The Standing Rock Follies

  • Posted: January 10, 2017
  • Category: Energy
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American’s don’t go in for subtle entertainment. It is no accident the BBC has no American competition. Our own PBS puts together bland assemblages of endless hours spent in earnest pandering along with tendentious documentaries. Though I do confess a certain fondness for their historical CSI show, Secrets of the Dead. But when PBS needs an audience (money raising time) they bring out TJ Lubinsky and his brand of “golden oldies”. PBS doesn’t do Shakespeare or Downton Abbey. Americans prefer close-ups of Doo Wop artists momentarily free of their walkers interspersed with wide angle shots of old folks swaying in time, mouthing the politically incorrect lyrics of 50 years ago.

Political theater in the United States is the same. We like our villains wearing black hats, stealing from widows, orphans or people of color. We like our good guys pure as the driven snow, oppressed by the Evil Empire and taking to the streets. We like our actors stereotyped with simple story lines, stories we can understand at a glance as we look up from FaceBook or the game.

And so our latest set piece tableau is the Standing Rock Follies. It’s a simple story, a drama with the lines starkly drawn. Thinking is not required to follow the story. A small group of poverty stricken and oppressed whiplash-little-nellindigenous people on the border between South and North Dakota are fighting the good fight against evil. An oil company seeks to bulldoze an oil pipeline dripping with pollutants across their land. This pipeline will desecrate their sacred and holy places while fouling their drinking water. It’s just one more sorry episode in the endless story of the White Man oppressing the Red Man.

You have to admit, it’s a story made for coverage by the evening news. As a side benefit, PBS can use a lot of the networks footage in their own documentaries, allowing them to keep PBS production costs down. After all, TJ Lubinsky’s old Doo Wop artists are dropping like flies and the BBC continues to raise the fees for showing “Downton Abbey”.

The actors in the Standing Rock drama are right out of Central Casting. A few brave members of the Sioux (per the approved usage – Indigenous People – Native American – AmerIndian – Original Peoples) are engaged in a lonely vigil against insurmountable odds to prevent a polluting pipeline from destroying their culture and drinking water. The polluting pipeline, Dakota Access by name, is the evil scheme of a calculating and ruthless billionaire to run rough shod over the sacred holy places of the poverty stricken Sioux in order to make obscene profits.

A callous and insensitive federal agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, is a willing accomplice to this blatant disregard for the health and holy places of the Sioux. President Obama, in a courageous attempt to stave off the Long Night of the Deplorables, stepped in and ordered the Corps of Engineers to rescind its permit to build the pipeline. At least for a day, there is a happy ending. The evil machinations of oil billionaires have been thwarted. The Sioux can continue to worship their ancestors in peace and drink unpolluted water. The Earth has been saved for a time. Right and justice have triumphed.

On the one hand, we have the Enlightened Peoples of the Earth. On the other hand, we have the Deplorables. Does the line get any more clearly drawn than at Standing Rock? How can such things happen in a nation seeking to be just?

Perhaps the best place to start is with things that can be measured and seen, once quaintly known as the facts before thrown into disrepute by the Clintons, statisticians and the cathedral of diversity. While I don’t claim the superior knowledge possessed by journalists, scientists and activists, being only a simple engineer, I do speak with some experience. In a past life, I was an active participant in permitting and constructing thousands of miles of pipelines built in the lands crossed by the Dakota Access pipeline. In point of fact, we built a crude oil pipeline across the very same Missouri River, now threatened by the horror that is the Dakota Access Pipeline, some miles upstream from the disputed Standing Rock crossing.

Political theater, as any other play, needs the elements of either drama or comedy for it to capture an audience’s attention. While there is a strong element of comedy at Standing Rock, the media has chosen to present it as drama so I will continue in that vein. At Standing Rock, we have a crude oil carrying pipeline that goes across the Missouri River, a mile or more across. This large pipeline, 30” in diameter transporting nearly 20 million gallons of crude oil per day, is said to pose an existential threat to the water in the river if it leaks, spilling all that oil into the river. Every one remembers the environmental catastrophe (?) that was the Deep Water Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010.

