A high-stakes battle is underway on multiple front lines across America, as Native American and climate change activists square off against oil and pipeline companies racing to lay as much infrastructure into the ground as quickly as possible.

The U.S. oil industry is enjoying a surge in production, which has shot up 86 percent since 2008. Unshackled by Congress and enabled by the most oil-friendly president in decades, the industry aims to transform the American landscape with tens of billions of dollars in new pipelines, storage depots and export terminals.

That includes the Dakota Access pipeline, scene of the yearlong protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which is slated to begin transporting oil this weekend.

Yet despite oft-repeated claims by politicians and oil executives about the danger of relying on foreign oil, this U.S. petroleum renaissance never was designed to make America energy self-sufficient: A growing amount of that oil will end up in China, Japan, the Netherlands, even Venezuela.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a climate change skeptic and prominent booster of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, boasts that oil from North Dakota’s massive Bakken shale formation is now “destined for the world.”

This building and production binge already has made the United States the world’s third-largest producer of crude, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. The current U.S. output of 9.3 million barrels a day is more than Iran and Iraq’s production combined. Oil production in the U.S. might break records next year. The number of drilling rigs is nearly double that of a year ago.

All of this was unthinkable a decade ago, when the shale revolution turned parts of North Dakota and Texas into megaproducers of oil with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Then, at the end of 2015, Congress lifted the 40-year ban on exporting American crude oil.

“We have the potential to produce all we need and then some,” Cramer said. Speaking broadly of the continent, including Canada and Mexico, he added, “I view us as a North American energy bloc that rivals, if not exceeds, the global market potential of OPEC.”

The boom has generated political and economic pressure to build massive new infrastructure to get the product to market. Cramer said that includes the means for moving oil to coastal refineries and on to export terminals.

In the year after the export ban was lifted, companies across the U.S. added some 24 million barrels of storage, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration analyst. Private equity investment in the first quarter of 2017 was nearly $20 billion, nearly triple that of a year earlier, most of it for pipelines and tank farms, the analyst said. In the same period, commercial banks freed up $370 million in loans for more drilling.

In all, nearly 32,000 miles of North American pipelines are planned or under construction, according to Pipeline & Gas Journal’s 2017 Worldwide Construction Report.

The rush to drill and build comes at a pivotal time for U.S. energy policy, too. Demand for oil is flattening here and renewable energy sources are becoming economically viable, even as U.S. commitments in the Paris climate accords are under threat. The buildout takes place even as some oil companies recognize the threat posed by global warming.

“Climate change may adversely affect our facilities and our ongoing operations,” states a 2014 Phillips 66 report to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. “The potential physical effects of climate change on our operations are highly uncertain.”

Yet pressed by investors’ demands for quarterly profits, the companies keep building – while they still can.

Oil companies “have seen the writing on the wall,” said Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. The oil industry is “racing to lock in continued demand for product via this infrastructure (to) get these fossil fuels to our coasts as fast as possible.”

‘An assault on the water, on the earth’

Just east of Houston on Interstate 10, Cherri Foytlin drives her SUV past gleaming white crude oil tank farms plunked alongside refineries and export terminals – a visible testament to the vast expansion of decades-old infrastructure along the Gulf Coast.

Foytlin, 44, an indigenous activist, has six kids, five of them at home in Rayne, near Lafayette in the Louisiana bayou. But as state director of Bold Alliance, a grass-roots group battling fossil fuel projects, she spent much of the last year on the road, campaigning against three pipelines: Dakota Access, Trans-Pecos in West Texas and one closer to home – the Bayou Bridge, an extension of Dakota Access that would ship North Dakota oil to a terminal in St. James, Louisiana.

