By Safiya Hassan, GLOBUS Correspondent
Titusville is an idyllic small Pennsylvanian city of about 5,000 residents (US Census Bureau, 2017); and the birthplace of the all-powerful, modern day oil industry. Prior to the arrivals of the settlers in Pennsylvania, native American tribes such as the Seneca tribe used oil seeps for centuries to collect oil for medicine, ceremonial fires and body paint. Oil was in fact inconvenient to the settlers and proved to be a nuisance to farmers who intended to agriculturally advance the north-eastern state. This all changed in 1854 as, across the Atlantic, a Polish scientist by the name Jan Józef Ignacy Łukasiewicz devised the first ever kerosene lamp; enabling a shift from the use of expensive whale oil to more accessible and readily available crude oil. However, as kerosene lamps rose in popularity, in moved merchants to Titusville chasing black gold. Initially, the oil harvest was unprofitable as effective drilling methods were yet to be found. However, ideas materialised quickly and experiments for different techniques began. For example, in Tutusville, Lt. Col. Edward A. Roberts, a civil war veteran,dropped an explosive- yes, an explosive- down a well, releasing the oil trapped within. He even patented this method in 1865, as the ‘’exploding torpedo’’. This method was a precursor to hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, except that nowadays we use more manageable fracturing fluids to extract the liquid, as opposed to the likes of dynamite or nitroglycerine.
In the modern day, The United States has become the world’s largest producer of natural gas output by fracking (Wall Street Journal, 2018) with the fracking industry still continuing to grow internationally. Fracking is disliked for all the right reasons. Fracking wells can leak methane- a greenhouse gas- into the air as a result of mishaps during drilling. In September 2018, the US Federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relaxed fracking regulations which required companies to clean up leaks by 30 days into 60 days. The agency itself then estimated that the new regulations coming to effect will cause an increase of methane emissions between 2019 and 2035 by 380,000 tonnes, which is equivalent to 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (Associated Press, 2018). Fracking can also contaminate groundwater and crops within its vicinity. A 2016 study conducted at Stanford University investigated the impacts of fracking on water sources in rural towns in Wyoming. They found widespread effects on the town’s drinking water sources and has held the EPA accountable for not enforcing limits on shallow fracking, which has been found to cause the contamination of underground water sources. Fracking has also been found capable of inducing microearthquakes, as seen in this country in Lancashire where, in 2011, tremors beyond the threshold for fracking were recorded by the British Geological survey (BGS).
However, despite the industry growing considerably, the Midwestern states are some of the slowest growing regions of the United States (Bloomberg, 2018). In 2014, the Texas based natural gas company, Energy Transfer LP, undertook a $3.8 billion project to build a pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois named the ‘’Dakota Access Pipeline’’, proposed to create 16,000 local jobs (Washington Post, 2017) and be built with US steel; an industry that has been suffering from overseas competition. The oil that was to be transported was shale oil, a light crude oil obtained from fracking. Economically speaking, the project seemed like a win for the local, reviving industry and for jobs creation. However, the Sioux Indians, a federation of Native American and First Nation tribes settled in reserves spanning from the Dakotas to Alberta in Canada, were to set to severely suffer from this ambitious project.
The building of the Dakota Access Pipeline then began its construction in 2016. However, environmentalists and local indigenous people were quick to highlight that the project had little to no plan on how they would deal with potential oil spills, nor funding set aside to deal with potential contaminations of the Missouri river. There was also tribal opposition from the Meshwaki, the Standing Rock and the Cheyenne Rock Sioux. The pipeline would damage the tribe’s sacred burial sites and cause irreversible changes to the landscape. The pipeline’s location also violated two treaties recognising the Sioux Indians territory and sovereignty. One of the tribal leaders, Dave Archambault II, addressed the UN in Geneva, calling for the world to see their plight, and emphasising how the indigenous peoples were side lined within the pipeline’s approval. The project was temporarily suspended until, to the dismay of protestors, it was greenlighted by American President, Donald Trump, a former stockholder of the same corporation leading the pipeline’s construction.
Fracking in America is a 200-year-old story; an oil sourcing technique followed by a myriad of health and environmental issues particularly affecting rural and marginalised communities. The Native American tribes have continued their fight against the pipeline, even advancing their case to the federal courts. The story of American oil began with indigenous peoples, took a full 360, and now has returned to the indigenous peoples. The Dakota Access Pipeline has proven that America has yet to rectify its historical legacy over its treatment to its Native American citizens, but has instead linearly continued with its marginalisation and mistreatment of this group. This year has seen the two first native women elected into Congress. Let us hope that the improved representations breaks the cycle of generational mistreatment of the Native Americans, and may this hope reach the Canadian border, where an ongoing conversation is taking place regarding Canada’s troubling legacy and the issues of the British Columbian pipelines.
Header Image: https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2017/dakota-access-pipeline-to-remain-operational-for-now