What Happens When the Feds Can't Be Wrong?

Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

When you write the rules, you’re never the bad guy. That’s been the U.S. government’s guiding mantra since its inception when it comes to exploiting natural resources for profit. Be it the treaty-breaking annexation of the Black Hills, the systematic murders of the Osage Nation for their oil-rich land, or the the teargas-bathed fields in North Dakota where the Dakota Access Pipeline now runs, the federal government works backwards, crafting laws to legalize the theft of land they’ve already set their sights on.

On Monday, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started the process again, proposing legislative action that would make the recent spate of state bills criminalizing pipeline protestors a federal statute. Per the DOT:

This provision would strengthen the existing criminal penalty measures for damaging or destroying a pipeline facility. It would specify that vandalism, tampering with, or impeding, disrupting, or inhibiting the operation of a pipeline facility are punishable by criminal fines and imprisonment. It would also specify that pipeline facilities under construction are included within the scope of the damage prohibitions in addition to operational pipeline facilities.

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While federal law currently permits imprisoning a person for 20 years for tampering with completed oil and gas infrastructures, the new proposal would bring projects still under construction into the fold. This would mean that those protesting the next major drilling project could be staring down 20-year sentences.

The goal of the Trump administration and their would-be conflicts of interests is to pass this pipeline-protecting rule so the fossil fuel industries—and the big banks that fund their projects—have assurance from the government and the police that they can keep building, uninhibited.

The good news is this: Thanks to the Democrats taking back the House, a measure like this should be dead on arrival. Not that the Democratic Party has much of a leg to stand on when it comes to the uptick in drilling on American and Native soil, but the numbers nor the political climate should allow this measure to survive the chamber. Such optimism shouldn’t extend to state governments, however.

The proposal fits lock-in-step with laws in South Dakota, Texas, and Louisiana, among others. In South Dakota, the bill’s passage resulted in Gov. Kristi Noem being banished from the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation, after she failed to consult the tribe and instead met with lobbyists from TransCanada, the company building the Keystone XL pipeline, in the weeks leading up to the bill’s passage. Noem shrugged it off.

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As Drew Magary wrote at GQ today, the future of environmental protection is inevitably going to take the form of climate vigilantism—not because vigilantism describes the action of standing on land that should belong to you, but because vigilantism is what will legally come to define the actions of those who oppose what the government wants. And what it wants is oil, or “freedom gas,” as they’ve taken to calling it in the Department of Energy.

If you’re curious to learn more about the historical roots of these kinds of actions, Nick Estes’ exhaustively detailed in his recent book, “Our History Is The Future,” how the United States government has long codified its sins against Indigenous nations and the natural resources they protect to maintain the upper hand in the courts. The problem is not solely an Indigenous issue, but the government perfected those tactics as it stole and polluted the land of Native nations as well as poor minority communities. (That the proposed route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline cuts through Lumbee tribal land is no accident.)

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In a post-Standing Rock world, with endless doomsday-studies, the fight will have to extend to everyone—especially when the stakes are this high.

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