In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, part 6

Monthly Dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

“We’ll Meet Them Out in the Fields”: Challenging the Pipelines to Nowhere

It’s Time. Pen & Ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

Recent polls suggest that the bonkers, even barbaric, rhetoric coming from far-right MAGA candidates could be undermining Republicans’ chances of capturing both chambers of Congress in November. Now, the greater danger may lie down-ballot. If extremists win key offices in swing-state governments in 2022, they might manage to award their states’ Electoral College votes to the MAGA presidential candidate, against the will of the voters, in 2024 and illegitimately capture the White House.  

With the prospect of such coup-plotting in state capitals, and with the Democrats’ much-hyped federal climate bill now passed into law, the focus of struggle on both the political and climate fronts has moved from Washington out to regional, state, and local arenas. Exemplifying this shift is a confrontation now building in the Plains states that pits a grassroots alliance of Native tribes, farmers, and environmental groups against predatory agribusiness interests. It’s a confrontation with potentially profound ramifications for climate and the broader ecological emergency.

A company called Summit Carbon Solutions is proposing to build a 2,000-mile network of pipelines sprawling across parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The system would collect liquefied carbon dioxide (CO2) from 32 ethanol fuel plants across the region and transport it to North Dakota’s oil country for storage. A second company, Navigator CO2 Ventures, wants to build 1,300 miles of pipeline to pick up CO2 from 20 ethanol and fertilizer plants in the same region but transport it in the opposite direction, to Illinois. At both destinations, the compressed CO2 would be injected into deep rock formations where it is supposed to remain until far-off geologic time. 

Why would the industry go to all that work and expense? Because ethanol manufacturing facilities release a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, canceling out that biofuel’s purported climate advantage over gasoline. Retrofitting plants to capture most of the CO2 from the plant’s exhaust stream, liquefy it, and inject it into the earth could help shore up ethanol’s shaky “green” image.

In 2016–17, the region fought a valiant battle against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which carries carbon-heavy oil into the Midwest from North Dakota. Now a broad, politically diverse coalition of environmentalists, Indigenous communities, and landowners is arrayed against the proposed carbon pipelines. 

Mahmud Fitil serves as Land Defense Organizer for the Great Plains Action Society, an Indigenous-led organization in the forefront of this struggle in Iowa and Nebraska. He gave me a quick verbal tour of the territory that Native tribes and the broader alliance of groups are defending: Western Iowa is home to the Meskwaki, or Sac and Fox. Along the Nebraska–Kansas border live the Ioway people, who were expelled from their homelands by 19th-century white settlers. And several Plains tribes have reservations along the Missouri River dividing Iowa and Nebraska: the Umoⁿhoⁿ or Omaha nation; the Ho-Chunk or Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska; the Santee Sioux; and farther upstream, the Yankton, or Ihanktonwan Sioux. “They all will be impacted by the carbon pipelines that are being proposed for the region,” says Fitil. “The tribes are alarmed by the designs the pipeline companies have on the area and are mobilizing against them.” 

The Summit pipeline would cross the Missouri River just north of the Winnebago reservation, and that’s a problem, says Fitil. “These projects typically have transient workforces to build out the infrastructure. During construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, we saw some of the issues that come with these types of transient camps: proliferation of drugs and alcohol, crime, violence, prostitution. That’s just not the type of thing we want in our communities in Iowa and Nebraska, whether you’re Indigenous or you belong to another part of the rural community.” The threat posed by the transient camps would be part of a cascade of damage that the pipelines would inflict on humans, other species, landscapes, and waters across the region. 

An ecologically irrational enterprise

The Summit and Navigator projects got a huge shot-in-the-pipe from the climate provisions of the new federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which increased the tax credit for carbon capture and burial from $50 up to $85 per metric ton. That’s likely to stimulate even more demand for carbon transport and pump up an industry that has already proven incapable of significantly reducing the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, even as taxpayers are compelled to fork over more than $20 billion worth of incentives to keep it afloat.

