Shared from the 11/6/2016 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition


No Pipe Dream

In the oil-line controversy out west, the issues are familiar.


Near Sunoco Logistics’ headquarters in Newtown Square, Dan Bailiff of the Pachamama Alliance blows on a conch shell to “summon the spirits” as Ruth Ann James blesses him with a turkey feather. CHARLES FOX / Staff





As striking Philadelphia transit workers delayed SEPTA trains Tuesday, David Galarza and his friends were stranding New York commuters by shutting down Grand Central Station.

Galarza, a labor rep and Puerto Rico activist I’ve known since we were young reporters many years ago, was part of the diverse and loud coalition protesting construction of a stretch of the $4 billion-plus Dakota Access Pipeline, which Sunoco Logistics plans to operate for a group of oil companies so they can run North Dakota oil to Midwest industries, Texas refineries, and buyers abroad.

He and his friends reveled in a sense of unity: “There’s a lot of synergy in this pipeline fight because it represents so many of our struggles against injustices perpetrated on Mother Earth, people of color, poor people, human rights in general.”

I told David I still had a tough time understanding why the best way to achieve such goals was to keep tens of thousands of workers from getting home because of a dispute 1,600 miles away.

So I looked a little closer. Set aside the lefty, multiethnic, and climate-change solidarity, read the official statements posted by the duly elected leaders of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation the protesters say they support, and you’re left with a familiar and practical American problem:

If you’re going to build that big thing near me, I want more say in how you do it. And a bigger piece of the action.

About 6,000 members of a couple tribes live at Standing Rock, a reservation bigger than Delaware. Tribal documents show that the land is already crossed by roads, railroads, utilities, and reservoirs, which leaders aren’t campaigning to remove. While protest sympathizers include people calling for an end to using fossil fuels, Standing Rock hasn’t demanded anything so radical; tribe members own gas stations and local utilities. The pipeline route doesn’t actually run on the reservation; it passes to the north, deep underground.

In their official statement, reservation leaders have called on the Army Corps of Engineers to stop contractors from completing the project — not forever, but until a proper environmental-impact statement is completed. They blame the corps for rushing the job on the oil companies’ behalf.

A report by the tribe notes that the pipeline is creating more construction jobs than there are people on the reservation, though only about 40 permanent jobs. It lists local retail, gambling, and utility businesses owned by tribal members, and notes that their trade will likely be increased by the reservation’s proximity to the pipeline.

But it also notes that the project is very large compared with the small size of the community. The recent oil boom has put pressure on housing, schools, utilities, and law enforcement in many other communities around North Dakota.

These aren’t unusual concerns. They recall some of the worries about pipelines and leaks that Pennsylvania property owners have raised about Sunoco Logistics’ Mariner East pipeline project to bring Marcellus Shale liquids for processing and export at Marcus Hook.

It’s standard by now, in big multinational industrial and energy finance projects, for lenders — before committing billions — to send listeners to study whether natives and other locals know what they’re in for and are getting a piece of the action. Bankers hate to get embarrassed by big multinational protests, such as the ones that have spread from Standing Rock.

You can expect that the U.S. oil companies know what they’re legally required to do. A federal judge, while lamenting “any depredation of lands that hold significance to the Standing Rock Sioux,” given “centuries [of] indignities,” declined to give tribal leaders an injunction requiring a historical survey before the pipeline goes through. Courts have similarly shot down communities that tried to stop pipelines in Pennsylvania.

But Standing Rock has other venues besides the national law. The protests have gotten to where federal agencies have agreed to stall the project, which was supposed to be done this year, so they can study it some more. At least until after this week’s election.

Oil companies are run by practical people, engineers and investors. But when their political fights get big enough, they sometimes find they face fellow citizens who aren’t strictly motivated by costs and benefits, but by emotion and a yearning for some kind of higher community. People who might avoid the inconvenient facts: that fewer pipelines probably means more oil trains, enriching Warren Buffett without making shipping safer; or that shutting off shipping for U.S. oil producers means more sales and profits for OPEC and Russia.

There’s a lesson here for business, and the rest of us: Some of the loudest, most politically active Americans can be swayed by causes and rhetoric far beyond our daily interests, by political, ethnic, and world-saving arguments that help secure them in the belief they are justified in taking positions and even actions that hurt their neighbors, such as those New York commuters.

And remember that if the Election Day results surprise you.

215-854-5194 @PhillyJoeD

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