidents attention. Trump was elected by people who were not like those protesting.

  7. CareyKing Post author

    I read with interest your viewpoints on the Dakota PipeLine published in this morning’s Dallas Morning News. At first, I was a bit dismissive of what you had to say, but later determined that the connection of the protestors to a populist movement had some merit. More importantly, respect for people is an important principle., and value in our society. However, I view the protests as fueled by environmental activist who want to stop any and all projects that relate to exploring for and distributing fossil fuels, and that is a factor. One that should be disclosed in writing on this topic.

    I will disclose to you that I have modest investment in Enterprise Transfer Partners; it’s part of a modest retirement portfolio that represents my retirement. ETP has a good dividend yield and is a energy staple in many retiree portfolios. ETP has already invested some $3.8 billion to build the Dakota Pipeline, and permits had already been granted. The area under protest is the last 1100 feet and, as you know, there are already pre-existing pipelines in this area, and in fact, in a large network of pipelines all over the western US. ETP worked closely with the Corp of Engineers on this project, and the Native American groups declined to participate. In my view, these protests are a violation of the rule of law, and, inappropriate at this time. In good faith, and with appropriate legal processes having been followed, ETP invested substantial funds in this project. In addition, the project takes fossil fuel product being moved by rail car and distributes the product through pipelines, which seem to be a better environmental answer.

    This leaves all of us in a quandary. I have said your perspective has validity, and respect for people is an important principle. But, the rule of law is also an important principle. When writing about this topic, it’s important to understand these values, and how we can best address balancing these principles for the right outcome.


  8. CareyKing Post author

    Since you have access to the Statesman ‘s Viewpoint page, may I suggest a follow-up article that compares the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline Keystone Pipeline with the construction of the Big Inch Pipeline and Little Big Inch Pipeline. Please stress time of completion and the improvement on equipment, welding, in today’s construction as it effects completion time. If we really need improved infrastructure, the comparison may be insightful.

  9. CareyKing Post author

    Saw the Dallas Morning News article regarding populism and Trump. Key mistake in this article is that it seems to assert that “local people” in ND are against this pipeline.

    North Dakotans are OVERWHELMINGLY in favor of this pipeline. ‎Most of the protesters represent extreme elements, from out of state… that is not what I would refer to as populism.


  10. CareyKing Post author

    As an activist since the 60’s, the resistance to the pipeline may portend a much greater resistance movement to Trumpism


  11. CareyKing Post author

    I read your well written argument against oil, but you missed telling most of the truth.

    All the oil at Keystone and at Dakota will get to market one way or the other; one more risky way or one safer way.

    You distort your argument by claiming it is all about power. It is about being rational, running any business, being efficient and making a profit for less risk.

    You neglected to mention the years of discussions with numerous tribes, the fact that there are hundreds, thousands of pipelines under rivers all over the country, the land is not on the res., the sacred sites are maybe not really sacred sites and on and on.

    It gets easier and easier to wind up emotions of many well meaning groups and harder and harder to make them understand the facts of many issues.

    The promise of the next administration is that Trump seems to understand these issues more than the highly inexperienced, still, Obama has understand much about anything.

    The next four years may return the US to moderate, rational and balanced solutions to many issues which have gone off on the wrong tangent under the hopelessly naive and very foolish Obama.


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