How to Kill the Oil Hydra—and Other Lessons From the Fight Against Keystone XL

How to Kill the Oil Hydra—and Other Lessons From the Fight Against Keystone XL

How to Kill the Oil Hydra—and Other Lessons From the Fight Against Keystone XL

What the Indigenous-led victory over Keystone XL tells us about the struggle to stop oil pipelines.


Covering Climate NowThis story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

The Keystone XL Pipeline, proposed more than a decade ago, has had multiple life cycles. It has been born, died, and been reborn. On January 20, during his first hours in office, President Joe Biden killed it. Again.

Keystone XL shouldn’t be confused with the Dakota Access Pipeline, though it’s easy to mistake the two: Keystone was proposed in 2008, DAPL in 2014. Keystone brings tar sands oil (a notoriously acidic, corrosive, and thicker cousin of light crude—and more prone to spills and ruptures during transport) from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. DAPL was designed to carry light crude from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana through South Dakota and Iowa on its way to its terminus in Illinois. Both lines, however, are a stab through the heart of the heartland. Both lines threaten Native lands and territories. Both lines are heads of the great regenerating snake that is the oil industry.

Indigenous activists were the first to refer to these pipelines as “black snakes.” They recognized the threats and began rallying people to fight them. The problem is that snakes, even those confronted by the most determined opponents, can be hard to vanquish. They slink and shift, changing shape, altering form—as legends from across time and tradition tell us. Consider the Hydra, whose name in Greek means “water snake.” In ancient myth, this snakelike creature spit venom and had teeth that could raise the dead, and if you cut off one of its many heads, two would grow back in its place. The only way the Greek hero Heracles was able to kill it was by cutting off head after head while his nephew, Iolaus, cauterized the stumps. When all that remained was the Hydra’s one immortal head, Heracles lopped that off and buried it under a rock.

Such are the challenges—and terrors—of oil pipelines. Like the Hydra, they regenerate and multiply, and the only way to kill them is to cut off line after line, then bury the need for them. And as with the Hydra, defeating pipelines is a group effort: Heracles couldn’t have defeated the snake without Iolaus (Athena’s support didn’t hurt either), and the activists who battled both Keystone XL and DAPL—Indigenous water protectors, environmentalists, sundry allies—couldn’t have sparked a mass mobilization without one another.

These activists fought, over years and distances, and are still fighting. They fought, in the case of Indigenous activists, not simply on behalf of Native people and Native homelands but for the good of all Americans against the forces of extractive capitalism. They fought because they know what pipelines hold.

Much less clear, however, is what the future holds. Now that Biden has canceled Keystone XL, one head of the great regenerating oil snake is gone. But there are more than 20 petroleum pipeline projects (and some 22 natural gas pipeline projects) currently under construction in the United States, crisscrossing the country, threatening land and water. These pipelines include DAPL—which the Biden administration has actively declined to shut down—as well as the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, the Permian Highway Pipeline in Texas, and far too many others to cite. They continue to push across the land, threatening communities and endangering habitat, and they raise a crucial question: What will it take to get rid of all the great black snakes? How do we kill the Hydra?

To start to answer these questions, it helps to revisit recent history, to retrace the births—as well as the deaths and rebirths—of both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

The origins of Keystone XL go back nearly 15 years, to a radically different economic moment than the present one. After earning rapid approval in Canada in 2007, the pipeline was given the green light by the George W. Bush administration during the waning days of his presidency. The year was 2008, and the economy was in turmoil because of the foreclosure crisis. Energy was expensive. And so it made “sense” to find a way to extract one of the earth’s dirtiest fossil fuels from under the boreal forest of northern Canada and send it to refineries across the Midwest and Texas. The US government, if it accomplishes anything, is phenomenally good at creating problems and then, in order to fix them, creating new ones.

