Indigenous Activists Helped Save Almost A Billion Tons Of Carbon Per Year

17:03 minutes

a construction site with two large armed tractors installing a pipeline. between the two tractors is a crowd of protestors.
Protesters interrupt construction on the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline north of Aitkin, Minnesota, on Jan. 9, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland/MPR News

This summer, Science Friday and other media outlets covered the protests against an oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota, where Canadian company Enbridge Energy was replacing and expanding their existing Line 3 infrastructure. Native American tribes in Minnesota—whose lands the pipeline would pass through and alongside—organized protests, direct action, and other resistance against the project. The pipeline was completed, and began moving tar sands oil at the beginning of October. 

But the protests and their non-Native allies drew arrests, news coverage, and social media attention to the debate over continued drilling of fossil fuels.

Before Line 3, there were protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was completed against the wishes of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Biden ultimately cancelled after objections and lawsuits from two Native American communities in Montana and South Dakota. So far, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has remained un-drilled, despite multiple attempts, with help from vocal opposition by Alaska’s Gwich’in people.

A new report from two advocacy groups does the math on how much carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions these cancelled or delayed projects would have emitted in the last 10 years. According to their calculations, Indigenous resistance to pipelines and other fossil fuel projects has saved the U.S. and Canada 12 percent of their annual emissions, or 0.8 billion tons of CO2 per year. 

Ira talks to the co-authors, Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Kyle Gracey from Oil Change International, about the value of tallying these emissions in the fight to prevent future oil projects. Plus, why Native American protesters and their allies deserve credit for keeping fossil fuels in the ground—and the bigger environmental justice issue of pipeline projects alongside Native land.

Further Reading

  • Read the report, via Indigenous Environmental Network.

Segment Guests

Dallas Goldtooth

Dallas Goldtooth is organizer of the ‘Keep It In The Ground’ Campaign at the Indigenous Environmental Network in Chicago, Illinois.

Kyle Gracey

Kyle Gracey is a senior research analyst at Oil Change International in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This summer, we covered the protests against an oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota, where Enbridge Energy was replacing and expanding their existing Line 3. Native American tribes in Minnesota, whose land the pipeline would pass alongside, organized protests, direct action, and other resistance against the project with the help from non-native allies.

The pipeline was completed and began moving tar sand oil at the beginning of October. But the protests themselves drew arrests, news coverage, and social media attention to the debate over continuing drilling of fossil fuels, even as our climate crisis becomes more widely acknowledged.

Before Line 3, there were protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline, which was ultimately canceled, as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has remained undrilled with the help from vocal opposition by Alaska’s Gwich’in people. It turns out that all of this resistance has a carbon footprint, a big one. Because when a pipeline project is canceled or delayed, the oil or natural gas in that pipeline does not get burned. So no greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere.

A new report from the Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International, two advocacy groups, tallied up that footprint. And the numbers they came up with are staggering. Over 10 years, the carbon not released by canceled or delayed fossil fuel projects amounted to 12% of the total US and Canada carbon emissions budget per year. That’s 0.8 billion tons of CO2 per year. And if Indigenous people in North America were to win every fight they’re currently in, that amount doubles.

Here to talk more about the report are two co-authors, Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, focused on Native American environmental justice, and Kyle Gracey, Senior Research Analyst at Oil Change International, an organization that researches and communicates the environmental and human costs of fossil fuels. Welcome to Science Friday.

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: Hey, happy to be here. Thank you so much.

KYLE GRACEY: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Dallas, let’s start with Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel projects. There was a lot of media attention on Line 3 this year. But I understand there’s got to be other stuff happening.

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: Yeah, we are oftentimes– just the way that the media cycle is, we’re often focused on one fight at a time. But over the past 15 years, there have been so many different fossil fuel fights, different pipeline fights, that have been ongoing.

Line 3 is the big one. They’ve just announced that it’s going into operation. Before Line 3, there was the DAPL fight, which many people remember back in 2016. And ongoing since 2011 was the Keystone XL pipeline fight, all major fights that involved heavy resistance by Indigenous front line groups all across the map.

IRA FLATOW: Kyle, in my intro, I gave some of the numbers in this report, 12% of total US and Canada per year, nearly a billion tons of CO2. Can you put these numbers in more context for us?

KYLE GRACEY: Sure. Another way to think about these is that these are the equivalent of hundreds of the average annual emissions from coal fired power plants, literally more coal fired power plants than remain in operation in the United States and Canada.

So the potential impact of both the pipelines then the other projects that have been stopped, as well as those that we still have the potential to stop through Indigenous-led resistance and resistance from non-Indigenous allies, it’s a tremendous number. And it’s a bit– it would be a big impact on the US’s contribution to the climate crisis.

