People opposing the Dakota Access pipeline project, also known as the Bakken pipeline, rally in Des Moines, Iowa. (Barbara Rodriguez / AP)

The American version of democracy focuses on elections and candidates. As the venerable left intellectual Noam Chomsky observed in June, “Citizenship means every four years you put a mark somewhere and you go home and let other guys run the world. It’s a very destructive ideology … a way of making people passive, submissive objects.” Chomsky added that we “ought to teach kids that elections take place, but that’s not [all of] politics.” There’s also the more urgent and serious politics of popular social movements and direct action beneath and beyond the election cycle. We might refine Chomsky’s maxim to read “and let rich guys run the world into the ground” or “let rich guys ruin the world.” With anthropogenic (really “capitalogenic”) global warming, the nation and world’s corporate and financial oligarchs are bringing the planet to the brink of an epic ecosystem collapse. We might also put some meat on the bones of Chomsky’s pedagogical advice by “teach[ing] kids” about the people’s politics being practiced in the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains by citizen activists fighting to help avert ecological calamity by blocking construction of what North Dakota Sioux leader David Archambault II calls “a black snake” of “greed.” The snake in question is the planet-baking Dakota Access/Bakken pipeline, what Iowa activists call “The Next Keystone XL.” While Iowa Berned, Dakota Access Worked Behind the Scenes As progressives flocked to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ impressive rallies in Iowa (like this one) over the past year, the Texas-based company Dakota Access LLC, a division of the ecocidal corporation Energy Transfer Partners LP, moved methodically ahead with its plan to build the Bakken pipeline. This $3.8 billion, 1,134-mile project would carry 540,000 barrels of primarily fracked crude oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken oil patch” daily on a diagonal course through sacred North Dakota Sioux tribal sites and burial grounds, South Dakota, Iowa, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and many other major waterways, to Patoka, Ill. It would link with another pipeline that will transport the black gold to terminals and refineries along the Gulf of Mexico for export to the global market. In March, five weeks after Sanders essentially tied Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus, the corporate-captive Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) approved the giant Iowa portion of the project, granting Dakota Access eminent domain across the entire route through 18 counties — the last major administrative hurdle for the project. The “regulatory” boards in the other three states had already signed off. There was still some slim hope that the Army Corps of Engineers could be persuaded to block the project. That hope was dashed July 25. Dakota Access construction crews have begun moving dirt and tearing up farmers’ crops along the pipeline’s projected path. Pipeline workers with out-of-state license plates are showing up in hotels, motels and camps—and on dating sites like “Plenty of Fish”—along the route. Construction began in South Dakota, North Dakota and Illinois in May. Pipe has been laid in Lee County in Iowa’s southeast corner and Lyon County in the northwest. Last week, a pipeline trench crossed the popular Chichaqua Valley Trail in central Iowa. A young woman from central Iowa reports that a local dating website is “swarming” with out-of-state pipeline workers staying in campsites and elsewhere. Dakota Access first applied to the IUB for a pipeline permit in the fall of 2014, just before Sanders’ first visit to Iowa. Slowly but surely, as media-driven popular excitement over the largely Iowa-focused presidential contest built last year, the company quietly pressed ahead with a public relations offensive (with a strong emphasis on “jobs for Iowans”) against the opposition of environmentalists and concerned citizens. There was only one formal IUB public hearing, and it lasted just one day. The opponents of the pipeline represented a cross-section of Iowans. The proponents were almost entirely from construction unions, many from out of state. Opponents who attended multiple “informational meetings” staged by Dakota Access reported numerous blatant inconsistencies, contradictions and lies in the “facts” presented by the company. While the state dived further into the quadrennial caucus commotion, Dakota Access moved the pipeline through the required administrative and public relations hoops under the media-politics radar. The stakes are high in the fight against the project. “If the Bakken Pipeline is built,” the progressive lobbying organization Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) notes, “it would seriously harm Iowa’s already impaired water quality, threaten the integrity of the fertile farmland of thousands of everyday Iowans, and contribute to our dependence on fossil fuels. This steers us away from developing renewable energy infrastructure and curbing the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.” CCI is part of a broad statewide anti-Bakken group called the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition (BPRC) that includes more than 30 organizations. BPRC is engaged in the difficult work of grass-roots politics and direct action—both legal and extra-legal—beneath and beyond the major-party and candidate-centered presidential election extravaganzas that take early root in Iowa (thanks to its first-in-the-nation caucuses) every four years. A Fake ‘Public Utility’ The IUB’s decision in March was rich with Orwellian irony. Iowa law forbids the condemning of agricultural land for private development. It is true, as Dakota Access argues, that the law excludes utilities under the jurisdiction of the IUB from the private development limitation. And that includes pipelines if they serve a “public purpose.” But this pipeline would simply transport oil through Iowa and therefore serve no discernible public good for the state and, in fact, promises to do considerable harm to the state’s environmental and financial health. Opponents rightly point out that like all pipelines, it will eventually spill, and Dakota Access LLC will leave Iowa holding the bag for the cleanup. Like something out of Kafka, the IUB will have no power to enforce any kind of public regulations whatsoever on the operators of the private interstate pipeline they approved as a “public utility.” The IUB’s decision was another example among many that Iowa is up for sale to big business under the right-wing administration of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. The giant Canadian pipeline company Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum are impressed by Dakota Access’ success in gaining the approval of “regulators.” The two corporations recently put up $2 billion ($1.5 billion from Enbridge and $500,000 from Marathon) to purchase 49 percent of the Bakken pipeline. A likely consequence if the project is completed is that Canadian tar-sands oil will flow through the pipeline — and Iowa — toward the Gulf Coast. That oil is one of the most carbon-rich, planet-cooking fossil fuels on earth. Dire environmental concern about the mining of Canadian tar sands oil was the main reason climate activists like Bill McKibben engaged in high-profile protests of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline—a leading news story a few years ago.
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