Cherri Foytlin, standing in front of oil storage tanks near homes in St. James Parish, La., is an indigenous activist and has spent much of the last year campaigning against oil pipelines, including the Bayou Bridge.
Cherri Foytlin, standing in front of oil storage tanks near homes in St. James Parish, La., is an indigenous activist and has spent much of the last year campaigning against oil pipelines, including the Bayou Bridge. Credit: Julie Dermansky for Reveal Credit: Julie Dermansky for Reveal

“In these troubling times, where we’re seeing such an assault on the water, on the earth, on our communities, I don’t feel like anyone has the opportunity to slack off,” she said.

Built by Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners – the main companies behind Dakota Access – and by Phillips 66 Partners, the Bayou Bridge pipe would cross 11 parishes, through the Atchafalaya Basin.

Foytlin pulls up where a gravel road meets the softly lapping waters of the bayou. The Bayou Bridge, she said, would go “right through these beautiful wetlands.”

It is one of some 700 bodies of water the pipeline would cross in southern Louisiana. The wetlands are vital resources to protect against erosion – especially important during hurricane season. But agriculture and oil and gas development carved into the bayou eliminate protective buffers, leaving local residents more vulnerable.

“In August, we had a big flood that I’m still trying to rebuild from,” Foytlin said. “I’m just now getting the kids back in their bedrooms. It cost me thousands and thousands of dollars. I lost the insurance on my house, and the new insurance went up $300 a month.”

Soon, Foytlin is back in the car, descending from the towering Calcasieu River Bridge and into Lake Charles and the guts of the petroleum industry. Metal scaffolding clings to the steel towers of oil refineries. Red-and-white stacks puff clouds of smoke from petrochemical plants. And everywhere, there are signs of growth.

Armies of giant cranes stand amid fields of shiny white 300-foot-wide storage tanks. Down a two-lane blacktop, 28 buses pass in the other direction, each carrying construction workers from a new liquid natural gas plant to a nearby “man camp,” where hundreds of workers have been brought in from outside Lake Charles.

Moss Lake Village, a “man camp” for a liquid natural gas plant near Lake Charles, La., houses hundreds of temporary workers for construction projects.
Moss Lake Village, a “man camp” for a liquid natural gas plant near Lake Charles, La., houses hundreds of temporary workers for construction projects. Credit: Karen Savage for Reveal Credit: Karen Savage for Reveal

“The industry’s trying to tell us that if Bayou Bridge is built, it’s going to provide jobs for our local people,” she said as the temporary work camps – basically mobile row houses – come into view. “But all this cheap labor has been bused in.”

As for the pipeline she’s battling: “They’ve already conceded that they’re only going to have 12 permanent jobs from Bayou Bridge.”

Even President Donald Trump’s famous promise on jobs – to build pipelines with American steel – seems to be faltering. Energy companies complained it would delay construction, and Trump already has abandoned the pledge for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Petroleum-related companies along the Gulf Coast, meanwhile, report booming business. In filings with the SEC, oil transport and storage companies disclose investments totaling tens of billions of dollars in new pipeline and storage ventures. One company, Enterprise Products Partners, has built 7.6 million barrels’ worth of crude oil storage in Texas alone since January 2016 – a month after the export ban was lifted.

“We believe that lifting of the crude oil export ban … creates additional business opportunities for us through the provision of export-related services,” Enterprise said in its 2016 annual report.

Of course, not every company is that candid, at least in public. Energy Transfer Partners, in describing the need for the Dakota Access pipeline, cites energy independence for American consumers. Yet in an August presentation to investors, the company displayed a map under the heading, “Exceptionally well positioned to capitalize on U.S. energy exports.”

The map featured a yellow dotted line for the last leg of the Dakota Access pipeline: the Bayou Bridge. That stretch recently cleared one regulatory hurdle, bringing it closer to reality.

Despite the complex social dynamics among Louisiana’s oil industry workers, fishermen and local communities, energy generally has held sway. But in the age of Trump and Standing Rock, Foytlin senses something has changed.