What if the Dakota Access Pipeline ruptures or leaks, destroying the drinking water supply for not only the oppressed and poverty stricken indigenous Sioux of the Standing Rock Reservation, but for tens of millions of other innocent people downstream? What if the Yellowstone Super Volcano erupts, turning a quarter of the United States and Canada into a lifeless wasteland? We fool ourselves if we think we can live in a world without risk. In the real world, people balance advantages against liabilities while calculating probabilities. Otherwise, we find ourselves drawn to careers in the media or the Humanities Departments of higher education.

The Dakota Access Pipeline will cross the Missouri River like all modern pipelines do. A drilling rig will set up on one side of the river, well back from the water, and use a water powered drill to drill a hole, only slightly larger than the pipeline itself, passing under the river and emerging on the other side of the river. The pipeline is designed to pass a minimum of 92 feet under the riverbed. The drill head will be continuously monitored and controlled, accurate to within a few feet. A mixture of water and clay is used to lubricate the drill, as well as carry away the mud, clays and rock drilled from the hole.

After the hole has been drilled, the pipeline’s pipe is pulled through the hole. Silt fences and grass bale retaining walls prevent any mud/clay/rock from being washed into the river. There is nothing from the pipeline construction itself that might get into the river. The material removed from the drill hole is carefully dammed and hauled away.

After the pipeline crossing is in place, it is carefully inspected, multiple times by mechanical means as well as with electronic instrumentation capable of detecting microscopic imperfection, for any damage that might have occurred as it was pulled under the river. It is important to remind ourselves that the pipeline in question is made from high quality steel, carefully engineered to exact specifications, far superior to the steel that might be used in your automobile or the floor beams that support your house floor.

It is also useful to realize that the pipeline itself has a wall thickness of ¾ inch. Simply put, you could fire at it all day with your deer rifle to no effect. In addition, the steel is encased with two separate layers of hardened epoxy to protect it from corrosion. This epoxy coating is continuously monitored during operation of the pipeline to ensure unbroken electrical isolation from the surrounding clay/rock.

But as noted earlier, anything built by man can be broken. Perhaps a terrorist might anchor a pontoon boat over the pipeline, lower a large shaped charge explosive device capable of penetrating through the 100 feet of rock, clay and water and crack the pipeline releasing the crude oil being transported into the river. In such a case, self-contained automatic shutoff valves on either side of the river would slam shut, isolating the pipe crossing the river and stopping oil inflow within seconds.

Perhaps I am too close to my years in construction, but from my perspective, the chances of any meaningful, or even measureable, pollution of the Missouri River’s water by the Dakota Access Pipeline to be very very low. The chances that the hysterical fears of the New York Times Editorial Page might occur are perhaps not quite the statistical probability of a Chicxulub asteroid strike or eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano, but within statistical shouting distance.

A moment’s reflection and sober thought will bring recognition that the Standing Rock controversy is not about the Sioux, the pipeline or the Missouri River’s drinking water. The pipeline is simply a stalking horse for other more distant concerns. Just as unfounded fears of well-meaning farmers in Nebraska were used to stop the Keystone Pipeline further east of Standing Rock in Nebraska, so too the wretched condition of the Sioux on the Standing Rock Reservation is being used to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. It is simply political theater, meant to shape opinion and create leverage in the land once known by the Sioux as the house of the Great White Father.

As you might suspect, political theater is not a play written by George Bernard Shaw or Anton Chekov. Political theater is more like a classic Disney movie, Cinderella and the evil stepmother. Thus we have the evils of polluting oil and greedy billionaires riding roughshod over Mother Earth and poor downtrodden Native Americans.

Again, facts have been given a bad name over the past decades. Donald Trump simply hitched a ride on the well-worn coat tails of social science, medicine and public broadcasting. After years of the corrosion caused by those mendicants, whatever solid ground remains under the reputation of facts has been almost completely eroded by the institutional biases of the fact checking organizations used by our media organizations.

The elusive nature of facts, of truth, is not something new to our age or the latest election cycle. Human beings have struggled with facts and the truth derived from those facts from the very beginning. Some two what-is-truththousand years ago in a memorable cameo in the Gospel of John, Pontius Pilate posed the question, “What is truth?” Pilate stands in for all of us in our confusion when faced with those who seek to stampede us into emotional decisions. Just as the Jewish political leaders sought to railroad Jesus, so too do present day activists seek to push us into unwise short sighted actions. If we are to properly execute our duties as responsible stewards of God’s great and glorious creation, we might well add an element of skepticism, even cynicism, as we are exposed to the political dramas diverting our news feeds and shaping our thoughts.

