I guess, if I had thought about it, I might have figured out that there had to be a place you could jump across the Mississippi. But I had seen its majestic flow at so many points along its route (heartbreaking through Minneapolis, majestic in St. Louis, oceanic by Baton Rouge) that I had never imagined it as a mere trickle. Now, I’ve – I’ve waded through that net, actually – and an epic day in recent American native and environmental activism.
The backstory is that a large Canadian company, Enbridge, attempted to expand and replace a pipeline, called Line 3, which runs through northern Minnesota. It would be roughly the same size as the now defeated Keystone XL pipeline, and would carry seven hundred and sixty thousand barrels of crude oil and tar sands from Canada every day. (Enbridge calls the project a “replacement” for the existing pipeline, but it will double current capacity.) Most of the activists are indigenous, led by groups such as Honor the Earth and the Giniw Collective, and many of them are led by remarkable women — Winona LaDuke, Tara Houska and Dawn Goodwin, among many others. They campaigned vigorously through a bitter Midwestern winter, but it was hampered by the pandemic. Now the vaccines have freed more people to join them, and Monday was the first big mobilization.
Two mobilizations, in fact, which was easy because there were so many people from all over the country. In one case, activists locked themselves in construction equipment at a pumping station, and a video shows a border patrol helicopter hovering at low altitude, in what appeared to be an attempt to stir up clouds of dust to drive away protesters. (Law enforcement officials denied this, saying the purpose of the helicopter flight was to issue a dispersal order to protesters.) At the end of the day, state police and sheriff’s officers , who, under the terms of the state permit, receive financial support Enbridge, had arrested more than a hundred people.
I was at the other demonstration, about twenty miles away, where a county road crosses the Mississippi at a place so narrow that the river could be mistaken for a ditch. The elders of the tribe held water and pipe ceremonies, singing as the scorching sun rose against a clear blue sky and hundreds of dragonflies circled above. Then, after listening to the speeches of Jane Fonda and Rosanna Arquette (I spoke too), the crowd walked towards the bridge. It was easy to see, maybe a hundred yards, through a swamp, a boardwalk that Enbridge had built over the wetland, to support the equipment that will be used to tunnel for the pipeline. under the river. I left with a large group through overwhelming mounds to reach this wooded road. Within ten minutes, a few hundred people – many of whom had lawyer phone numbers written on their forearms, if arrested – had reached the promenade and started pitching tents. I am no master of the terrain, but it seemed to me to be a favorable redoubt – high ground in a swamp, with a freshwater route for canoeing supplies. Since Monday evening, the descendants of the first inhabitants of the territory have occupied both banks of the country’s great river.
They also occupy moral heights. Until now, much of the opposition to the pipeline has been based on treaty rights and the danger of oil spills in the dozens of places where the pipeline route crosses rivers. , wild rice waters and wetlands. I sat on the promenade next to Tom Goldtooth, a veteran leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, as he explained the treaties that had been violated and sovereignty now asserted. But those arguments alone – even in 2021, as we theoretically reckon with America’s past – have apparently not been enough to deter Democratic state governor Tim Walz. It was under pressure from unions providing most of the workforce – Enbridge says more than five thousand jobs, including five hundred occupied by Native Americans – to build the pipeline, a project that could be completed by the end. of the year, and almost every job with that.
Now another argument, about climate change, is receiving renewed prominence, as the Biden administration has made it a central part of its tenure. In 2015, the Obama administration, with Joe Biden as vice president, withdrew the permits for Keystone XL because it lack the White House climate test. “America is now a world leader when it comes to taking serious action to combat climate change,” President Obama said. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undermined that global leadership. And that’s the biggest risk we face: failing to act.
So why would the Biden administration have let a pipeline of almost the same size, carrying oil from the tar sands, unfold? Since 2015, the United States has joined (and joined) the Paris climate agreement, promising to keep temperature increases as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible, and climate scientists around the world have explained that this means reducing emissions by 45% by 2030. And we had the hottest year, the worst wildfire season in the West, the greatest storm season in the Atlantic, and the hottest temperature. highest ever reliably recorded in America. Meanwhile, the price of solar power has fallen by half over the past decade. So if the KXL failed the climate test six years ago, how could Line 3 pass it today? Enbridge told the Time that it has “passed six years of regulatory review and licensing.” But this most fundamental climate question has never been answered: How does the increasing flow of oil from the tar sands not make progress in reducing emissions more difficult?
President Biden has taken climate change more seriously than any of his predecessors, with a series of executive orders designed to bring real change across government. On the supply side, climate experts give it credit for suspending drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and giving Keystone final discharge. But these weren’t hard decisions: in either case, many years of activism had clearly made them democratic priorities. Yet late last month Biden authorized the continuation of a Trump administration-approved Alaska oil and gas project that would produce more than 100,000 barrels a day for thirty years. (According to Time, members of the state’s congressional delegation raised the matter with Biden while he was in the White House signing a bill to allow cruise ships to return to that state. ) It did not work well with environmental groups who were a key part of his election campaign. coalition.
Line 3 is therefore a real test. If Biden is really serious that the climate is the most important priority of his presidency, it makes no sense to authorize an oil pipeline which, decades from now, will still discharge huge quantities of particularly dirty crude. He doesn’t even need Senator Joe Manchin’s vote on this one — he can direct the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the watercourse crossing permits, which would stop the project. With more than half the job done, more than half of the paychecks have been cashed – and, in any event, unions should be prepared to give a little slack to a president working hard to push through. a huge package of infrastructure spending. And the rest of the world is watching to see if this president really intends to take over America’s leadership role on climate change.
On Monday, the news arrived that the CO2 levels measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Base Observatory in Hawaii had together a new average monthly record of four hundred and nineteen parts per million, the highest levels in over four million years. But, that same day, watching the tribal elders conduct their ceremonies in the clear waters upstream of the Mississippi, it was possible to imagine a different world in the making, a world that accommodates different people and needs. For the moment, anyway, an older and deeper logic seemed to prevail.