Pipeline Activism Expected to Rise Significantly


What on earth do “Water Protectors”, “Doxxing”, or “Valve Turners” have in common? 

These arcane terms describe different tactics used within the murky world of pipeline activism and protest.  Pipeline protests – a familiar headache in the oil and gas industry – had been in a kind of remission until last July when Dakota Access, a subsidiary of the Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, received permit approval by the North Dakota Public Service Commission to begin the construction on a four-state crude oil pipeline.  The proverbial flag dropped, bringing groups from the Red Warrior Camp to Black Lives Matter out of the woodwork and onto the bleak plains of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation in North Dakota.  The gathering evolved quickly into a veritable Pow Wow of Native American tribal representatives, (the Ponca, the Cheyenne, various other Sioux tribes, a representative from the Amazon basin, and more) eco-grievance groups, and others all protesting that the pipeline threatened the reservation’s water supply and  traversed culturally sacred sites.

As a matter of record, peaceful protest is a constitutionally protected form of free speech that has a long and honorable tradition in the U.S.  Our beef is not with those protestors who came to voice their opposition peacefully.  No, what is of real concern is how peaceful protest movements like this one and others are exploited and abused to the point that they offer cover for violence, for further “trashing” of the environment (the sad conclusion of this protest event) or for casing activities by threat actors using the herd of “sheep” for cover while they gather surveillance data.

The above said, considerable investment had already been made in serious and expensive studies by the stakeholders involved, concluding that no sacred items or land were traversed along the route.  Or that the pipeline was buried 90 feet beneath the body of water it had to cross.  These facts were drowned out in the cacophony of protest that extended into the winter and finally adjourned last month.  The only ecological damage experienced so far has been the massive amount of toxic refuse left behind by these environmentally sensitive youths, and a large mud pit scarring the hillside where they camped.  If environmental sensitivity was the point of the demonstration, that point lies dead and buried in the images of the frozen garbage left behind.

“Water Protectors” describe exuberant individuals willing to be used as cannon fodder.  These youngsters man the barricades and gulp down the tear gas when it inevitably flows.  As the name implies, they are there to “protect” the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.  They camped out on private property, blocked access to the public right-of-way of the pipeline, and set construction equipment on fire.  The authorities eventually responded with pepper spray, bean bag bullets, water cannons and  dogs in retaliation.  The blood & dog bite marks, tears, and bruises are all useful for the cameras and that is precisely why they are exposed on the front lines.  Publicity.  The protestors have even been known to bring their own camera crews, just in case the national media misses some galvanizing imagery.

Meanwhile, others affiliated with the protestors used their internet savvy to access private information about local law enforcement and their families, and post anonymous threats.  This is called “doxxing,” and it certainly rattled the nerves of authorities in the area.

Finally, a few fanatical “true believers” from a group known as Climate Direct Action (CDA) simultaneously broke into at least five different pipeline sites on 12 October, snapped the chains on pipeline valves and briefly shut down each one of them.  In doing so, these so-called “Valve Turners” successfully executed the largest coordinated attack against U.S. Energy Infrastructure ever by an environmental group.

All of this occurred before the election of President Donald Trump, the renewal of the XL Keystone Pipeline project, and expedited permitting process for the contested Dakota Access pipeline. 

The threat of an escalation of this kind of aggressive, in-your-face activism witnessed at Standing Rock is high given the history of the groups involved, and their logistical sophistication.   To believe that these groups are strictly grass roots activists with altruistic motives would be short-sighted.  The anti-pipeline movement is less about pipelines, and more about identifying a manageable tactic to hurt Big Oil.  These activists are exceedingly well-funded and led through something known as a “directed network” campaign that involves strategic coordination from various entities headquartered in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle.  This “top-down” strategy provides funding and advance coordination for a host of grass roots organizations involved in activism against pipelines, the fossil fuel industry, and other extractive industries that are in the crosshairs of environmentalists.

With organization and funding, what escalates this threat further is the recent executive order signed on 24 January by President Trump reviving the Dakota Access pipeline project as well as the long-dormant Keystone XL pipeline project.  The order also expedites environmental reviews of other infrastructure projects, a measure certain to upset groups who manipulate the review process to stall projects.   This executive order smoked out clear statements of intent from these groups, for example, Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard’s stated that a broad coalition of opponents, “indigenous communities, ranchers, farmers, and climate activists managed to block these projects in the past and would not give up now.   “We all saw the incredible strength and courage of the water protectors at Standing Rock, and the people around the world who stood with them in solidarity,” she said. “We’ll stand with them again if Trump tries to bring the Dakota Access Pipeline, or any other fossil fuel infrastructure project, back to life.  We will resist this with all of our power, and we will continue to build the future the world wants to see,” she added.

Leonard’s statement is mild, compared to other groups.  The Red Warrior Society, which claims it is a group “building a culture and community of Resistance on every level” is representative of the “grass roots” eco-activist groups found at pipeline protests and other related anti-oil protests around the country.  They take the rhetoric further. Following the Standing Rock incident, they stated in a communique on the internet that, “one of the lessons we have learned that has inspired us is the very real need for a mobile resistance movement that is ready and willing to dismantle the capitalist regime that is destroying our planet. The mobilization of resistance is key to shattering the oppressive illegal military occupation of the so called ‘Amerikkkas’, for too long we have lived with broken treaties, genocide, racism and colonization.”

In summary, we believe that the current climate of threat to oil and gas pipelines and oil and gas companies in general, is ripe for escalation.  There is recent history of violent protest and coordinated direct action against pipelines.  As noted, there is an increasing sophistication in the activist community between strategic planners with access to funding, and grass-roots organizers who are ready and willing to execute protest or direct action operations against pipelines and/or the oil and gas industry (including corporate headquarters and supporting financial institutions).  The operational environment, since the recent election, reflects a climate supportive of protest and “resistance” to the shift in political power within the country.   There is stated intent to launch more robust and frequent activist events by organizations; within this context, there are more specific and ominous statements of intent by fringe groups that could engage in eco-terrorist actions.   Finally, these groups are capable of coordinated action, as demonstrated by the simultaneous October 2016 shutdown of five pipelines by CDA operatives.

With the above threat picture in mind, Butchko strongly recommends oil and gas companies re-evaluate their physical, procedural, cyber and personnel security countermeasures to build resilience into their infrastructure, corporate presence, and personnel.  While the good news for the industry is its steady recovery from the slump of 2014 – 2016, its renewal of upstream activity will bring with it an uptick in the kind of activism outlined above…not all of it peaceful.