Bill McKibben: Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance Powerful Enough to Overwhelm Fossil Fuel Industry

September 30, 2016


Bill McKibben

co-founder of He’s the author of several books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His recent articles in New Republic include "A World at War: We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII" and "Recalculating the Climate Math."

We speak with’s Bill McKibben about how the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and members of hundreds of other tribes from across the U.S., Canada and Latin America have resisted construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, even as police carrying assault rifles responded to them with armored vehicles, tear gas and helicopters. "We cannot pump more oil," McKibben says. "Frontline communities, and particularly indigenous people, have been in the forefront of this climate fight." He also discusses Hillary Clinton’s failure to take a stance on the project and how some unions have supported the resistance.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Bill McKibben, co-founder of Among his books, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, I’d like to ask you about the specifics of this massive move that’s necessary toward dealing with climate change. You mentioned in your writing Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor who’s developed a—who’s been studying this for years, has come up with a model for how each state in the union could be able to deal with reachable goals. Can you talk about some of the specifics that he has?

BILL McKIBBEN: So you can’t believe how detailed the work that this team at Stanford has done. I mean, if you go into their database and ask how many acres of south-facing roof there are in Alabama that aren’t shaded by trees where you could put solar panels, a number pops up. And now the same for most of the countries in the world. And what they demonstrate is that it’s within both economic and technical possibility to, by 2030, be getting 80 percent of our power from renewable energy. It’s not easy, because the fossil fuel complex is the center of our economy, and there is an huge amount of sunk investment that people would have to write off. But that’s a hell a lot cheaper than the cost of dealing with a planet that no longer works the way it has for the last 10,000 years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the industry now, you turn on the TV any day, and you see their campaign for the energy voter.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. The fossil fuel industry knows that their back is against the wall. They know that they have a losing hand. I mean, look what’s going on in the Dakotas. No sane person could look at the pictures that Democracy Now! provided from the Standing Rock Reservation with dogs sicced on protesters trying to protect their water—

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we go to just a clip of that. This was September 3rd, Labor Day weekend. Native Americans at these massive resistance camps of now thousands did not expect that the Dakota Access pipeline, the $3.8 billion pipeline, was going to be excavating at this point. It was a holiday weekend. They were going to plant their tribal flags in a ceremony. And what they found shocked them—bulldozers in full gear. The security guards were there with pepper spray. They assaulted, attacked, tackled the Native Americans, and they sicced dogs on them.

PROTESTER: These people are just threatening all of us with these dogs. And she, that woman over there, she was charging, and it bit somebody right in the face.

AMY GOODMAN: The dog has blood in its nose and its mouth.

PROTESTER: And she’s still standing here threatening us.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you letting their—her dog go after the protesters? It’s covered in blood!

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was the scene. Describe what is actually taking place here and what is at stake, why the Dakota Access pipeline would want to hurt these protesters.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, first thing to understand that what’s taking place there is the—everybody else acknowledging what some of us have known for a long time, which is that frontline communities, and particularly indigenous people, have been in the forefront of this climate fight. They were in the Keystone fight, and now clearly in the Dakotas. They’re holding the line against something that threatens not only their reservation, but threatens the whole planet. We do not—we cannot pump more oil. We’ve got to stop opening up new reserves.

Their work there is astonishing. Against all odds, they’ve been able, at least for the moment, to bring a temporary halt to some of that construction, giving, one hopes, cooler heads a chance to look at the available data and common sense to prevail. Earlier this year, the president said that any new project should have to pass a climate test. There is an even stiffer version of that in the next Democratic platform. This pipeline couldn’t pass those climate tests. It should be stopped. Thank heaven for the bravery of those people and, really, for the environmental justice movement that’s sprung up all around the country. Not even have sprung up—you know, today we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of UPROSE, the—really, one of the original, seminal environmental justice outfits here in New York. That’s where the leadership is coming from, and it’s really powerful to see.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s Hillary Clinton’s stance on the Dakota Access pipeline?

