While Sierra Rose Alexander was growing up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana, several influential members of the tribe were keen on leasing reservation land to Arch Coal Corporation. This corporate leviathan was seeking to develop one of the USA's largest coal strip mines, link it by rail to a Washington State terminal, and thence ship the dark and combustible substance to burgeoning Asian energy markets, in addition to domestic ones.
An area of rolling prairies and statuesque buttes called Otter Creek would have been sacrificed. Arch Coal and other companies were in the midst of a broader push to expand mining in the Powder River Basin along the Montana-Wyoming border, the nation’s largest coal-producing region.
But Alexander's grandfather had helped lead the opposition to a similar proposal in the 1970s. She and her immediate family members are among many Cheyenne traditionalists who continue to oppose any coal mining.
“My grandpa' told my mom, 'Never go for coal. Never tear up the land,'” recalls Alexander, who is 24 years old. “I grew up with my mom telling me how important the land is, that the land is all we have.”
This past March, Sierra and other Northern Cheyenne traditionalists could breathe easier when Arch Coal suspended its application for the mine, citing a weak market and “an uncertain permitting environment.” Nearby ranchers and conservation groups had also resisted the mine proposal.
Currently a goat herder and vegetable farmer at Green Uprising Farm in Willits, Sierra is now spearheading a combined Mendocino County/Bay Area support caravan to Standing Rock Sioux territory in North Dakota, where indigenous people, local ranchers, and environmentalists are standing off against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline: a $3.7 billion, 1,168-mile-long mega-project that would carry up to 570,000 barrels a day of Bakken Shale oil to Illinois (via South Dakota and Iowa). From there, it would link with another pipeline for transport to terminals and refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps also connecting to rail lines to the East Coast.
The pipeline threatens water supplies and sacred lands of indigenous people, particularly those of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a community of 8,500 along the Missouri River in North and South Dakota. One leg of the pipeline would run along the reservation's boundary.
Environmentalists, landowners’ associations, and Native American groups have cried foul regarding the project for years. Because the pipeline qualifies as a utility (despite being privately owned and for-profit), however, the Army Corps of Engineers was able to certify it without performing an environmental impact statement. All utility projects are eligible for “minimal impact” designations under the National Environmental Quality Act.
Since April, the Sioux and supporters have camped out near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, partially halting the construction pending a federal judge's September 9th ruling on a preliminary injunction filed by the Standing Rock tribal council challenging one of the project's permits. The indigenous-led blockade has galvanized international attention and opened up the possibility that the pipeline may yet be canceled.
Members of the Northern Cheyenne nation have joined the blockade, as have delegations from more than 100 tribes throughout North America, according to the Standing Rock Sioux web site and local media reports. Alexander is scheduled to depart from Mendocino County on the morning of September 6th (just after this issue goes to press), along with Jassen Rodriguez of Keylseyville, a Potter Valley resident who goes by Luke, and a young woman from Oakland named Jackie. A pair of San Francisco residents traveling in the same car will also partake in the caravan.
The Mendo members of the NorCal-to-North Dakota motorcade will assemble with local supporters for a final send-off in front of the Ukiah Courthouse on the morning of September 6th. Many local residents are bringing donations to send out to the Cannon Ball encampment. All participants in the caravan are under 30 years of age.
Their departure comes as events in North Dakota have taken an ugly turn. This past Saturday, private security agencies hired by the construction company Energy Access Partners, set guard dogs on peaceful protesters and also pepper sprayed them.
“It's a little nerve-wracking to see what's happening, but I mostly just have an overwhelming urge to be out there with members of my tribe and the other like-minded people who are already there,” Alexander says.
In recent years, movements against fossil fuel extraction have helped revive – and, to some degree, reinvent -- North American environmentalism. There has been an impressive level of resistance to nearly any infrastructure project associated with the Alberta tar sands, along with widespread opposition to new coal infrastructure and to specific extraction techniques such as fracking and acidization.
Many of these campaigns have succeeded by targeting the fossil fuel industries' greatest Achilles heel: shipping. The three largest and potentially most lucrative fossil fuel sources in North America – the Alberta Tar Sands, the Powder River Coal Basin, and the Bakken Oil Shale Basin – are all located in the middle of the continent. In effect, they are landlocked. The oil and coal industries have sought to deliver their planet-baking lucre to coastal ports via rail, barge, and pipeline, including to prospective new shipping terminals here on the west coast, in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
Grassroots opposition to Keystone XL led President Barack Obama to veto the project in 2015. And opposition by some of the most systematically disenfranchised people in North America — western Canada's indigenous people — was the main obstacle to the Northern Gateway's completion (the project has now been indefinitely placed on hold).