The primary purpose of these and other carbon pipeline systems was never to reduce atmospheric CO2. Its backers’ aim is to turn a profit by spiffing up the environmental image of US feed-grain agriculture. The lion’s share of US corn production goes to supply two commodities, vehicle fuel and grain-fed meat. And the chief purpose of feedlots and ethanol plants is not to provide for nourishment and transportation; it is to gobble up surplus grain, thereby propping up grain prices and the agricultural economy. Cultivating the tens of millions of acres of feed/fuel grains—mostly corn and soybeans—that generate that huge surplus has led to soil degradation, chemical contamination of air and water, high energy consumption, and massive greenhouse-gas emissions. The pipeline would address only the CO2 waste gas produced by fermentation of corn grain in ethanol plants, which is a teeny tiny sliver of those emissions.  

This ecologically irrational system is very lucrative for agribusinesses that supply equipment and inputs to produce the big crop surpluses and big emissions. These businesses are now offering to create yet another profitable industry, one that will, ostensibly, clean up after the ethanol plants that were built to help sop up the grain surplus resulting from the industrialization of farming. 

None of this carbon juggling is justifiable on climate grounds. In a 2022 open letter published as a paid ad in the Washington Post, almost 500 climate, environmental, and civil society groups urged the governmental policymakers of North America to “abandon the dirty, dangerous myth of carbon capture and storage.” Their conclusion: “We don’t need to fix fossil fuels; we need to ditch them. Instead of capturing carbon to pump it back underground, we should keep fossil fuels in the ground in the first place” (emphasis in original). 

Stopping the double-steal

Burying and maintaining more than 3,000 miles of pipe requires access to huge amounts of land. In Iowa alone, Navigator’s pipeline will pass through 35 counties, Summit’s through 24. Company representatives have been approaching property owners across those counties about signing over control of portions of their land as an easement. Hundreds are refusing to sign, citing safety concerns (CO2 leaks can be extremely dangerous), damage to their cropland and waterways, and corporate intrusion on their property. In response, Summit is moving toward taking over their land outright through eminent domain. 

“If these companies have actually secured as many voluntary easements as they allege,” asks Fitil, “then why are they moving to seize land through eminent domain so soon? People are starting to understand what these guys are up to, and a lot of people are reeling. It’s a very sensitive matter for Indigenous folks. This country was founded on land stolen from them, and now they are trying to prevent some of that land from being stolen again, this time by big corporations. So Indigenous people are standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers.” There is also the serious matter of burial mounds and other culturally sensitive areas that lie in the pipeline route: “We’re working with the State Historic Preservation Office and tribal officers to get those sacred sites preserved and make sure that they aren’t ransacked, basically, by these projects,” Fitil adds.

Farmers have excellent reasons to deny easements and to fight eminent domain. Many of them are cultivating some of the nation’s most productive agricultural lands, and the last thing they want is massive earth-moving equipment driving on, digging into, and compacting the soil in a 50-foot-wide swath across their farm. To bury pipelines, crews dig deep trenches, piling up the soil alongside them. Once the pipes are in place and the soil is dumped back into the trench, topsoil gets mixed with the less fertile subsoil. 

The results of this soil abuse are predictable. In 2021, Iowa State University agronomists found that on Dakota Access Pipeline easements, corn yields were reduced by 15 percent, soybean yields by 25 percent. The study’s lead scientist, Robert Horton, said, “Overall, in the first two years, we found the construction caused severe subsoil compaction, impaired soil physical structure that can discourage root growth and reduce water infiltration in the right-of-way.” 

An improbable alliance

The pipeline struggle has brought together communities that rarely find common cause and can often be adversaries. “We really have formed an unlikely alliance,” says Fitil. “A lot of conservative Republicans are joining up with Indigenous folks, and they all are joining up with environmentalists. These people normally don’t get along, they don’t join in anything together. But here they’re really pissed off and joining hand in hand in the struggle against these pipelines.”