BILL McKIBBEN: One has no idea. She has so far refused to say anything about it. Let’s hope that that changes, because this is not only a practical challenge, at this point it’s a clear moral test. I mean, look, on the long list of oppressed people on this continent, it’s—you know, that may—they may be at the absolute top of the list. The idea that we’re putting dogs on people in 2016, that we have pictures that look just like the pictures from Birmingham in 1963, that should be enough to cause revulsion among any, any normal person looking on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And given the fact that we’re still dealing with a Congress controlled by climate change deniers, what do you think could still be done by a president, either President Obama, in his last few months, or Clinton, if she is elected, through executive action to be able to move forward on this issue?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, there are certain things that the president can do. And one of them, a sort of obvious, straightforward one, is to stop allowing people to drill for oil and gas and mine coal on public land, on federal land in this country. That’s something like half the carbon deposits in America, are on federal land. The Obama administration, finally, late in the game, has stopped allowing new coal leases, at least for the time being, but that should go to fracking and oil wells and everything else. At the very least, we should take public land off the table, because the president can do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, you’ve talked in The New York Times about you, yourself, being persecuted. Can you talk about who has been going after you, photographing you, and what this is all about?

BILL McKIBBEN: There’s an outfit called America Rising Squared, or something, some kind of right-wing GOP fossil fuel industry sort of thing—no one quite knows where their money comes from. And they announced earlier in the year that they were going to do opposition research and video tracking on a level that previously had been reserved, as they said, for presidential candidates. So, yes, sometimes now, often now in public, there are people following me everywhere with cameras and stuff. I don’t—I mean, look, it’s not a lot of fun, but compared to what’s happening to people in other places, I can live with it. It’s not like, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: But what are they doing exactly?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, they’re tracking me everywhere I go.

AMY GOODMAN: This isn’t just when you’re at a public protest.

BILL McKIBBEN: No, it’s—I give a speech, or I’m in the—you know, they follow me. And, you know, so once or twice I’ve had to sort of go into the men’s room to try and, you know—it’s just designed to get in one’s head, I guess. And frankly, sometimes it does a little bit. But I don’t—I really want to say, look, there are environmental activists who are now getting shot in this world on a weekly basis, people in countries that are trying to stop mines, stop pipelines. I mean, it’s a great luxury to be in America, at least until we elect Donald Trump, that we don’t have to worry quite in those ways. The real point is that the fossil fuel industry will do anything—anything—to avoid actually talking about the issue. And the issue is that if they keep their business model going, then the planet tanks. That’s where we are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the role of the organized labor movement. There has been some change over the years in terms of the environmental movement and the trade union movement closer—getting closer together. But on the Dakota Access pipeline, the AFL-CIO has come out in favor of it. Your thoughts on that?

BILL McKIBBEN: The good news, if you want some, is that a bunch of unions have come out on the right side on this issue, and quite strongly—the communication workers, transport workers, nurses’ union, groups like that, and all the kind of caucuses within the AF of L, for communities of color, for—you know, these are important. One understands why the construction trades want to build pipelines. Look, these are good jobs, and they pay good wages. It’s too bad that the world literally can’t absorb the carbon that flows through these things, OK? It would be easier for the whole world if we did—if physics and chemistry were pliable, easy negotiating partners, that we could just say we’d like a few more years of this or whatever. But I do think that this is an important moment for labor, as for everybody else. What’s going on in the Dakotas is indefensible, just literally indefensible. And what’s powerful to see there is the oldest wisdom on this continent matching up perfectly with the newest scientific events. That’s a powerful combination. I think it’ll be powerful enough maybe to overwhelm even the financial might of the fossil feel industry.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s been this terrible accident in Hoboken with the trains, the train smashing into the Hoboken station when it should have stopped. Now, we don’t know what happened to the engineer, the person who was driving. But the question was: Why didn’t it stop even if something had happened to him, a heart attack or whatever? We have enormous investment in the highways of this country. The whole issue of investment in mass transit—I mean, the discussion on all of the networks nonstop: You know, was it terrorism? Well, no, it wasn’t terrorism. But the question of where is the investment in mass transit?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, let’s talk about investment in infrastructure generally. I mean, the great opportunity in the first months of a Clinton administration would be a serious grand bargain for serious investment in infrastructure, especially around renewable energy, but around mass transit, around all kinds of things.

AMY GOODMAN: That also means massive number of jobs.