The foreclosure crisis was largely the fault of the US government’s gutting of the Glass-Steagall Act and its unwillingness to regulate a predatory market full of bundled subprime mortgages, among other “toxic assets.” In order to provide cheaper energy to the cash-strapped masses, the government waved Keystone through, substituting one toxic asset for another. In the process, by facilitating the extraction of tar sands oil from the largest unbroken forest in the world and one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks, the government created a whole new catastrophe, one that would imperil vast swaths of pristine habitat, beginning with the Missouri River (source of so much of our clean water).

What happened in the years that followed was its own kind of saga, a Heraclean tale of activists joining together in physical protest and legal action against government and capital, across state lines and even national borders. By most accounts, this saga began north of the United States, among Indigenous Canadians who first sounded the alarm about the rising threat. As the pipeline moved south, so did the opposition, eventually coalescing into an unlikely coalition of Indigenous activists, environmentalists, and ranchers in Nebraska. By 2011, the coalition had expanded even more, with Mark Ruffalo, Daryl Hannah, and Bill McKibben among the many activists engaging in a series of high-profile protests aimed at holding President Barack Obama to his commitment to green energy. Still, the movement remained broad. Tribal leaders sued and sought injunctions in court. Citizen activists took to social media and to the land itself to protest.

These efforts had a powerful effect. While Obama initially refused to change course—in fact, in 2012, he accelerated the enterprise, declaring that he was “directing my administration to cut through the red tape…and make this project a priority”—he ultimately reversed his position amid overwhelming activism and pressure. In 2015, he vetoed the bill that would have seen the pipeline to completion.

Unfortunately, it would prove to be a fairly empty gesture, because on January 20, 2017, Donald Trump became president, and on January 24, he signed a presidential memorandum that breathed new life into Keystone. That memorandum invited TransCanada to resubmit its pipeline application and set an expedited time line for approval by the secretary of state. It also, however, resurrected the movement against it, setting off a series of legal battles that would wind all the way to the Supreme Court. There, on July 6, 2020, the nation’s highest court upheld a lower court ruling stalling Keystone XL.

Still, the pipeline wasn’t quite dead. That end would come only when Biden, on his first day in office, cauterized the open wound with a presidential proclamation revoking the permit.

The Dakota Access Pipeline has had a different life and death. Or should it be lives and deaths? Proposed in 2014 to transport oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, the pipeline was nearly complete before it was effectively opposed, because the parent companies cleverly routed the majority of the pipeline across private land, which involved less red tape, such as permitting requirements and public hearings. But, awkwardly at first and then with more force, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota rose in opposition—in meetings, in court, and ultimately in sustained and galvanizing protest.

These demonstrations began at Lake Oahe, under which the pipeline was slated to cross, in the spring of 2016. They started with a single small camp—Sacred Stone, where water protectors from the Standing Rock Sioux, the Cheyenne River Lakota, and the Rosebud Sioux gathered—and quickly expanded, culminating in the thrilling sprawl of the Oceti Sakowin and other camps. But as the protests grew, so did the crackdown by both private security companies and the federal government. The private contractors pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, and fired rubber bullets at the Native protesters and their allies; then, in November 2016, the US Army Corps of Engineers ordered the protesters to vacate federal lands.

Despite all this, or because of it, there was victory: The Army Corps of Engineers, under pressure from the Obama administration, stalled the project until further study could be completed and, in late 2016, withdrew the easement allowing the pipeline to pass under Lake Oahe. But as with Keystone XL, the victory was short-lived because of Trump’s election. On the same day that he resurrected Keystone XL, Trump (more the “angel of dearth” than the “angel of death”) issued a memorandum to expedite the completion of DAPL. Duly expedited, the pipeline was completed in April of 2017, and oil began to flow.

Yet even then, the saga wasn’t over. Not content with the initial flow levels, Energy Partners requested permission to double the amount of oil moving through the pipeline, despite the high risk of spills and accidents. Activists pushed back. They rallied and protested while the Standing Rock Sioux and several other tribes filed a lawsuit charging that the Army Corps of Engineers had failed to do a proper environmental review.