But those pushing these projects include some of the most powerful and profitable corporations in world history. King Coal and Big Oil have deep pockets and friends in many of the highest offices throughout the globe. The products they provide play a significant role in the calculus of geopolitical power for nearly every major industrialized nation across the globe.
While the coal industry has thrived for much of the Obama era, the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan last year dealt the industry a significant setback. But the Obama years have been some of the best of times for the North American oil industry. In 2014, the US passed Saudi Arabia as the planet's biggest oil producer. It has surpassed Russia as the world's biggest producer of oil and gas combined. Last December, Obama signed a Congressional bill lifting a decades-old oil export ban, raising the possibility that the Bakken shale and other oil will supply foreign markets.
North California occupies a significant position in the geography of the western oil industry. The Golden State, in spite of its reputation as a haven for environmentalism, is the third-leading oil producer in the United States, much of it exported to surrounding states. In 2014, the Bay Area's five refineries processed an average of 754,000 barrels of oil per day, or 45.5 percent of California's total production, into gasoline, jet fuel, propane, and other products.
Since 2013, oil companies have intensified a push to bring to California refineries both Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands crude: a sticky mixture of sand, clay, and bitumen trapped deep beneath Canada's boreal forest. Bay Area refinery workers' unions have joined local residents and environmentalists in opposing the attempted local switch to these dirtier crude sources.
"In some ways, California has become the biggest and most important battleground in the tar-sands fight," longtime refinery expert Greg Karras, who works for Communities for a Better Environment in Richmond, told me in an interview earlier this year. Thanks, in part, to pipeline resistance campaigns, the oil industry has been limited to transporting their new crude sources to the West Coast by rail – a far more costly and cumbersome method.
Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline has galvanized support from throughout North America, including from many indigenous people here in Northern California. Among those to answer the call are members of the Round Valley Indian Tribes here in Mendocino County, five carloads of whom reportedly set out for North Dakota this past Saturday, September 3rd.
On September 2nd, a North California-based intertribal coalition called the True North Organizing Network dispatched a delegation of almost 50 Klamath River basin tribal members – including Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa people – to North Dakota, according to a statement from the group.
“Standing Rock is something the Native Community has been waiting for a long time,” says Lacey Jackson, a 17-year-old from the Hoopa reservation, in the statement. “We know when tribes unify, they have tremendous ability, and the more people on the ground in Standing Rock, the bigger the movement we will build. The environment is our religion, and we are standing for all people.”
The Dakota Access stand-off is occurring as the global climate crisis rapidly accelerates. As atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continues to increase, ecosystem disruptions and displacement of human communities are already occurring on a large scale in many parts of the globe.
July was the hottest month on record worldwide, marking 15 consecutive months of record-breaking global heat.
Sierra Alexander moved to Willits six months ago to be with her boyfriend, Wyatt, who works for Solar Array, a solar panel installer with offices in Willits and the Bay Area. She began an internship at Green Uprising Farm after responding to an ad on Craigslist.
Alexander is a graduate of Montana State University, where she majored in Environmental Science. She wrote countless reports about Arch Coal's Otter Creek project and the coal industry in general while in school, she says, and became an enthusiastic advocate of renewable energy sources.
She learned the value of not consuming or taking too much while growing up on the Northern Cheyenne rez, near the town of Lame Deer. She has always participated in tribal ceremonies, she says, and gained an even deeper appreciation for the value of traditional land-based indigenous cultures during travels to South America and Russia.
Alexander says that she has been nearly overwhelmed by the support she has received from people in Mendocino County, countless of whom have donated supplies and modest sums of money to support her trip. She and the other caravaners will be donating the items she's collected, as well as any excess funds, to the protest encampment outside of Cannon Ball and other efforts to oppose the pipeline.
“It's been amazing and humbling to experience everyone's support,” she says.
She says the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have had an electrifying impact on younger members of the tribe, who are developing a newfound pride in their culture and traditions, and also cultivating a sense of themselves as protectors of land and water. Many of them had not had an active role in opposing the Otter Creek coal mine.
“It's become honorable for them be able to say they stood up for something like this,” Alexander says. “A lot of my peers who I grew up with on the rez have contacted me to say they want to join me on the caravan, or else they're already out there.”