Wearing the black hat at Standing Rock we have polluting oil endangering our drinking water for the benefit of billionaires. That is a pretty nefarious villain, right, a modern version of the evil stepmother? A pipeline leaking oil into the pristine water of the Missouri River for the benefit of a greedy one per center is close to as good as it gets for the producers of political theater.

I offer not facts, those disreputable things, just my own observations. Lets start with the bad guys, often the most interesting characters in a play. Perhaps Dante, with his memorable portrayal of the Devil, began our culture’s fascination with bad boys. The bad boy in this case, the evil billionaire seeking to build the nefarious pipeline, is a man named Kelcey Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer. As it happens, I have a small acquaintance with Kelcey Warren, having spent time in private conversation with him, admittedly back before he became a billionaire or evil.

In retrospect, my strongest impression of Kelcey was “surfer dude”. To be honest, if I close my eyes and think about Kelcey Warren, the “surfer dude” in my own family comes to mind. There was just a relaxed air of nonchalance about Kelcey, a bit reserved but open and friendly as well. I remember him as a very down to earth and personable man, tanned, feathered hair. He was dressed casually, jeans and polo shirt, back in a time when that was rare in office environments. But what stuck in my mind was that he didn’t wear socks. His office was spare, decorated with musical instruments and beach mementos. To the side of his desk, not as ornamentation but to be used, were a couple of guitars on stands.

I don’t know Kelcey Warren, just as I don’t know Warren Buffet, the house broken billionaire beloved by the smart set. But I have worked with Kelcey Warren’s organization and I have worked with Warren Buffet’s organization. Kelcey’s organization was congenial, focused on getting things done. Warren Buffet’s organization was fearful, wondering who would be sacrificed if the numbers weren’t right.

Both men are smart businessmen, doing what they have to do to make a buck. But Kelcey Warren builds things. Warren Buffet takes what others have built, shakes them down and makes them more profitable. Both types are necessary in the business world. But I would rather rub shoulders with carpenters than house keepers.

Billionaires aside, the oil pipeline is said to threaten drinking water, that most sacred of substances. It is obvious to even the most insensitive observer that the smallest threat to our waters purity is too great to love-water-not-oiltolerate for the American citizenry. After all, American consumers spend $ 15 billion per year on bottled water, choosing to avoid the possibility of pixie dust in the free water flowing in their own faucets.

It cannot be denied that the oil in the Dakota Access Pipeline could leak into the pristine (?) waters of the Missouri River. While the probability of this happening is less than the probability that I might win the Powerball jackpot, there is still the possibility. But in the real world, the climate-controlled warrens of the coastal elites require prodigious amounts of hydrocarbon derived energy and raw materials. And despite the fevered fantasies of those elites, that energy and those materials require oil, either from the war torn fields of the Middle East or from our own fracked fields in the United States. Since some of the best oil in the United States is produced in North Dakota, that oil must cross the Missouri River.

Because of the previous political theater played out in Nebraska with the Keystone Pipeline, that oil from North Dakota destined to support the lifestyle of the Left Coast travels by train. Many plays, particularly political theater of even the most serious intent, are leavened with elements of comedy, even farce. Thus we have the comedic scenario of the nation’s attention focused on the desperate struggle to stop an oil pipeline from crossing the Missouri River while only a few miles away railroad trains of 150 cars cross the river oil-cars-on-bridgecarrying that same oil, sometimes in trains only minutes apart shaking the bridge as they cross. In irony underlining comedy, most of those rail cars carrying the oil are owned by and earning premium profits for Warren Buffet, that beloved billionaire.

Thus our elites have judged a pipeline with its ¾” highly engineered steel walls buried under 92 feet of clay and rock to be riskier to the health and safety of the people in their care than the ½” common plate steel of a tank car riding above the river on a bridge of uncertain integrity. Adding injury to insult, the barely quantifiable risk of a pipeline leak is preferred by our elites to the certainty of the agonizing deaths of innocent citizens in the fiery explosions of tank car derailments. Already one such incident has occurred, resulting in the deaths of nearly fifty people sleeping in their beds. Of course the people at risk of fiery death live in fly over states or Canada, vote mostly Republican, own guns and go to church. Perhaps the election of Donald Trump is not so incomprehensible after all.