Fitil told me that this improbable coalition is applying valuable lessons that were learned from the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That epic 2016 confrontation on the banks of the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation managed to win a months-long halt in work on a stretch of the pipeline in South Dakota, before the newly elected Trump administration authorized a restart. But in Nebraska and Iowa at that time, says Fitil, the opposition was less unified: “People kind of went their own directions, rolled up their sleeves to fight it on their own, and we lost. But now things are different. We’re networking all up and down this pipeline route. Organizers, landowners, tribes . . . there’s a huge groundswell of grassroots activism going on. In Linn County, Iowa [home to Cedar Rapids], every other farm that you pass by, they’ve got grassroots signage up there, you know, ‘country billboards,’ saying ‘No eminent domain for private gain,’ ‘Not on my farm,’ ‘Not through my timber.’ These are just people, not ‘dot-orgs’ or nonprofits, saying, ‘Hell no, we’re not going to have it.’” 

“This time, the tribes started networking before the companies even figured out which tribes were which,” says Fitil. “We started networking with our counterparts up in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska. As soon as we heard about the carbon pipeline more than a year and a half ago, we started coming together and discussing what we’re going to do. See, last time, North Dakota was doing their own thing, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, were all doing their own things. Now, we’re holding joint monthly meetings, we’re holding national and state meetings. The landowners are signing up with an easement action team. And that’s something that’s way different than it was with DAPL.”

On August 12, 2022, members of the Great Plains Action Society and allies from across the movement met with the Iowa Utilities Board, the body that will make decisions on eminent domain declarations, among other issues. Says Fitil, “They couldn’t have been any less interested in what ‘we the people’ had to say. These folks were handpicked by governors, current and past, one of whom is now working for one of the pipeline corporations. We let ’em have it! We and the landowners told them, ‘Hey, we’re all locking arms, we’re standing up against this.’”

“Is this pipeline really what we need to be spending our taxpayer dollars on?” he asks. “No! These are the industries that have contributed the most to the very crisis that they now claim to be addressing. This has really galvanized resistance like very few issues can do. And, you know, if it comes down to a matter of will, we’ll meet them out in the fields, and we’ll let them know how strong our resolve is. The land is worth it, the water is worth it. Future generations are worth it.” 

* * *

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020) and The Path to a Livable Future (2021). The original version of this article was published by City Lights Books as part of the ‘In Real Time’ series. See the evolving ‘In Real Time’ visual work at the illustrated archive; listen to the ‘In Real Time’ podcast for the spoken version of this article; and hear a discussion of it on the Anti-Empire Project podcast (coming soon).  

Flag of Atrocities, Caste, Present and Future: Bilkis Bano

One thing is constant in India: violence. The perpetrators are the same; only the faces of those who encounter and resist the violence change. In India, or JatiIndia — my name for this nation of jatis/castes — the social hierarchical structure of jatiism/casteism and the inherent violence that goes with it stems from the country’s tree of systemic upper-caste supremacy and injustice.

Today’s face of resistance is that of Bilkis Yakub Rasool or Bilkis Bano. Bilkis’ story is a nightmare that never ends; like a really bad David Lynch movie. Two decades have passed since the infamous 2002 Gujarat genocidal pogrom when Bilkis’ nightmare began.

Flag of Atrocities Caste:

On August 15, 2001, India celebrated 54 years of independence from British rule.

On January 26, 2002, India’s 52nd Republic Day, Gujarat was hit by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake, killing more than 13,800 people. 

One month later, Narendra Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat. 

On February 27, 2002, in the Godhra train tragedy, 59 people (mostly kar sevaks, or right-wing Hindu volunteers) were burnt alive. 

Following which, more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were massacred in what came to be known as the Gujarat pogrom. 

On March 3, during the Gujarat riots, in a village near Ahmedabad, 21-year-old Bilkis Bano, who was five months pregnant at the time, along with her three-year-old daughter Saleha, her mother, and other members of her family were brutally attacked by Hindu fanatics, killing many, including little Saleha. During the assault, Bilkis was gang raped by twelve of those men.