Years back, perhaps two or three people would join her at a hearing to oppose oil and gas development. This year, she said, two local hearings on the Bayou Bridge together drew nearly 800 people.

Activists battling oil pipelines across the country – near the Ohio River in southern Illinois, in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, through a major seismic zone in northeastern Arkansas and along the New York State Thruway – are part of a loose national network sparked both by Standing Rock and Trump.

Akilah Sanders-Reed is part of that network. The 22-year-old is opposing Enbridge Inc. and its Line 66 pipeline, which would transport up to 800,000 barrels a day of Canadian tar sands oil through the northern Midwest.

“Plain and simple, this country does not need more oil,” she said. “Most of our oil demand has been decreasing. (Oil companies) know they’re on their last legs.”

The Bayou Bridge oil pipeline would cross 11 parishes, including these wetlands south of Lake Charles, La.
The Bayou Bridge oil pipeline would cross 11 parishes, including these wetlands south of Lake Charles, La. Credit: Karen Savage for Reveal Credit: Karen Savage for Reveal

Still plenty of oil demand

Oil hardly looks like an industry on its last legs. Some 35 billion barrels of proven American oil reserves still lie underground, and harder-to-reach reserves could be more than seven times that. The new administration wants to turn the industry loose by shredding regulations, abandoning vehicle fuel standards and promoting new pipelines to send crude toward the Gulf Coast. And for now, there is still plenty of demand.

“Until you change the demand in the United States, it’s going to come from somewhere,” said Don Paul, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Energy Institute and a former vice president of Chevron Corp.

Yet predictions of the oil industry’s eventual decline might not be so far-fetched. More than a third of Iowa’s power now comes from wind. Renewables are expected to supply half of California’s power by 2030. Electric and hybrid vehicles likely will become an increasing part of the U.S. mix.

And the American love affair with the automobile appears to be waning. Vehicle ownership rates are down from their peak in 2006, and significantly fewer millennials are getting driver’s licenses than young adults in the past.

Perhaps the biggest reason of all: Eventually, the politics of climate change will catch up to the reality of its effects. At this year’s annual meeting of major energy players in Houston, Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO predicted a peak in demand within the next decade.

“There are people who believe it will grow forever, but I don’t subscribe to that,” Ben van Beurden told the March forum, organized by Cambridge Energy Research Associates. “Social acceptance is just disappearing. … Trust has been eroded to the point that it is becoming a serious issue for our long-term future.”

Why, then, is the industry rushing to put so much infrastructure in the ground now? Because in the current atmosphere, say supporters and opponents alike, it still can.

“I think there’s both an urgency and an opportunity,” said Kevin Cramer, the North Dakota congressman.

He views U.S. oil as a diplomatic weapon – flowing to Europe, for example, to offset the continent’s reliance on Russian oil. Lucian Pugliaresi, president of the pro-oil Energy Policy Research Foundation, stokes the oil security argument.

“To the extent that the U.S. is a large producer of oil and gas in the world oil market, it diminishes the power of those who would like to use oil as a political tool,” he said.

Others see an industry simply looking for new markets in other countries, much like the tobacco industry did when the number of U.S. smokers declined.

“I think that they’re playing the long game,” said the Sierra Club’s Lena Moffitt. “They are teeing things up to ensure that not just the United States but the globe stays reliant on oil for as long as possible.”

Moffitt’s colleague, Sierra Club lobbyist Athan Manuel, is not so sure the companies have a long-term vision.

“They just keep feeding the beast, making money short term,” he said, comparing it with old children’s cartoons in which characters’ “eyeballs get replaced with dollar signs and all they see is money.”

Whatever the industry’s motivation, one thing is not debatable: There is so much more oil pumping out of U.S. wells compared with 10 years ago that the very flow of it has reversed direction.

Greater export capacity

A silver-bearded Texan clad in jeans and cowboy boots unfurls a giant map of crude oil pipelines that crisscross the Gulf Coast.

