A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.
Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Heavy snow and winter cold settled this month on thousands of Native Americans and their supporters encamped on Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Nearby, the Missouri River slipped past. The river’s clean waters serve as the wellspring in what has steadily become one of the storied confrontations over energy development, justice, finance, and human rights in the American West.

Viewed in one dimension, the standoff over construction of a 1,172-mile, $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline pits thousands of First Nation protestors massed on the prairie to safeguard their sole source of drinking water from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government and finance. But so many other dimensions of history, law, human rights, justice, finance, and climate change motivate the campaign to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. What has emerged on the wintry plains of North Dakota is a distinctive, if not unique event in the history of American environmentalism, and a seminal struggle over civil rights.

Risky proposals for big dams and mines, and actual environmental disasters like oil spills and chemical plant explosions have long stirred public protests. Such campaigns form the lifeblood of environmental advocacy.

Rarely, though, has such a big and expensive American industrial project, in the midst of construction, encountered opposition significant enough to threaten its opening. Perhaps the only comparable campaigns, according to environmental historians, are the direct actions to protect the endangered spotted owl that halted timber cutting in California and Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If the Sioux succeed in halting the Dakota Access pipeline, it would be seen by First Nation leaders as comparable to the legal battle that re-established Native American fishing rights in the Northwest in 1979.

“The fight in North Dakota has attracted a lot of national and international attention,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a noted authority on tribal treaties and law. “But you have to remember tribes have been on that land a long time. Tribes are amazingly resilient.”

The campaign to halt the pipeline gained even greater gravity after the election of Donald Trump, who owns shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer. Trump vowed during the campaign to void U.S. commitments made in Paris last year to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, and to tear down regulatory barriers that he viewed as impeding development of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Campaign With Momentous Implications
In sum, what started last August with a call to action to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent a mega fossil energy project from threatening a primary source of fresh water has grown into a public interest campaign with powerful implications for energy development, the environment, and the rule of law. Next week 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive in North Dakota to establish what they call a “human shield” to protect the thousands of “water protectors” that have already joined the campaign.

“It’s so obviously driven by civil rights issues on top of environmental concerns,” said Bill Kovarik, a professor of journalism and an environmental historian at Radford University in Virginia. “That’s a dimension that’s been hidden for so long.”

Two 21st century tactical innovations are empowering the protest and putting government authorities and Energy Transfer Partners on the defensive. The first is social media, especially Twitter and streaming video, that provide immediacy to the hour-by-hour shifts in strategy on both sides, and drawn thousands of tribal members and supporters to frontline demonstrations that have gotten ugly. Continue reading “A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline”

Challenged By Drought, Fire, Earthquake, and Flood, California Departs On New Path

The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California's challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding  daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider
The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California’s challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider

OROVILLE, CA — Until visitors peer over the crest of 770-foot Oroville Dam, which stores the cold Sierra waters of the Feather River and is the tallest dam in the United States, it’s hard to tell a drought grips Butte County, or any of the other neighboring Central Valley counties in this part of northern California.

The dirt-lined transport canals are filled to the top with water that slakes the thirst of thousands of hectares of rice, sunflowers, peaches, corn, soybeans, and all manner of California’s agricultural cornucopia. Unlike the southern reaches of the Central Valley, there’s no sign of the empty spaces of brown dirt where tomato fields lie fallow, or laser-leveled orchards under moisture duress that have been ripped out.

Quite the contrary. The region’s bullet-straight two lane highways pass by new orchards under cultivation, the roots of each infant tree politely dressed in swirls of drip irrigation line, and saluted by the short red plastic stake of a single spray irrigator. More surprising are the throngs of sunburned bathers and jet ski operators enjoying the deep cooling depths of two blue and bountiful manmade lakes that flank Highway 162. The highway is the primary route to enter this city of 16,000 residents, and to climb the Sierra foothills to reach the dam and its visitors center.

The sight from the trail across the dam’s spillway describes a much different story. The Lake Oroville reservoir, California’s second largest, is 42 percent of capacity, according to the state Department of Water Resources. It looks it. Two million of its 3.5 million acre-feet of water are gone. A bathtub ring of rock and soil, 200 feet wide, circles the lake like a light brown rebuke to the will of its essential purpose.

A Drain on Storage
Week by week the ring grows a little wider as the reservoir drains to irrigate fields and supply thirsty towns across the state that receive Lake Oroville’s liquid offering. The steadily receding water level is intently followed along the Sierra front like the won-loss record of high school football teams. “What’s happening is kind of out of our hands,” said Karen Wilson, a mother of two young children, who works part-time at an Oroville convenience store. “We do what we can. Don’t wash the car. Short showers. Live with brown grass. Dishwater on the gardens. You kind of hope the people in charge of the big stuff know what they’re doing.”

Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider
Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider

In much of the skeptical, government-suspicious United States that’s an odd appeal — looking to the authorities for guidance. In its matter of fact way, though, Wilson expresses the conviction held by most Californians that the authorities are actually capable of responding well to urgent conditions.
Continue reading “Challenged By Drought, Fire, Earthquake, and Flood, California Departs On New Path”

Lower Subansiri Dam, Unfinished and Silent, Could Be Tomb For India’s Giant Hydropower Projects

Construction of the Lower Subansiri dam stopped in 2011 and hasn't restarted. Photo/Keith Schneider
Construction of the Lower Subansiri dam stopped in 2011 and hasn’t restarted. Photo/Keith Schneider

ITANAGAR, India – With all the immediate distress and hopeful fervor that has greeted Narendra Modi’s new administration, one of the government’s unyielding themes is the prime minister’s allegiance to running water. Specifically, the swift currents that pour from the steep flanks of the Himalaya range as a cure for the country’s endemic electricity shortages.

In the three months after his election last May the 64-year-old leader personally dedicated three new hydropower plants and a 375-kilometer (233-mile) transmission line in Jammu and Kashmir, a Himalayan state in northwest India bordered by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China.

Modi visited Bhutan, which shares a border with several northern Indian states, to lay foundation stones for the 60-megawatt Kurishu hydroelectric project and the 600-megawatt Kholongchu Hydel Power Project.

In August, Modi became first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal since 1997. While in Kathmandu he negotiated an agreement to finance the construction of two transmission lines and to set up a project office for the 5,600-megawatt Pancheshwar hydropower station on the Mahakali River. The immense electricity-generating installation, close to two decades in planning and development, is more than twice the size of India’s largest operating hydropower project, the Tehri hydropower station in Uttarakhand. “Nepal can free India of its darkness with its electricity,” Modi said.

Modi’s run-of-the-river diplomacy culminated in February when an advisory committee overruled a previous government decision and approved construction of the 3,000-megawatt Dibang power project in the wild and steep Himalayan highlands here in Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern India state bordered by Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Not since 2003, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee directed India to generate 50,000 megawatts of power by constructing 162 big new hydropower stations — most of them planned for the Himalayas — has an Indian leader exhibited such fealty to the kinetic energy from damming fast-moving mountain streams.

Yet just as the hopeful current of Vajpayee’s ambitious program for diversifying India’s electrical power was slowed by rampaging floods and landslides, rising costs, and powerful civic opposition in the Himalayan states, Modi’s dam building campaign is not at all assured.
Continue reading “Lower Subansiri Dam, Unfinished and Silent, Could Be Tomb For India’s Giant Hydropower Projects”

World Water Day Ingredients Need Big Dash of Urgency

Soaring coal production in this Inner Mongolia mine, and in others, is pushing China's water reserves to the limit. Photo/Keith Schneider
Soaring coal production in this Inner Mongolia mine, and in others, is pushing China’s water reserves to the limit. Photo/Keith Schneider

From east to west, ever since the world began, there was water. Plentiful. Clean. Always available.

None of those descriptions apply to water today.  Though the condition of the world’s water is perilous, and job-producing opportunities for conservation and efficiency are abundant, water’s ranking on the list of public priorities and attention typically is not near the top.

It’s not for a lack of effort from the water wonks. In 1993, a year after international leaders met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations took a step to raise awareness of water’s place at the center of life by establishing World Water Day. The annual event, held March 22 and now in its 23rd year, comes on Sunday.

The United Nations, a big unwieldy institution, has fostered a bit more heed to the day’s activities. It breaks up the immense, unwieldy world of water into more approachable streams flanked by a shoreline of optimism.  World Water Day’s annual themes, as a result, are a catalogue of earnestness and hope.

In years past, World Water Day focused on women and water (1994), thirsty cities (1996), health (2001), disasters (2004), supply (2007), pollution and sanitation (2008), food security (2012), and energy (2014).

This year’s theme is sustainable development. “Water resources, and the range of services they provide, underpin poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability,” say U.N. organizers. “From food and energy security to human and environmental health, water contributes to improvements in social well-being and inclusive growth, affecting the livelihoods of billions.”

Coal mining in Meghalaya, a northeast India state, is so damaging to water that a high court shut down the industry nearly a year ago. Photo/Keith Schneider
Coal mining in Meghalaya, a northeast India state, is so damaging to water that a high court shut down the industry nearly a year ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Does Earnest Work?
Good stuff. Necessary to talk about. But not fit for stirring widespread attention on Facebook, or going viral on YouTube. This is, after all, an era of short attention spans and fixation on inconsequential agitation or the absurd.

The world’s residents, capable as they are, don’t like serious. They like to be amused. Shrinking from challenges is a global phenomenon. That’s as true in China as it is in India or Peru or the United States.