Many of the giant figures of the past century were monsters in human disguise. Perhaps that is always the case, but we have been forced into looking at them in the age of mass communication. One of those monsters, if not the most monstrous of them all, was Joseph Stalin. Responsible for the deaths of uncounted tens of millions, he nevertheless understood us, the human animal well. He had the gift of expressing the reality of who we are in a short and memorable way. During the 1930’s the Soviet government orchestrated a famine in the Ukraine resulting in the deaths of at least six million people. During a meeting of high government officials at which the latest death tolls were being discussed, Stalin is reliably reported to have said:

“The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic.”

Stalin said it, but those paid to manipulate us understand the underlying reality very well. We are regularly exposed to the stories of individuals who have experienced tragedy, injustice, abuse or oppression. Then follow stories packed with the studies of researchers, buttressed by statistics, that “prove” such treatment is common, an everyday occurrence in Amerika. There arises a call in the media that such injustice must be stopped. And so another strand in the web enmeshing our lives and circumscribing our freedoms is put into place.

But in keeping with Stalin’s perceptive observation, while we obsess over the tragedies suffered by some small group or individual, we dismiss the injustice suffered by millions. Whether in the Middle East or the Rust Belt, our eyes glaze over when confronted with the suffering of millions. Those millions whose suffering is often caused by our own obsessive need to right every perceived wrong done to the favored few.

And so we come to the tragedy of the few in our tableau, the long suffering few of the Standing Rock Reservation. Again, I offer no facts, just simple observations from my own experience in the world of pipeline construction. Given the large and extensive tracts of Indian lands in the Western United States, anyone building or operating pipelines in that part of the world gains experience with the Indigenous People and their culture.

The route chosen by the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrated they were experienced in dealing with the First Nations. The builders adjusted the route of the pipeline to avoid crossing the Standing Rock Reservation. Hidden among the “facts” of the Standing Rock Follies is the fact that the Missouri River crossing of the pipeline, as well as the entire route of the pipeline, carefully avoids all Sioux land. No one of any experience ventures any closer to Native American land than absolutely necessary. Dealing with Indian tribes has much in common with dealing with Iran and its Ayatollahs.

It is a sad truth that to travel through the Indian Reservations of the West is to be torn by the tragedy of the circumstances of the people living there. One cannot be human and not be touched by what one sees. Anybody’s heart is gripped by a wish to help, but what is to be done? Simply pouring money and assistance into the Reservation has been tried for generations to no discernable effect.

Those forced by circumstance to deal with the Original People on a business basis quickly come to understand the reasons behind their poverty and distress. Their culture is a straightjacket from which they have not broken free. Their culture, celebrated and clung to, was suited to a Neolithic life style which disappeared nearly two centuries ago. It simply does not work in the 21st Century. Nor did it work in the 20th Century. Nor did it work for most of the 19th Century.

By and large, the inhabitants of the Indian Reservations live a life built on a sustainable life style with an artisanal work force. It is a vision of the world idealized by our elites. But even the blind man can see where such practices lead. For life on the Reservations to change, culture must change.

More than anything else, the Democratic Party has driven our own wider culture into the morass of Identity Politics, which celebrates and seeks to preserve unchanged the cultures of those Americans hobbled by their dysfunctional culture. By dividing us into a Balkans of sexuality, gender and ethnicity, the Democratic Party has achieved a great deal of electoral success at the cost of erasing our individuality.

At Standing Rock, we see  this broad stereotyping of people introducing an element of humor, though perhaps a humor of the macabre. Underlying and making possible the stand off at Standing Rock is the whole sordid history of how the White Man stole the Indian’s land from them. Suffice it to say that both Hollywood and our schools have solidly implanted the by now common sense understanding that our United States was created out of land stolen from the people who lived here before, the American Indian. We cheated. We stole. We raped and we killed the people living here before the depressing arrival of the White Man.

Perhaps so, lets not argue the point now. But what the Identity Politics of our current day have robbed us of is the delicious spice of the real stories that unfold before us. Let us remember that the folks being abused at Standing Rock are not just American Indians, but are the Sioux. In popular myth perhaps no other tribe has been so put upon by injustice and sheer brutal oppression, at Wounded Knee, at Pine Ridge and now at Standing Rock. The creative community celebrated Russell Means, an outspoken Sioux who had a star turn portraying the Yoda-like Chingachook in The Last of the Mohicans. As the creative community frequently does when seeking to make political points, they conveniently forgot that Mr. Means was a Sioux activist intimately connected with terrorism, murder and violence on another Sioux Reservation.