“There was a time when a lot of crude moved up from this area,” said Houston oil analyst Rusty Braziel, leaning over a table in a conference room of his company, RBN Energy.

He traces his finger from the Gulf Coast toward Cushing, Oklahoma, the “pipeline crossroads of the world.” Now, he says, “with all of the production that kicked in, both in Canada and North Dakota, the vast majority of that crude moves back down this way.” His finger reverses course and points toward the gulf.

Until now, most of North Dakota’s fracked Bakken oil has been shipped by rail toward the East Coast. That is expensive, and boosters such as Cramer had worried the oil would become a “stranded asset.”

Yet despite all the political rhetoric, Braziel, a rock musician-turned-oil guru, is skeptical that the U.S. will become a major oil exporter. For one thing, he said, the U.S. still has to import at least 7 million barrels a day to meet its own demand.

“We have to bring in a barrel for every barrel that goes out,” he said.

So why ship it to China or Japan, then? “If I had to pay $2 (per barrel) to get it there, why would I do that?” he asked.

Braziel points out that in the first year after the export ban was lifted, exports hardly ticked up.

Yet more American oil is beginning to find its way to distant markets. Over several weeks in 2017, as international prices rose several dollars a barrel over the U.S. benchmark, American oil averaged more than a million barrels a day in exports – 11 percent of the total production and more than double the exports from the end of 2015, when the ban was lifted. (Canada, exempt from the ban, received 427,000 U.S. barrels a day in 2015.)

Three of the biggest customers were Japan, Singapore and China, which alone imported an average of 289,000 barrels a day in February. Ed Morse, global head of commodities research for Citigroup, believes the U.S. can “be a very large exporter of crude to China,” in part because of recent production cuts by OPEC.

As American demand declines and the thirst in the developing world rises, some ambitious scenarios even show the U.S. becoming a net oil exporter by 2033. Morse believes it will happen even sooner.

“We’re increasing production of crude and products by over a million barrels a day per year,” he said. “And our demand is not growing. So at that rate, somewhere around 2020, 2021, the U.S. would be net self-sufficient. And by 2022, a very hefty net exporter.”

But some of these projections, Braziel said, are based on sky-high oil prices and major innovations in U.S. oil exploration.

“Sure, anything’s possible,” he said. “But that argument is, ‘Trees grow to the sky.’ Trees don’t grow to the sky. There’s a practical limit.”

Committing to the larger fight

Practical limits. That is a concept anti-pipeline and climate change activists have been trying desperately to insert into the national conversation. It’s why a half-dozen teepees rose on the National Mall in March in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Several thousand indigenous people and environmentalists had gathered for a rally and march in solidarity with Standing Rock and the broader issues it represents.

“The very ground we walk on is melting beneath our feet,” said Faith Gemmill-Fredson, a Native Alaskan and part of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

She sat on a patch of grass on a mild afternoon; the cherry blossoms were blooming, much earlier than usual. In Alaska, she said, “there’s actually communities that are on the coastline that need to be relocated. It is an urgent situation because the ice melting has allowed the erosion of the coastlines. And that’s going to be the reality of other coastal communities anywhere in the U.S. eventually if we don’t raise the profile of catastrophic climate change and raise awareness.”

This is the irony of the fossil fuel industry’s long game. The game, Gemmill-Fredson said, has been shortened dramatically by its actions.

The alternative, she said, lies in the Indigenous Environmental Network’s mantra: “Keep it in the ground.” What’s needed, she said, is “a just transition to clean, sustainable energy, sustainable jobs that would actually uphold, respect and promote indigenous people’s rights on their ancestral territory.”

In other words, the opposite of the outcome at Standing Rock.

Activists in Washington seemed resigned to the fact that the Dakota Access pipeline soon would be pumping oil, and the gathering on the Mall in some sense represented a commitment to move on to the larger fight.