With public attention diverted by the French president’s paramours, or Angelina Jolie’s marriage, the consequential work of engaging tough and abstract problems like water supply and water quality falls to whom? Global legislators imprisoned by partisanship and ideology? Agency engineers and regulators suffering with thin budgets?

It might be that water needs a great spokesperson. Until the last 150 years or so, water didn’t need its own spokesperson, like the way Michael Jordan sells Gatorade. Where is the Katy Perry of water? For that matter where is the Archbishop Tutu of water? Water certainly needs a more magnetic personality than Matt Damon, whose effort to highlight global sanitation and health is far less emphatic than his work as Jason Bourne.
Continue reading “World Water Day Ingredients Need Big Dash of Urgency”

Panama’s Hydropower Development Defined By Fierce Resistance and Tough Choices

The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama's electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider
The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama’s electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHANGUINOLA, Panama – Rain clouds regularly settle atop the 1800-meter (5900-foot) summits of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province. When the mist clears, the full measure of the blue sea, powerful rivers, and splendid forests full of toucans and cacao trees is visible and stunning.

In the five centuries since Christopher Columbus alighted on the beaches of Bocas del Toro in 1502, western Panama’s water-rich tropical bounty has enticed outsiders, built financial fortunes, and led to periodic and fierce popular resistance. In 1899, for instance, American growers tore down tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest and planted the trees that produced the Chiquita-brand bananas that are still shipped from the port at Almirante. From time to time, including a violent confrontation with government security forces in 2010 that left one person dead, Chiquita’s unionized workers organized big disturbances and determined strikes over wages and working conditions.

That same stubborn spirit, widespread across this province of 126,000 residents, still animates the region. It stirs a decade-long battle in the Changuinola River watershed driven by the construction of hydropower projects and by Panama’s shifting views about energy production, economic growth, social fairness, and the value of its prodigious wild forests and water resources. No other Central American country is reckoning with these often-conflicting features of national life with as much consideration and consequence as Panama.

Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country's most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country’s most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider

“This is an exciting period for this country,” said Osvaldo Jordan, a 43-year-old biologist and political scientist educated in the United States who leads the Alliance for Conservation and Development, a human rights organization in Panama City.

“Twenty-five years ago we were a military dictatorship. Fifteen years ago we gained control of the Panama Canal. The last ten years our economy has grown so fast. We have choices to make. There are different definitions for defining modernity. The biggest challenge for Panama is to find the right definition.”

Unrest Over Water Power
For many of Bocas del Toro’s indigenous citizens the definition does not include big hydropower projects.

Since 2003, the tiny Naso indigenous community has fought to a standstill construction of the 33-megawatt Bonyic dam on the Teribe River, a tributary of the Changuinola. The project, undertaken by Hidro-Teribe, a subsidiary of Colombian public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín, also is opposed by Panamanian and Costa Rican environmental organizations because of its proximity to La Amistad International Park. The 401,000-hectare (1,550 square miles) park spans the Costa Rica-Panama border, protects countless species of tropical plants and wildlife, and is the largest nature reserve in Central America.

Not far away, Ngobe villagers are organizing to halt construction of Changuinola II, a 213-megawatt, $US 1.1 billion dam that Panama has approved in a bend of the Changuinola where the free-flowing river cuts between high cliffs of white limestone. Norberto Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, gained government permission this month to build the project, which indigenous villagers say they intend to stop.

Both resistance campaigns are informed by the consequences to the river and native villages from building the $US 630 million, 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam. The AES Corporation, a Virginia-based global energy developer, opened the dam and its power station in 2011 after four years of construction that generated active protests and long blockades of construction routes. The dissent attracted international attention and a rebuke from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission before it was put down by national security forces, which beat protestors bloody.

“Nothing good came from what happened here,” said Bernadino Morales, a 27-year-old college graduate and protest organizer whose family farm was inundated by the 1,400-hectare (5.5-square mile) backwater lake behind the dam. “The river is gone. One thousand people were forced to move. A lot of forest is under water.”

Neither AES executives nor Panama government authorities responded to phone and email requests for interviews for this article.  In published reports and prior interviews with Panama reporters, dam developers and regulators insist that they are building projects according to high standards of environmental protection and with regard to fairly compensating families forced to move.

The dam developers also note that they are performing a national service. Panama, they say, needs the power. And water-powered electricity prevents millions of tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere that otherwise would be produced from the same levels of oil- and coal-fired electrical generating capacity. Government statistics indicate that the carbon savings from the Changuinola I dam alone amounts to over 600,000 metric tons a year, or approximately the level of carbon pollution produced by a coal-fired  fossil thermal power plant of similar size.

Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider
Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Panama’s Hydropower Development Defined By Fierce Resistance and Tough Choices”