In January 2008, a Special Court sentenced eleven of the accused (one died during the trial) to life imprisonment on charges of gang rape and murder.

In May 2014, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power, making him the 14th prime minister of India.

Present:

This August 15, prime minister Modi wanted India to fly 200 million flags to celebrate the country’s 75 years of independence.

Fly the tricolor from that village in Gujarat where Bilkis Bano was raped; from other impoverished countryside huts, city skyscrapers, slums, from atop taxis and auto rickshaws, little tea stalls and what have you. From every food-insecure nook and drought-ridden cranny, fly that symbol of freedom. That was Modi’s vision. 

He must’ve been very proud of his people. The flag could be seen flying not only from all these places, but also from space! That’s right. “Space Kidz,” a “small team of young scientists working from Chennai” were behind an effort to fly the flag far, far away from the violence and gore of India on the ground … in space.

And on August 15, amidst all the tricolor fanfare, something else happened. The Gujarat government set free Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh — the eleven rapists who destroyed Bilkis Bano’s life.

Welcome to Indian democracy, where Independence Day is celebrated by freeing rapists and murderers; and on other days, throwing the country’s fighters for accountability and justice like Teesta Setalvad, and Rupesh Kumar Singh, among other lawyers, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, students, academics, and opposition leaders into jail.

“I have one request for every Indian. Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life? Pride of Nari Shakti (women’s power) will play a vital role in fulfilling the dreams of India! Respect for women is an important pillar for India’s growth. We need to support our Nari Shakti!” — Narendra Modi, August 15. 

There are some lyrics from a song that come to mind whenever Modi opens his mouth: 

Idiot wind

Blowing every time you move your mouth

Blowing down the back roads headin’ south

Idiot wind

Blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, baba

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe. 

Well, we have one request of you, Modiji. Can you shut up and let the country’s women like Bilkis Bano breathe?

Future:

Two days ago, on August 15, 2022, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicted men, who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my three-year-old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb… Today, I can only say this — how can justice for any woman end like this? — Bilkis Bano, August 17, Sabrang

JatiIndia: Flag of Atrocities Caste, Present and Future is a continuing series that features a face of resistance to systemic injustice in the center of a modified Indian flag. The color orange in the flag symbolizes long-existing casteism, now made more open and feverish by resurgent Hindutva politics; blue — a color historically adopted by the Dalit movement — here honors all of JatiIndia’s and occupied Kashmir’s resisters of supremacy and injustice; the bottom green bar embodies the subcontinent’s ecological foundations, which are endangered by the ideology of extractive capitalism and defended by the country’s Adivasi (indigenous) communities and others, including Kashmiris resisting occupation. The circular image in the center, replacing the flag of India’s Dharma Chakra (Wheel of Law) signifies the view through the crosshairs of a saffron (Hindu nationalist) gunsight.

The blue strip in the middle of the flag is done in chain-stitch embroidery, illustrating the long chain of atrocities that have been carried out by the country over the years on Dalits, Kashmiris, Adivasis and other minorities. Each blue stitch, of which there are many thousands in the blue strip, represents a face of resistance to systemic state and upper-caste violence.

Flags of Resistance so far include: Thangjam Manorama, March 8, 2021; The Farmer We See and the Farmer We Don’t, March 6, 2021; Munawar Faruqui, February 13 2021; Masrat Zahra, January 9 2021; Manisha Valmiki, December 24, 2020; Anand Teltumbde, December 13, 2020; Ram Chander Chhatrapati, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, Shantanu Bhowmick and Kancha Ilaiah, October 16, 2017; the sang-bazan, Kashmir, August 15, 2017; Gujarat, March1, 2017; Teesta Setalvad, February 10, 2017; Kashmir, December 21, 2016;Vinay Sirohi,Shaista Hameed and Danish Farooq,Lingaram Kodopi, March 29, 2016; and Rohith Vemula, March 29, 2016.