BILL McKIBBEN: Exactly right. Exactly right. This is the future that Bernie Sanders was talking about. And it’s going to take—we’ve got to put serious numbers on the table. You know, the talk in the moment, sometimes Secretary Clinton will talk about $250 billion. It’s got to be many multiples of that, because we are deep, deep in the hole. And when people say we don’t have the money, well, at the moment, money is cheap for a lot of reasons. What we really don’t have the money for is somehow trying to deal with a world where the ocean is rising. You’ve seen in the last few months an increased focus on what’s going to happen here in Manhattan over the next decades as the sea level rises. Think about, just in this one island, how much economic wealth is at risk if we let the planet keep going on the path it is going on now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and you mention this issue of this massive investment that’s needed immediately. Interestingly, when all the candidates came into the New York Daily News editorial board earlier this year, they all talked quietly, although they don’t talk about it publicly, that it’s commonly accepted that one of the things the new Congress will do is work out the amnesty for corporations that have trillions of dollars parked overseas because they don’t want to have to pay the corporate tax. So they all are expecting a huge infusion of money. The only question is, at what percent will they allow the amnesty, which is what it is, for all these corporations to bring their money home? And that’s where the government—that’s where Hillary expects to get all her infrastructure money. That’s where the Republicans expect to be able to cut taxes, all on the basis of this one—well, it’s not the one time, it’s the second major amnesty to corporations.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. I mean, there are ironies aplenty in that whole scheme. If we’re going to do it, let’s make sure that the get-out-of-jail-free card isn’t free, that it comes with a hefty price tag, because when we’re dealing with the infrastructure challenges, especially around renewable energy, that we have, you know, $100 billion doesn’t begin to cut it. I mean, we need actual big money. The kind of money that we’ve been spending on, say, the military for the last decades, that’s the kind of money that we need to face this challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: So, about a year ago, almost exactly, you were there in Vermont, in your hometown, standing with the sign—you got arrested for this, I think—in front of your ExxonMobil station that said, "This pump temporarily closed because ExxonMobil lied about climate." Now, in our headlines today, a new federal lawsuit targets ExxonMobil in what advocates say is the first legal action targeting the oil giant for its decades-long cover-up of climate change. Talk about this.

BILL McKIBBEN: It’s been a troubling year for Exxon. Just about exactly a year ago, InsideClimate News, the L.A. Times, the Columbia Journalism School started releasing probably the most important investigative reporting we’ve seen in a very long time. What it demonstrated was that our most important and largest fossil fuel company—indeed, for much of history, the largest company on Earth—had known everything there was to know about climate change, had used it in its own internal calculations to make sure they were prepared, you know, building their drilling rigs to cope with sea level rise, and at the same time lying to the rest of us, setting up this architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation.

Well, I wanted to make sure—I wanted to get arrested because I wanted to make sure those stories didn’t disappear, you know, in the daily wave of news that we all live under. And other people did similar things. And thank heavens, people started listening. Eric Schneiderman in New York state, the attorney general, quite bravely took on Exxon. He was followed by the AG in Massachusetts, Maura Healey. Last week, the SEC announced that they were joining this investigation. By the time we got the SEC on board, well, I mean, I guess they’ve made a federal case out of it. I mean, this is important. In fact, it’s pretty remarkable. And it’s a sign of just how far into this crisis we are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But not only are these companies lying to the public, they’re also lying to their shareholders in terms of what is the actual value of the company, if they understand what is ahead in terms of global warming.

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. In fact, there’s a story today that indicates that Exxon, over the last seven or eight years, has quadrupled its holdings in the tar sands in Canada, that it’s now 35 percent of their reserves are in those tar sands. This is in InsideClimate News today. The idea that they’re going to be able to get all that oil out seems unlikely to me. I mean, we beat the Keystone pipeline. There’s unbelievable opposition to the Energy East and Kinder Morgan pipelines in Canada. If they’ve been—if their, you know, predictions for their economic future have been predicated on the fact that they’re going to be a tar sands giant, well, that may not have been a very good bet.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the Koch brothers. I mean, a lot of the Republican establishment has given up on Donald Trump, but they haven’t given up on the other races. Can you talk about the amount of money that the Koch brothers are pouring in right now to try to defeat candidates who are deeply concerned about climate change?

BILL McKIBBEN: I don’t know the exact numbers, but, apparently, with people—you know, people not spending their money on Trump, they’re spending it down ballot. And in places like, oh, in the Ohio Senate race, there’s been just a spigot of money turned on to benefit the fossil fuel industry’s sort of hired employees who are, you know, running. That’s—I mean, that’s sad on a number of counts. This is the place where things like Citizens United, where the rubber really meets the road, because we cannot afford another two years or another four years of inaction on climate. We’ve had it for a quarter-century, and it’s yielded us the highest temperatures in human civilization.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we want to thank you for being with us. We will link to your pieces in the New Republic, "A World at War: We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII" and "Recalculating the Climate Math." Bill McKibben is co-founder of and Schumann scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the first time an Obama veto is overridden by Congress. We’ll speak with Medea Benjamin. Stay with us.

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