Water is Life: Dakota Pipeline Project

“Water is life” is the iconic rallying cry of the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. This standoff between the native people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Dakota Access, LLC is without a doubt the biggest environmental story of 2016. However, this slogan has implications which reach far beyond this year. Let’s unpack what “Water Is Life” means to the larger climate change conversation.

The necessity of clean water to the human body is an obvious fact and has always been. Since time immemorial people have worshiped water deities. From the Yoruba to the Aztecs, ancient Greece to ancient China, we have expressed the centrality of water to a healthy existence by worshiping beings that embody it, control it, or provide it. Although the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) does not cross through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, it does cross Lake Oahe, a body of water crucial to the health and spirituality of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. There are currently fourteen pipelines that cross the Missouri River, and the planned river-crossing site for the DAPL “already hosts a natural gas pipeline and a high-voltage electric transmission line”. So why is the opposition to the pipeline so fierce, and what does it say about how we view energy, and especially water?

Understandably, many consumers feel it is not in their power to influence the activities of oil and gas companies. Some in opposition to the DAPL have physically blocked its construction, showed support for indigenous Water Protectors on social media, and boycotted banks, including several Canadian banks including RBC Royal Bank, TD Canada Trust, and Scotiabank, which are providing funding to the construction of the controversial pipeline – a link to other International banks funding pipeline projects are as linked here. While many acknowledge that fossil fuels have a massive environmental impact, we have been largely unwilling to stop using cars and planes. It is much easier to condemn the building of a pipeline than it is to buy an electric car or only take public transport. But pipeline and oil tanker spills remain a constant reminder of the destructive nature of fossil fuels. On December 10, 2016 the Belle Fourche Pipeline, also in North Dakota, spilled 176, 000 gallons of oil into a tributary of the Missouri River. Spills like this one and of the infamous Exxon Valdez provide more shocking footage of pollution than car exhaust ever could. Pristine creeks turned brown and slick, birds weighed down with filth, beaches turned black; These are the realizations of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s nightmares.

Grizzly oil spill images are a pervasive reminder of two things: that oil leaks, and that we still care about clean water. The DAPL itself was rerouted away from Bismark, North Dakota due to fears that it would pollute municipal drinking water. The Natural Resources Defence Council’s tracking of reported oil spills counts dozens each year. An article from Science magazine concludes that the global water supply may be a more pressing issue than rising global temperatures. Water must be protected, but opposing pipeline construction should not be our only means for doing so.

We all need to be reminded that Water is Life, and that it is precious and increasingly scarce. But we also must be reminded that the consumption of oil and the opposition to pipelines cannot coexist. The bravery of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the face of oppression, brutal police tactics, and ongoing colonization is important to the protection of freshwater sources, but consumers of energy must do their part to support alternative and renewable energy sources if we wish to see a future free of pipelines.

Canada is set to build 8 new pipelines and expansions, including Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain, and Energy East. According to The National Observer, this is in response to a projected growth in Canada’s oil sands production. However, they write, “new pipeline projects will lead to a ramp up in oil sands extraction, contravening Canada’s commitment to the Paris Agreement”. In short, we are investing in a growing industry, which we have acknowledged needs to decline. However, they conclude that production will increase regardless, and increased production will strain the existing infrastructure. If it is spills and leaks we wish to avoid, new and better pipelines may be the best albeit a temporary option. If Canada’s pipelines reach capacity, refineries will begin shipping crude by rail, which is 4.5 times likely to have accidents and spills, and those rail incidents are more likely to kill people. CBC also reports that new pipelines and oil exports, including to Asia, could bring 46.7 billion CAD in revenue to the Canadian government. There are many reasons for and against new pipeline projects in Canada. We believe the solution is a dedication to renewable energy, to decrease the demand on Canada’s oil sands and to eliminate the need for new pipelines, rather than to block them, which is a very temporary solution.

Check out our follow-up piece 10 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO SUPPORT RENEWABLE ENERGY