On July 6, 2020, they won—with the judge going so far as to order the pipeline shut down—but the Corps, joined by Energy Partners, promptly appealed. The matter remains in court. The Biden administration could have intervened but has opted not to. At a hearing on April 9, it announced it would keep the pipeline open while it performs the necessary environmental review.

So what does this tell us about slaying monsters? And what does it mean for those who helped lead the struggles? The answers are probably as complicated as the pipelines and their legacy, but they boil down to three things.

First, it’s clear that the multinational, multibillion-dollar companies intent on exploiting North American oil fields are supple and muscular and largely effective at pushing their projects through, with way more power and influence than they should have. While activists mounted creative, forceful, and sustained opposition to these companies’ projects, nearly knocking them back many times, the projects kept resurfacing, regenerating. The problem—of influence, of the power of power itself, of the pursuit of wealth at the expense of the people and land from which it is drawn—is persistent and profound.

Second, it shows that, without representation in Congress and the judiciary, Native American communities are shockingly vulnerable to the shifting winds and the whims of the executive branch. While there may be Native members of Congress, tribes themselves do not have seats there. This has been true for hundreds of years. Since the Supreme Court issued a trilogy of decisions related to the removal of the “five civilized tribes” from the Southeast in the 1830s, in which Chief Justice John Marshall referred to Indian tribes as “domestic dependent nations,” Indians have lived in a weird kind of limbo: They have been caught, Orpheus-like, between the garden of tribal independence and the underworld of modern nationhood. With every shift in federal policy, with every new presidential declaration, tribes are forced to adjust, and they have to do so without the security or power of even mere statehood. What this shows is that despite the US government’s obsession with what it has called “the Indian problem,” what we really have is a “federal government problem.”

Third, and perhaps most crucial, despite the power of the oil industry and the capriciousness of the federal government, we can see that protest works. If not for the demonstrations over DAPL, it is likely that Obama, and now Biden, wouldn’t have opposed Keystone. And having shut down Keystone, the government—one hopes—will eventually kill DAPL too.

But in all this we can see something perhaps even more profound. During the height of the DAPL protests in 2016, David Archambault III, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, editorialized that “justice looks different in Indian country.” Comparing the harsh treatment of the water protectors at Standing Rock with the acquittal of Ammon Bundy over the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just months earlier, Archambault stated that there was one set of rules for white “self-styled cowboys” and a different one for Indians. Undoubtedly, he is right. But to see the struggle over pipelines as another instance of the (white) man keeping the Indian down is to misapprehend the bigger picture. What I saw during, and after, the protests was bigger. What I saw were Native climate activists and our allies putting our lives on the line for all Americans.

The struggle—then as now—is an older and bigger struggle between the common good and corporate profit, between the harms the US government has so long inflicted and the values it professes. Just as Native Americans have served in every war the United States has ever fought, in numbers higher than for any other ethnic group, so, too, have our modern warriors fought in environmental battles. As the United States has willed itself into being over the past 245 years, Native people have been there at every step—as activists and soldiers and politicians and, after 1924, as citizens. We’ve been there defending what has truly become our land as well as our water and our rights. We have been there since the beginning and have done our best to bend the national line toward justice.

Regardless of what Biden does about DAPL—or what will happen with other pipelines around the country—Native people will be there fighting for all of us. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, the architect of the Indian boarding school system begun in the 19th century—a system that tried to destroy tribes by separating Indian families, and tried to destroy cultures by forcing students to speak English and practice Christianity—famously said that he wanted to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”

Pratt didn’t succeed. We are still here—as communities, tribes, Native nations, and individuals. Nor has the country’s government or the corporations that seek to exploit this land, to take what they want, to privilege short-term gain over long-term sustainability, because the land, along with its riches and its richness, is still here. We have a better goal than Pratt did. We want nothing less than to kill the Hydra and save the land.

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