IRA FLATOW: Can you give me a little bit of the math of figuring the calculus on how you look at a project like the Keystone XL pipeline and understand that it represents x tons of carbon dioxide emissions?

KYLE GRACEY: Sure. So we do what’s called a life cycle greenhouse gas emissions calculation. So we are looking at the emissions that would be released in relation to the construction and operation of the pipeline. And in particular, the biggest contributor is– comes from the fossil fuels that are actually in that pipeline as they reach their end markets, as they’re being burned.

And so we have emissions factors that calculate the amount of greenhouse gases that come from these different types of pipelines, whether it’s tar sands, or light or heavy crude oil, gas. And so we can use those along with other estimations about the construction operation.

And in particular, for gas pipelines, the leakage of methane through the gas production processing transportation and distribution systems, and the total impact that all of those emissions would have on the size of the climate crisis and the size of the greenhouse gas pollution coming from the United States and Canada.

IRA FLATOW: And, Dallas, give me an idea of what the significance of putting a number on the emissions that this resistance has headed off.

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: Indigenous communities, Indigenous peoples have been resisting various forms of colonization for over 500 years. And these fights against these pipelines, these fights against these fossil fuel projects, are merely the most recent and ongoing manifestation of that resistance.

And it’s just key for political leaders to know, It’s important for financial investors to know that when these projects get approved without the consultation, without the consent of Indigenous peoples, there is tangible risk. What this report shows is that we get the job done. That it’s not just a matter of supporting our rights to defend our lands, and our heirs, and our body. It’s also a matter of protecting the future of all life on this planet.

So it’s a huge thing to show that, oh, yeah, you people say, oh, those are just a couple of Indians over there arguing and fighting. But they’re not really making an impact. Well, this report goes to show that, no, we are making an impact, a tremendous impact. And then really, we are literally leading the way in what it takes to address climate change.

IRA FLATOW: I mentioned the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Gwich’in people. ANWR has been on and off the table for drilling for decades. How sure can you be that it’s the protest of Native Americans that’s causing this and other projects to falter, Dallas?

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: Obviously, there’s a lot of different stakeholders at the table when it comes to these fights. There are a lot of these projects, like the Keystone XL pipeline. I worked hand-in-hand, oftentimes hitting the ground with right-wing landowners who were really concerned about the impacts that the Keystone XL pipeline would have on their water to feed their animals and their plants.

But hearing them directly, they’re like, we would not have gotten this far if it wasn’t for Indigenous communities stepping up. A lot of these fights and projects really are often challenged on the grounds of impacts on treaty rights and Indigenous rights. That was one of the main decisions between both Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline.

The Dakota Access Pipeline was completed. But in the lawsuits itself, the court sided and said, yeah, you’re right. The tribes were not consulted. The tribes’ treaty rights were violated. And so this project should be shut down. It was the inaction of the federal government that is allowing it to continue to go.

But the legal analysis supports us, that Indigenous rights, the arguments for Indigenous rights, the impact on treaty rights, is actually having a tangible impact to stop these projects or to delay them significantly. We cannot ignore the fact that due to the Dakota Access Pipeline fight, there has been this renewed interest to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

And the fossil fuel industry itself, the energy transfer partners, the parent company for DAPL itself, has said that Indigenous resistance has cost them billions of dollars. And they are actually going after folks in the courts to try to hold them accountable. Of course, folks can say, well, there’s other people. There’s other factors to play in here. But you cannot ignore the time, the energy, and the action that Indigenous peoples have been taking all throughout this process and for over generations.

IRA FLATOW: You’re basically saying that you can argue Native American rights, any rights you want to talk about. It doesn’t get you anywhere. But money talks in this country.

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: We are not blind to the fact that we– as we live in this capitalist system, that it is the levers of finance that really get the ball moving on projects. But it’s also the levers of finance that stop projects in their tracks. And so with this report, the hope and the intention of this is that different communities, different groups and organizations who are fighting their respective projects, can use this in their advocacy work when they’re going after the financiers of different projects.

And say, look, how can you put money into a project that is violating human rights, that is violating Indigenous rights, that is potentially an increase in the risk of sexual violence upon native women and native children? At the same time, it’s probably going to be delayed. And there’s a good chance it will be delayed because of the very Indigenous peoples that they’re encroaching upon or violating.

IRA FLATOW: Kyle, you also did the math on the battles Indigenous people are fighting against projects that have not been canceled yet. And if they were, you write in the report, that would double the carbon benefits. Are you hoping that listing these numbers can help convince others to cancel those projects?

KYLE GRACEY: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Maybe President Biden might change his mind about Line 3?

KYLE GRACEY: President Biden ought to change his mind about a lot of fossil fuel infrastructure projects, and in fact, actually has the authority to cancel a lot of these projects from happening. So yes, absolutely, we have two goals in highlighting the projects that are being resisted today. One is to give support and hope to the resisters that their fight matters and that it can have a huge impact if they are successful.

