The Price We Pay for Energy

Are Americans losing rights while gaining energy? 

Energy infrastructure in the U.S. should help ensure our citizens have the safest, best and least expensive access to resources. Ideally, we would best utilize renewable energy and fill in only the voids with fossil fuels. Energy infrastructure shouldn’t involve permit dodging, armored vehicle raids and the arrest of journalists. That is what has been happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota.  

The DAPL aims to be a new way to get crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The specific path of the pipeline is sensitive because it crosses the Missouri River a half-mile upstream of the Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota.  

A New Yorker article describes the project: “Originally, the pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri near Bismarck, but authorities worried that an oil spill there would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. So they moved the crossing to half a mile from the reservation, across land that was taken from the tribe in 1958, without their consent. The tribe says the government hasn’t done the required consultation with them — if it had, it would have learned that building the pipeline there would require digging up sacred spots and old burial grounds.”  

According to the New York Times, the Corp of Engineers used a Nationwide Permit No. 12 process to obtain approval. This process allows you to bypass the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by splitting the project into many small construction sites. The DAPL also doesn’t cross an international border into Canada like the Keystone XL project would have done, although the physical path it follows in the U.S. is very similar.  

“The Obama administration — including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior — temporarily blocked construction on the [DAPA] project in September in hopes of conducting a review, but a federal court intervened to allow the project to proceed. President Obama has taken no additional steps and has said nothing officially about the pipeline, but has come to the defense of protesters, saying ‘you’re making your voices heard’ at a White House event for tribal leaders.” - Time Magazine.

The protest started to gain additional national media attention when Democracy Now anchor Amy Goodwin was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing for reporting on the protest. A judge eventually threw out Goodwin’s case. Later, actress Shailene Woodley was arrested and charged with trespassing and inciting a riot. At the time this article was written, hundreds of demonstrators had been arrested.  

Regardless of your position on the pipeline, the reaction strikes me as something contrary to the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” If a local sheriff department is spraying mace and using police dogs to break up a protest of U.S. citizens, we have the right to know why.  

I am thankful every day that I have the option to call 911 and the local police will come to my rescue, regardless of the circumstance. In many cases, the first responders risk their lives to save the life of a stranger. These men and women are the best among us. However, the militarization of our local police forces concerns me. Driving an army over the hill towards peaceful protestors isn’t deescalating.   

The National Guard and military branches should be the only Americans driving armored war vehicles. The Nation reported that the Morton County North Dakota Sheriff was granted permission by the FAA to establish a no-fly zone around the camp. Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said, “It’s obvious we have the resources, we have the manpower, to go down there and end this.” Protestors reported being maced, attacked with batons and strip-searched while in custody. Some journalists had camera equipment confiscated; most were able to share photos and videos on social media.

Regardless of your energy politics, this response should terrify you. Peaceful, civil disobedience in order to stand up for what is just is a hallmark of what makes the United States great. Part of the problem here is the very American conception of energy. We assume we can just get more. The world will stress the supplies of the fossil fuels we are accustomed to in our lifetimes. Local police in riot gear shouldn’t be part of our energy planning.  

To make matters worse in this particular case, the people in the shadow of the pipeline are accustomed to being raided. This type of maneuver has happened since the first Europeans landed in North America. That isn’t the happy, Thanksgiving story that we were all told, but it is closer to the truth. Oil transportation is just the latest resource that this tribe is perceived to be blocking, by protecting their water supply.  

As a country, we have backed the indigenous people of North America into a corner over hundreds of years, sometimes physically relocating them against their will to prisoner of war camps, some of which are now called reservations. Other times we just made agreements and treaties to settle disputes and then broke the accords as soon as we wanted more. For specific examples, a 2011 TED Talk by Aaron Huey describes some of the 500 treaties that the U.S. government has signed and subsequently broken in order to take things from indigenous people.  

Will there come a time in the United States of America where we say that is too high a human price to pay for oil? Are you ok with taxpayer dollars being used to pay police officers to force a pipeline over a disputed treaty land and under the water supply of the remaining people of a nation we have already squeezed into plots of land in between valuable resources? What is fair game in our search for more energy? Americans are exceptional when they stand up for what is right, not when we use police force to silence reasonable dissent.      

The best future the world has is to leave as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible. Before you write me angry letters, know that I don’t want to take cold showers or live without electricity. We have a great future ahead of us with renewable powered things that doesn’t require sacrifice. Forty years ago, we probably didn’t have the technology or desire to live without fossil fuels. Now we have both, so why are we still looking to oil pipelines to save the day? We already have more than 70,000 miles of oil pipelines in this country. Google “oil pipelines U.S.” for their locations. At some point, it would be a good idea to stop treating another fossil fuel pipeline as option A. Especially when it involves crossing over a literal indigenous peoples’ burying grounds and under the longest river in the U.S. 

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy Manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @maxjrohr

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