Pipeline protests across the country are gaining momentum, inspired by the fight at Standing Rock, North Dakota, which drew national media attention and ended in a temporary victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe last month, when the Army Corps of Engineers blocked construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Just over the weekend, native groups and supporters protested oil and gas infrastructure in at least four different states, including North Dakota, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. Fourteen people were arrested at the ongoing Standing Rock protest, where police used tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber-coated bullets to control protesters, according to representatives for the groups.
Now, organizers in Texas are working to block a natural gas pipeline, and they are following the blueprint created at Standing Rock — a blueprint that could prove vital as environmental organizers look to take on Donald Trump.
The Trans-Pecos pipeline crosses a pristine region of Texas.
The Trans-Pecos pipeline will carry natural gas fracked in West Texas across the Rio Grande to Mexico. The pipeline will snake across the largely unspoiled Big Bend region of Texas. Energy Transfer Partners, the same company overseeing the Dakota Access pipeline, is heading the project. The firm expects the Trans-Pecos pipeline to be operational early this year.
Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission spearheaded the project as part of an effort to modernize the country’s power sector. Mexico wants to generate less electricity from coal and more from cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas.
Pipeline opponents worry about the environmental impact of construction and the danger of leaks once the pipeline is finished. As NBC News reported, most towns along the pipeline’s path rely on volunteer emergency response teams, which could prove unable to stop a fire at the site of a leak.
Landowners are concerned about losing their property to eminent domain. Private property, say locals, is sacrosanct in Texas.
Protesters have learned from Standing Rock.
Demonstrators have deployed several tactics that proved successful in North Dakota.
Yolonda Bluehorse, a member of the Society of Native Nations, a Native American advocacy group, said that she and her colleagues have sought the advice of organizers at Standing Rock.
“We’ve learned a lot from Standing Rock,” Bluehorse said.
Organizers have formed a diverse coalition that includes ranchers and environmentalists, just as organizers in North Dakota brought climate advocates and veterans into the fold. These constituencies have varied reasons for opposing the project: protecting water supplies, preventing fracking, averting climate change, or guarding sacred sites along the pipeline’s path.
“There are several different reasons why stopping this pipeline is important,” said Bluehorse. “For us, it’s the land itself. It’s very sacred to us… The outdoors is our church.”
Like organizers at Standing Rock, demonstrators have set up camps near construction sites to maintain a continued presence. The Society of Native Nations’ camp currently hosts dozens of demonstrators. Organizers expect as many as 300 protesters over the next month.
“People of different races and beliefs are coming together for one thing,” said Bluehorse, “to stop this pipeline and protect the water.”
Organizers have prepared for civil disobedience by assembling observers, legal counsel, and medical support. This proved key to efforts at Standing Rock.
In North Dakota, demonstrators met with mace, rubber bullets and water cannons in freezing temperatures. News outlets ran videos and photos of injured demonstrators, recalling scenes from the civil rights movement that won public sympathy for beleaguered protesters. The New Yorker reported that it was these videos that drew so many veterans to Standing Rock.
Last month, the Army Corps of Engineers blocked construction near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Trump may revive the project after he takes office, though it’s possible that the pipeline is already sunk — torpedoed by missed deadlines and falling oil prices.
Stalling construction can sometimes force developers to abandon a project. Bluehorse hopes this tactic will prove successful in Texas.
In the age of Trump, advocates are thinking locally.
Trump, who supports the Dakota Access pipeline, is likely to support the Trans-Pecos project, which will export American-fracked natural gas though a pipeline paid for by Mexico. Because the last segment of the Trans-Pecos pipeline will cross under the Rio Grande, the project requires a presidential permit, which Obama issued in May.
There is no reason to think Trump would overturn this. In fact, quite the opposite: The president-elect has said he wants to ramp up fossil fuel production and narrow the trade deficit with Mexico. The pipeline offers a way to do both.
However, as reported in Bloomberg, imported gas “will lower power costs in Mexico — including those at factories churning out everything from car parts to flatscreen TVs for American consumers.” This will drive down the cost of some goods made in Mexico, making it harder for American manufacturers to compete.
Until recently, Trump held stake in Energy Transfer Partners, and Rick Perry, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Energy, sat on the company’s board of directors. Both men received generous campaign donations from the firm’s president, Kelcy Warren.
For protestors, Trump’s agenda may prove irrelevant. If demonstrators build sustained public opposition to the project and manage to stall construction, that may be sufficient. The Big Bend Conservation Alliance, a Texas group opposing the pipeline, has filed a petition for review with the DC Circuit Court — which could potentially block the project.
For organizers, the pipeline offers a well-defined, locally-relevant problem with a discrete objective. As with Standing Rock, local leaders assembled a diverse coalition of committed, noisy, passionate grassroots activists in place of a top-down, media-driven campaign. Protesters persuaded their friends to make their home in a frigid tent for weeks or months on end. It worked in North Dakota. It could work in Texas, too.
“Get active,” said Bluehorse. “When you see a group of different people that are coming together like this… it’s pretty beautiful, I have to say.”