Mary Annette Pember
Water protector pours water on the ground near Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. While oil companies tout jobs with the idea that the opposite is economic ruin, the water protectors fear something even more dire: the loss of the essential element that sustains life.

Fear Is Big Oil’s Main Message When Touting Pipeline Jobs

Mary Annette Pember

It’s all spelled out right on Energy Partners LP’s website.

“The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.7 billion investment that will create 8,000 to 12,000 local jobs during construction,” the website for the parent company building the DAPL reads. “Millions of hours of labor will be needed during the construction phase.”

The implication: Without jobs, families will lose their homes, they will go hungry, their lives will change, they will step into a great unknown that yawns darkly ahead. In other words, it’s all about fear.

A woman who answered the phone at Rusty’s Saloon and Bar in the tiny town of St. Anthony near the pipeline route expressed worry that actions by water protectors opposing the pipeline would stand in the way of people doing their jobs. The actions could prevent ranchers from getting out their fields in order to harvest silage and keep pipeline workers trying to get to their job sites, she said. 

The pipeline workers “are still allowed to do their jobs,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. “They are just trying to put food on their tables and provide for their families. I feel bad for those workers. None of this is their fault.”

One can hear the fear and anguish in the voices of local non-Natives here in North Dakota when they talk about the possibility of friends and neighbors losing their jobs. Poignantly, there is also a fleeting note of concern about the potential impact of the vast pipeline on the land they love and the water they and their children drink.

The woman from Rusty’s admitted that she cared about the water. One could also hear her love of the land in her voice; it’s where she and her family have made their home in this great dusty expanse.

“We’re used to this way of life, the peace and the quiet,” she said.

Indeed, this is a place that demands love in order to make a life on its hardscrabble flat. Even Morton County Sheriff department spokesperson Rob Keller carried a note of sadness in his voice as he responded to questions about the his boss’s response to the presence of water protector camps there. He was clearly pained about the bad blood between neighbors and friends.

The sudden influx of outsiders who have come to support the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s opposition to building the pipeline under Lake Oahe, the tribe’s source of drinking water, is unnerving to locals.  The newcomers call themselves water protectors, and they engage in actions designed to stop work on the pipeline. Although mostly peaceful, the actions have helped direct the world spotlight onto this shy place where folks are unused to public attention. The actions here have come to symbolize far greater issues than the DAPL. They have come to represent the implications of climate change and the impact of continued dependence on fossil fuels.

“We are caught in the middle. I wish it would all just go away,” the Rusty’s customer said.

Indeed, much of the pipeline construction and its short-term jobs, finished or otherwise, will go away soon. She and her family and neighbors and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe will be left to deal with the environmental and economic fallout.

Many studies have proved that the extractive fossil fuel industry has a long track record of creating boom and bust economies that are, by definition, unsustainable, according to Alternet.

The Carbon Tracker Initiative, which analyzes carbon investment risks, points out that over the next decade, fossil fuel companies risk wasting up to $2.2 trillion of investments in new projects that could turn out to be “uneconomic” in the face of international climate mitigation policies.

“Often, new development is associated with one-time pipeline construction, further increasing the short term impacts,” noted the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center in a recent report. “Thus, most of the economic impact of a [fracking] well in terms of the employment effect to a local area occurs in the first several months, even though wells may continue to produce many years without a need to re-frack.”

A slightly longer-term vision points to the externalities of the fossil fuel industry. Many of the externalized costs associated with fossil fuels are being now or will be borne by public agencies at every level of government, according to a study by the Center for Sustainable Economy. For example the insurance industry estimates that 2012 was the second costliest year in US history for climate-related disasters, with $110 billion in weather-related property claims. Yet private insurers pick up only 25 percent of the tab, leaving the other 75 percent for US taxpayers to cover—a total of $96 billion, which is more than the federal government spend on education or transportation in 2012.

Fear is shortsighted; it prevents people from taking a longer view. Energy Transfers L.P. is counting on that human frailty to carry them through. If not for Native folks and their allies, however, it would be a pretty safe bet.

As noted by indigenous educator and scientist Gregory Cajete, director of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, Native folks are encouraged to “look to the mountain.” According to Cajete, this phrase is an old Pueblo saying. He published a book under this title several years ago.

Cajete of the Santa Clara Pueblo is author of seven books presenting the indigenous view of the world, science and ways that we might teach from the indigenous perspective.

“Western education is predicated on a worldview that objectivizes the world, that reduces the world to measureable outcomes, measureable entities,” he told InMotion Magazine in a recent interview. “I teach from a perspective of always remembering that everything is always a part of a context and that context is always in dynamic flux.”

Cajete has been speaking and writing about the importance of climate change and the impact of reliance on fossil fuel for years. In 2011 he was a keynote speaker at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Symposium, “Creating a Climate of Change: A Sustainable Future for the Living Earth.”

“We [Native peoples] have been talking about the importance of climate change for years to anyone who would listen,” he said.

He further noted that although Indigenous Peoples may be more vulnerable to climate change, they might be in a position to offer important lessons to the rest of the world in addressing this challenge.

Cajete and his co-presenters at the symposium noted that many indigenous people, unlike the rest of America, continue to have a sense of community and live in extended family situations.

Mainstream Americans living isolated lives, disconnected from their neighbors, may have a tougher time dealing with challenges brought about by climate change.

“In order to continue our survival as a species, we must reintegrate ourselves into family,” author Jeremy Rifkin said during the symposium.

“Human beings are hard-wired for empathy. Empathy is our social glue, our transcendent value.”

This empathy must be extended not only to the human race but also to the entire biosphere and all its creatures. According to Rifkin, modern humans have become estranged from the rhythms of Earth and have lost empathy not only for each other but also for the planet.

This estrangement has allowed us to ignore the impact of excessive fossil-fuel dependence on the Earth. Our ideas about human nature, mostly based on acquiring property, have become toxic and dysfunctional.

“We are in deep trouble as a species and are potentially headed for a mass die-off,” Rifkin said. We are monsters devouring the Earth.”

He said people must relearn empathy and the spirit of working together in order to survive.

“Native culture has known this empathy all along. They have much to teach us,” he observed. “If mainstream society had embraced the native philosophy of considering how their decisions would affect the next seven generations, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.”

One of the key elements in this struggle to forge a new energy path is creating a safe and loving space for people like the woman from Rusty’s to express their own love of land and community. Surely, we as human beings all share that transcendent desire. We must be brave enough, however, to step forward, and we must do so together.

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