But let us return to the 19th Century, the time when the White Men stole the Great American West from their natives. During the 1800’s, on two continents, two masses of indigenous peoples are expanding, in Southern Africa and the American West. Both of these indigenous peoples are vigorous cultures, growing in population, moving into new lands and replacing those who lived there before. Both are ruthless in their expansion, killing the men, enslaving the women and children as they take over new lands. Then in mid-century, both of these indigenous peoples run into equally powerful and ruthless opposition.

Both of the expanding indigenous people groups win the initial skirmishes and force back the advancing opposition. At the time they imagine they have solidified and made permanent their conquests. But as is common on the borders between two aggressive expanding people, there continues skirmishes and incursions along the borders separating the two powers. Then in the 1870’s the escalating pressures along the frontiers on both continents expand the clashes into major confrontations. On both continents, the indigenous peoples win dramatic victories, nearly annihilating their opponent’s military force in the field at the beginning of these new confrontations. But in winning these battles, they create the conditions that will inevitably end the stalemate bring their ultimate downfall.

In Africa, the Zulu peoples expanded south out of Central Africa, creating a larger and larger empire under their control, butchering and enslaving all those native peoples who stood against them. Then they ran into the Boers and the British of South Africa. At Isandlwana, the Zulu annihilated a British force, killing nearly 1,300 British troops.

In the United States and Canada, the Sioux peoples expanded out of the Great Lakes region, creating a larger and larger area under their control, butchering and enslaving all those Indian tribes living in the Dakotas and surrounding areas. Then they met the expanding United States, moving westward along with the railroad and cattle drives. A series of victories known as Red Cloud’s War in northeast Wyoming forced the United States back, acknowledging defeat and leaving the Sioux in possession of their conquered territories in what is now Southern Canada, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana.

But then gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota and conflict inevitably returned. The Sioux scored big victories against the United States Army at Rosebud Creek and the Little Big Horn. At the Big custers-last-stand-budweiserHorn, six companies of the 7th Cavalry commanded by a genuine Civil War hero, George Custer, were wiped out to a man, an event of such notoriety that it echoes even today.

In both Africa as well as the United States, the immense differences in populations and the resources available to Western Civilization forced the Zulu and the Sioux to bow before the inevitable. In both cases, a Stone Age culture was unable to compete with an industrialized people. In both cases, the victors, memory hazed by the passage of time and distance from the conflict, have heaped humiliation on the memory of the defeated, those who fought with honor, by assigning them the role of victim.

But now macabre humor inserts itself. The present day Sioux, conveniently forgetting their own past, claim sacred and holy status for lands stained with the long forgotten blood of the Pawnee, the Arapahoe, the Mandan, the Crow, the Arikara; those the Sioux themselves killed and enslaved. It is as if the Germans claimed the sites of concentration camps in Poland, because of their sacred significance to the German people. One can not help but laugh.

Skewering the honest concerns of those with soft but perhaps naïve hearts is perhaps a mean thing to do. But there are those who cynically manipulate those soft hearts to their own purposes. How are we to respond to such cynical manipulation? Hardening our heart is not the way to defend others and ourselves from those who seek to manipulate that admirable aspect of our humanity. We are instructed by our Lord and Savior to have soft hearts, touched by the poor and our fellows carrying heavy burdens. But we are also called to be wise, rightly discerning the path of wisdom from the path of foolishness.

Standing Rock is a travesty, a foolish episode with great power to harm many promoted by those who aspire to power, but how is anyone to know? Common sense, as well as Scripture, point us to the teaching of our children. The Book of Proverbs expresses it thus:

“Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Certainly, we are serious about the training of our children. Nobody spends more on Education than the United States. But incidents like Standing Rock point to the less than helpful lessons we are teaching. Perhaps those who design our curriculums and write our textbooks require more supervision. Perhaps we should revisit our old friend, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli or Joseph Stalin as he liked to call himself, who had some perceptive views on the subject, reproduced below:

“Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”

“Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at who it is aimed.”



One Response to “The Standing Rock Follies”

  1. esbenshade says:

    The BIA should fold its tent and tell all Native Americans if you can’t make

    a living on the “res” you better move! The US tax payer will not longer support you.

    Only way things will change for all Native Americans.

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