From a Senate office building, the activists livestreamed their meeting with Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“I think the American people, the average American, does not want to see this,” he said. “Your job, my job, is to bring those people together, to say to Trump and his corporate friends, ‘You can’t do this.’ But we need a strategy to do that.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (center, in suit and tie), D-Ore., meets with tribal leaders and activists in a teepee set up on the National Mall in March to discuss their opposition to the oil industry.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (center, in suit and tie), D-Ore., meets with tribal leaders and activists in a teepee set up on the National Mall in March to discuss their opposition to the oil industry. Credit: Jeff Merkley’s Facebook page Credit: Jeff Merkley’s Facebook page

Back on the Mall, Gemmill-Fredson and other organizers awaited the arrival of Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat who in 2015 introduced the Senate’s first bill to ban new leases for oil drilling and production on federal lands. The Keep It in the Ground Act didn’t make it out of committee and was reintroduced in March, but in the current political atmosphere, it has little chance.

Merkley arrived at the encampment, ducked into a teepee and sat on the dirt in his gray pinstripe suit. He was surrounded by more than a dozen Native activists, all with their own stories of energy disasters on their homelands.

After half an hour of listening, Merkley told his hosts about the bill he had introduced, then asked rhetorically: “If we do not exercise stewardship of what we own, how can we ask the rest of the world to exercise stewardship over what they own and ask them to not extract their coal or their oil or their gas and to not burn it?”

He looked around the teepee.

“The fossil fuel industry largely owns Congress,” Merkley said. “They’ve invested billions of dollars in campaigns to control the Senate and the House. So our response to that has to be to bypass the federal government, go directly to every local organization and say, ‘Let’s take on this problem at the grass-roots level.’ ”

The senator rose and said his goodbyes.

Outside the teepee was Vanessa Dundon, 32, a Navajo woman who was shot in the eye with a tear gas canister during clashes with police at Standing Rock in November. Since then, she has had three surgeries but says she still has only 10 percent vision in her right eye.

Dundon was more interested in talking about where the fight would go from Standing Rock.

“It was really hard,” she said of the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline, “because we all fought so hard. … But we’re still here to spread the fire.”

She meant that literally: Embers from the sacred fire at Standing Rock, she said, are being carried to other pipeline struggles across the country, where they light up new struggles.

“I went to Texas,” Dundon said. “I went to the Pilgrim Pipeline up in New Jersey. And the one in Iowa just started. I want to go check them out, too, before I head back to Florida, where I’ve been to two of the camps there. I’m planning on going to Oklahoma. They’re going to light the fire there next week.”

The fire also has spread, symbolically, to a white Southern woman on a lonely patch of land in the Louisiana bayou.

Pipeline markers stand on Hope Rosinski's property in Crowley, La. Her home is in the path of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, but she says she’s determined not to let Energy Transfer Partners cross her land.
Pipeline markers stand on Hope Rosinski’s property in Crowley, La. Her home is in the path of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, but she says she’s determined not to let Energy Transfer Partners cross her land. Credit: Julie Dermansky for Reveal Credit: Julie Dermansky for Reveal

Hope Rosinski, 48, owns a home in the path of the Bayou Bridge pipeline. She is determined not to let Energy Transfer Partners cross her land in Louisiana’s Acadia Parish on its way to an oil terminal in St. James.

Company representatives have tried to cajole her with friendly talk, entice her with money and threaten her with eminent domain, she said. In March, the company served her with a petition for expropriation. Still, she’s not budging.

“I don’t want any part of it,” she said. “I think that human life is much more important than a dollar. We can be OK without all that oil.”

Researcher Rebecca Gibian contributed to this story. It was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nadia Wynter and Nikki Frick.

Sandy Tolan can be reached at sandytolan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Sandy_Tolan.

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Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree and Children of the Stone, is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is a co-founder of Homelands Productions and writes frequently on the intersection of land, indigenous rights, energy and the environment.