In early September, during a diplomatic visit to the southeast Asian nation of Laos, President Obama fielded an unusual question: "My question is in solidarity with the indigenous people of, not my country, but in America itself," explained an audience member. "This group of people is fighting to protect ancestral land against the Dakota Access pipeline. ... So my question is what ... can you do to ensure the protection of ancestral lands and clean water, and also, that environmental justice is [upheld]?"
"It's a great question," Obama replied, but he had no answer. "I can't give you details on this particular case. I'd have to go back to my staff and find out."
Back in the Dakotas, another standoff was brewing between big oil and tribal sovereignty. This time, it was the Dakota Access pipeline, another major conduit to move crude oil from western North Dakota to markets in the Midwest. Near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, this pipeline was poised to disturb sacred burial grounds and burrow beneath the Missouri River, risking contamination of vast quantities of fresh water.
For weeks, Lakota leaders have been gathering at the northern border of the Standing Rock reservation, together with thousands of people representing 280 tribes and sovereign nations, to speak out for sacred waters and demand that their treaty be honored.
The tribes' concerns are valid. Crude oil pipelines leak at river crossings, sometimes causing catastrophic spills. On the Yellowstone River alone, pipelines spilled thousands of gallons of crude into the water in 2011 and again in 2015.
The Dakota Access pipeline is just one toxic tentacle of a fossil fuel industry that continues its inexorable poisoning of the planet. The dark legacy of past spills continues to remind us of the gravity of the situation.
In 1969, thanks to oil slicks from industrial discharge, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire for the 13th time, spawning a nationwide environmental movement. Congress passed bedrock laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
With federal regulators keeping watch, we were led to believe we didn't have to worry about those disasters anymore.
Then, in 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of crude into Alaskan waters, fouling seabirds and marine mammals and crippling the local fishing industry. In 2001, the George W. Bush administration unleashed large-scale drilling, turning millions of acres of the American West into wasteland, driving the sage grouse to the brink of extinction. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, spewing millions of gallons of burning crude. Our nation's environmental laws could not prevent three global-scale environmental disasters in three decades — and these are only the tip of the oil-fouled iceberg. A spill on the scale of what is feared in North Dakota would likely go unnoticed.
Apparently, our environmental laws could use some strengthening.
Fossil fuel impacts often seem intentionally focused on resource-poor communities, such as the petrochemical pollution of "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana. An entire field of activism is emerging called "environmental justice," with the goal of preventing, and cleaning up, the mess that big polluters have been making in the poorest and most disenfranchised communities.
Although we remember major spills like the Exxon Valdez, the truth is, that and others like it were just the minor disasters. Thanks to our global addiction to coal, oil and natural gas, our tailpipes and smokestacks pump millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air. This traps the heat of the sun, causing a global climate disruption, and warms the seas, killing vibrant tropical coral reefs and spawning bigger, fiercer "superstorms" at sea. The resulting disasters and billions of dollars in economic damage are a price we all are paying, but no clean-up effort can remediate planet-wide damage.
The impacts of the fossil fuel industry are spreading. Communities from Dimock, Pennsylvania to Pavillion, Wyoming to Broomfield, Colorado have had their groundwater imperiled by poisonous fracking fluids. Smog from the drilling fields near Pinedale, Wyoming has turned once-pristine air into an industrial brown cloud. Near the gas fields of Vernal, Utah, infant mortality has spiked. In western Colorado, nurses poisoned by fracking fluids were unable to learn what fracking chemicals were used so they could be treated.
Today, it is the Lakota who find their communities and heritage imperiled by fossil fuel development. And, although Laos is one of the most remote nations on the planet, a woman from Malaysia stumped the world's most powerful leader by proving he had not heard about the Dakota pipeline controversy. Days later, federal agencies temporarily halted pipeline construction in a limited area near Standing Rock.
In fairness, thanks to a near-total news blackout, most Americans hadn't heard about Standing Rock, either.
The world is watching now. Indigenous peoples are coming to Standing Rock from as far away as the Amazon Basin. Tribes are coming together in support of this common cause. As the Dakota Access Pipeline becomes a global indigenous rights cause célèbre, the injustices are becoming harder to ignore.
What can we do, Americans who live in middle- or upper-class comfort, or who struggle at working-class jobs that barely pay the bills?
We can pay attention. We can express our gratitude for the bravery of these original Americans who stand for clean water. The Lakota and 280 other assembled tribes at Standing Rock, from whom America has taken so much yet given so little, are taking a brave stand on behalf of all of us.
We owe them solutions that honor their rights and sovereignty.
And we can work toward dispensing with the fossil fuel industry, and move our society forward, adopting the clean and renewable energy sources of the future. Until we begin to lead the energy world away from fossil fuels, we remain the source of these unnatural disasters.
Molvar is the Sagebrush Sea Campaign Director for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West. He visited the encampment at Standing Rock in late August.
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