And also, to send a message to policymakers that they have the ability to stop these projects. And that if they do so, not only is that good for the climate and good for our– frankly, our commitments as countries, the US and Canada, to improve– to reduce our emissions, but also good for other very important benefits like Indigenous rights, environmental justice, the health and welfare of the communities, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who live right in the middle of these– where these projects would be sited.

And the tar sands is a great example of where the– preventing these pipelines has made a difference. The tar sands produce something in the order of 3.1 million barrels per day right now. It wasn’t too long ago that there was– that the expectation for tar sands’ growth was something close to double the– double that, seven million barrels per day.

And those estimates are no longer the case. Because multiple pipelines that were supposed to carry tar sands oil have been prevented. So there’s a real shift in what we see in terms of production numbers. Because these fossil fuel pipelines have been canceled. There’s an argument that says, well, if you don’t build it, then somebody– they’ll find another way to get the oil out or they’ll find another way to get the fossil fuels out.

And that’s not what we see. What we see is that these pipelines, these– this infrastructure makes the difference between whether these fossil fuels flow out and eventually find their way into the atmosphere or whether they stay in the ground, which is where they should be.

IRA FLATOW: But you wouldn’t expect, Kyle, for the industry, and people’s homes, and heating to go cold turkey off of oil overnight or natural gas?

KYLE GRACEY: We’re already seeing a clear energy transition. We’ve been seeing it for a long time. And we already have technologies available to make that transition off of fossil fuels. Countries and governments are already putting in place things like mandates on no new gas infrastructure for residential and commercial construction.

So no, it’s not overnight. But it is already happening. And what we need now is for governments to accelerate that transition and make it easier for people to transition away from fossil fuels. It’s also important on the supply side that we prevent the fossil fuels from getting to market.

Because what these pipelines do is make it cheaper and easier for these fossil fuels to be consumed in the first place, making it cheaper and easier for people to access renewable energy and for renewable energy to supply people’s homes, people’s businesses. That’s what we need more of.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Dallas, do you agree? Does success look like a transition to renewables for you and for Indigenous peoples?

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: Well, in a way, we don’t have a choice. I guess– we do have a choice here. Do we want to continue the path that we’re on, which is an addiction to fossil fuels, to the detriment of many of our ecosystems and our livelihoods, let alone the billions of people whose lives will be lost or greatly impacted because of climate change?

Or do we pick another route? I think that our organization and many groups out there are working diligently to advocate for a just transition away from fossil fuels, to develop better local energy networks and energy systems to create food systems and restructure in our society in a way that can make life livable for all of us.

And in order to do that, of course, we’re going to have to give up some comforts. That’s just a simple fact of it. And that’s the big challenge here. We can’t keep our– take our eyes away from the supply side nature of this fight. Look, most of these pipeline projects, they’re not providing oil and gas for demand right now.

A lot of these pipeline projects are being created to meet potential demand on the road. They’re locking us in. And it’s absurd for this idea that we’re going to be saying, hey, we need to– it’s a code red for climate. And we need to take action. But we’re locking ourselves into more development. It just doesn’t make sense. At some point– and which is right now– we need to see a rapid, managed decline of fossil fuel production in order for us to have a future that’s suitable and just for all society.

IRA FLATOW: Dallas, Monday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the US. Do you see the fight against climate change as a good way of focusing attention on that day?

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: Absolutely. We just completed an action of civil disobedience in front of the White House on Monday, which we saw over 100– and I think 120 different people get arrested, and in front of the White House. And a lot of those were front line advocates and leaders from different fights across this country. We are connecting the dots in the struggle.

Everywhere from pipelines, to frackings, to offshore drilling, to petrochemical hubs in the Gulf Coast, or as well as in the Ohio River Valley, we have to connect the dots. Because the energy is connected in that way. The energy industry is connected in that way. I think that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a great day to refocus us on not only the stuff that has happened in the past, and the atrocities and hardship that native folks have gone through, but to also bring awareness to what’s happening right now.

The Line 3 fight is not over. The Dakota Access Pipeline fight is not over. There’s a pipeline in the east coast called Mountain Valley Pipeline. That’s a natural gas pipeline. There’s native folks standing up in resistance to that right– as we currently speak. It’s a chance. And I encourage everybody to challenge ourselves to say, hey, how are we supporting native folks right now so that we don’t repeat the history of colonization that has plagued this country since its very foundation?

IRA FLATOW: Gentlemen, you’ve given us a lot to think about and talk about. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

KYLE GRACEY: Thank you.

DALLAS GOLDTOOTH: I appreciate it so much. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. He joined us from Chicago. And Kyle Graciey, Research Analyst at Oil Change International. He joined me from Pittsburgh.

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