Dakota Access

Dakota Access protestors. Photo: Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

Industry leaders, including Kelcy Warren, have mishandled Dakota Access pipeline protest right from the beginning

Six weeks ago, I warned that the Dakota Access pipeline protest was going to be the next Keystone XL issue for the American oil and gas industry. I was wrong. It’s going to be much worse.

Dakota Access

Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, builder of Dakota Access Pipeline.

Eco-activists have acknowledged that opposing Keystone XL was more than just the pros and cons of the pipeline project. It was about re-energizing the American environmental movement around climate change and against fossil fuels.

From that point of view, it was spectacularly successful. With an ally in the White House, the political momentum created by the process that led up to the Paris climate accord, and funding from the deep pockets of major charities and newly minted “green” billionaires like Tom Steyer, US eco-activists have probably never been as powerful as they are today.

But something is going on with the Dakota Access protests that is likely to make them even more powerful – and influential with the next president and Congress. Something that could be a turning point for the American oil and gas  industry.

That something is the decline of industry’s legitimacy in American political culture.

Erica Ciszek is an assistant professor with the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston. She says that if today were 1950 or even 1990, the American oil and gas industry would have tremendous legitimacy with the American public. Energy producers powered the economy, providing cheap gasoline for consumers and millions of good paying jobs for workers. Fossil fuels were seen as the backbone of the economy. 

Economic strength conferred political legitimacy, says Ciszek: “The oil and gas industry had a political legitimacy that was pretty secure…The companies were viewed positively and they enjoyed political legitimacy as an economic institution, as a social institution.”

Gallup public opinion polling shows how that legitimacy has been eroded over the past decade or so.

When asked, “Which of the following approaches to solving the nations energy problems do you think the US should follow right now?” – 73 per cent of Americans chose emphasizing “alternative energy” over oil and gas.  The partisan split was quite significant: 89 per cent of Democrats and 51 per cent of Republicans. Support for alternative energy was as low as 59 per cent in 2012.

A Pew Research poll conducted in March shows that “74% of U.S. adults said the ‘country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,’ compared with 23% who say ‘the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.’” A 2014 Pew poll found that increasing American oil and gas production didn’t change voters’ views about energy, with those favoring the expansion of “alternative energy” outnumbering those supporting oil and gas by six to three margin.

Changing national attitudes are not a pendulum swing in politics, but a structural shift in political culture driven by changes in energy technology and the way Americans think about energy, says Ciszek.

“These [oil and gas] companies are going to have to recognize the way the landscape has shifted over the past twenty years – it is not the 1990s,” she said.

“I think we’re having a national shift in terms of who we are as a nation, how do we fuel ourselves, both literally and metaphorically and ideologically. The oil and gas industry has a lot of soul-searching to do to figure out what role they’re going to play in the American political narrative in terms of the respective roles of oil and gas, and renewable energy.”

 The national “soul searching” around the energy narrative will not be aided by violent confrontation between Native Americans (supported by well-funded and organized environmental groups) and heavily militarized police forces enforcing the rule of law on behalf of a pipeline company.

That is a losing scenario for the American oil and gas industry already plagued by declining political legitimacy.

Energy Enterprise Partners had a chance to de-escalate tensions with the Standing Rock Sioux – as crisis communications experts always advise. Instead, the company chose to escalate and continue escalating, culminating with the clash Friday between protestors and police forces who looked like they were ready for a war.

Images of armored vehicles and SWAT teams and young women hit in the face with rubber bullets and rumors of arrested protestors being held in dog cages – and so much more – are buzzing around the world on social media. The Standing Rock Sioux are not going away; instead, they have vowed to continue their protest over the winter and have begun crowdfunding online to pay for provisions and housing. Protests have broken out in other parts of the United States in support of the Sioux.

And if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election only 10 days hence, protestors will have a powerful ally in the White House (and possibly in Congress if the Democrats take the Senate, as seems possible).

The Dakota Access protests have the making of a disastrous political and public relations debacle for the industry. One it brought on itself at time when its legitimacy with voters is on the wane.

Industry leaders, including Energy Enterprise Partners CEO Kelcy Warren, should do some immediate soul searching before Dakota Access becomes a much bigger political disaster than Keystone XL ever was.

Unfortunately, it may already be too late.

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