Last May saw the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a much resisted and controversial project transporting crude oil from Canada to Texas. And through rivers, ranches and sacred Native burial grounds.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is part of a larger project called Keystone XL, supposed to link Alberta’s oil sands to the Midwest’s refineries, and then all the way down to Texas for exporting. For those a little less familiar with American fossil fuel hotspots, this represents a total of 3,500km, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

This $3.7 billion extension, dubbed Keystone XL for its extra wide tubes, would transport 400,000 barrels of crude oil per day. By the way, the US alone consumes 400 million barrels of fuel each day. Million with a M like Massive problem. Roughly 40% of petroleum import comes from its neighbour to the North. Canada started exploiting huge reserves of oil sands in Alberta, relaying the dwindling Texan oil fields for North American local supply.

Dakota pipeline path (Credit: Transcanada)

In the Winter of 2015, violent clashes between protesters and police forces brought worldwide attention to this project.

A determined alliance of Native Americans, environmental activists and locals blocked the worksite to put a stop to the construction. The pipeline, they argued, not only infringes on tribal sacred grounds, but also jeopardises the freshwater resources provided by the river and the groundwater reserves, exceptionally large in this area.

After a legislative arm wrestle between Republicans and Democrats, President Obama himself had decided to burry the project, declaring: “frankly, approving this project would have undercut [the United States’] global leadership on climate change.” Unfortunately, Trump reversed this decision as soon as he assumed office. The project was completed in May.

Why does this battle matter in the bigger picture, and what does it say about our choices as a civilisation?

Pipelines are a messy business

There are already almost 4 million kilometres of pipelines in the US alone (largest and densest grid in the world), of which 116,000 dedicated to crude oil. Since 2010 and in the US alone, nearly 9 million gallons of crude oil have spilled from pipelines, for a total of 1,300 single spills. That amounts to about one spill a day over the same period.

Sioux chiefs on the Warpath (1905) (Credit: Edward Curtis)

With these statistics in mind, it’s understandable that the 7,000 tribe members, essentially Assiniboine and Sioux, but also thousands of others that rely on the water downstream from the pipeline have trouble believing the confident safety spiel served by Transcanada, the constructor and operator of the pipelines.

In these parts of the US, many layers of history collaborate The Badlands have an air of ancient nobility to it, with its open-air dinosaur skeletons, and its geological riches.

The pipeline’s route clashes with tribal sacred lands and passes 56 rivers and streams, including the Missouri, the longest river in North America. “The Black Snake”, as its opponents call the project, is a menace to the ecosystems it will cross.

As Dena Hoff, an environmentalist and project opponent put it, “there are only two kinds of pipelines, the ones that are leaking and the ones that are going to leak.” As a matter of fact, the DAPL suffered its first leak in May, before it was even put in service.

A leak under large water stretches would be, not only catastrophic from an ecological perspective, but also technically very complicated to tap out.

Elegy for an old world

Mega projects have already proven costly, both to humanity and to nature alike. Building a continent wide crude oil-guzzling pipe through regions that aren’t even that geologically stable seems like a risky business. So did the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Protests against large infrastructure projects have erupted across the world. From the Nantes airport, where the occupants have resisted for over 20 years, to the Sioux Nation protecting its only source of water, nature has become a thing to defend and to fight for.

The Dakota Access Pipeline feels like this last project that a dying industry is still trying to sell to governments. In an age when scientists agree that to meet the 2°C objective, the remaining fossil fuels should remain in the ground, building a multibillion dollar pipeline doesn’t send the right message, and doesn’t put society on the right track.

“You never recover all the oil, anyone who tells you that is telling you stories.” (Credit: Vice, Pipeline Nation: America’s Broken Industry)”

A little spill is not OK, and a profit maximising company cannot tread lightly with these subjects. Governments must give the impulse towards a new world organisation. The protection of basic natural resources should be a priority in any endeavour of this scale.

That is what this battle is about. Making sure the sustainable transition is the first, second and third orders of business. The era of oil is ending, and we want to make sure there is an era after that. We could call it the era of clean water. Or simply the era-when-we-survived!