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The Bayou Bridge Pipeline’s Entangled Hierarchies of Power

“What arrived in the Americas in the late fifteenth century was not only an economic system of capital and labor for the production of commodities …From the structural location of an indigenous woman in the Americas, what arrived was a more complex world system…A European /capitalist /military /Christian /patriarchal /white/ heterosexual/male arrived in the Americas and established simultaneously in time and space several entangled global hierarchies.”

– Ramón Grosfoguel

Lately I’ve been struck by a picture of Melinda Tillies, a Louisiana homeowner recently featured in an article by Julie Dermansky in DeSmogBlog.* Tillies is standing in front of her house. In the background (not more than “25 feet away”) is a crane, its arm lifted, ready to plunge into the earth.

Tillies looks into the camera. She appears at once angry, fed-up, resigned, and defiant.

Photo: Julie Dermansky©.

From Dermansky we learn that Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC (BBP), a joint venture between Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Phillips 66, is building a pipeline that “will serve as the last leg of a transportation network to move oil fracked in North Dakota (and potentially Canadian tar sands) via the Dakota Access pipeline to Louisiana’s coast for export.”

The crane behind Tillies is digging a trench for that pipeline, and it is BBP’s invasion of Tillies’ neighborhood, as well as the structural damage the company is doing to Tillies’ home, that explains the pained expression we see on her face.

Though one could view a moment like this – the way many often do – as yet another instance in which “capitalism” trumps the urgent need to address climate change, UC Berkeley Professor Ramón Grosfoguel’s critique should give us pause (in his work, Grosfoguel takes issue with a Eurocentric world system perspective that treats social relations as merely “additive elements” to the “capitalist world-system”). It should make us look a bit more deeply at what, exactly, has “arrived” in Tillies’ community and practically on her front porch.

When we do this, a “more complex world system” comes into focus, one that we can describe using a frame similar to the one Grosfoguel employs to frame European colonization of the Americas. That is, we can say that what have arrived in Tillies’ community are primarily “capitalist / [law enforcement] / Christian / patriarchal / white / heterosexual / male[s].” And they are all quite easy to identify.

In particular, they are the officers, shareholders, workforce and contractors of ETP and Phillips 66; the Louisiana state representatives who have facilitated BBP construction; the executives and employees of the banks that extended credit for BBP; the faculty and Advisory Council members of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies; Louisiana’s law enforcement apparatus; members of the U.S. Congress who serve fossil fuel interests; and, of course, the President himself, with his “DRILL BABY DRILL” energy policy.

These men (as well as the women and people of color who accompany them) have descended upon communities all along the pipeline’s path, carrying with them the entangled “hierarchies of power” in which they are, to varying degrees, collectively invested.

Tracking Grosfoguel’s analysis, these hierarchies (listed separately for convenience) include:

A class hierarchy that privileges the wealthy.

BBP will add significantly to the coffers of an already wealthy elite while it will disproportionately burden Louisiana’s poor and working class people and their communities. Unlike the latter, the more affluent are not subject to the kind of spatial invasion Tillies’ suffers – which means they don’t have to live in fear of emissions leaks close to their homes, eminent domain, property damage, and other harms to which BBP feels entirely at ease subjecting poor and working class people.

A racial hierarchy that privileges whites.

It should come as no surprise that the pipeline not only disproportionately burdens poor and working class people, but also Louisiana’s communities of color. If completed, it “will carve up 11 parishes in Louisiana and cross 700 bodies of water, including Bayou LaFourche, a critical reservoir that supplies the United Houma Nation and 300,000 residents with drinking water.” Moreover, the pipeline passes “near the historic and predominately black community of St. James,” which is already exposed to myriad environmental harms perpetrated by various toxic industries deliberately sited in this area (the BBP was itself able to secure from the state a coastal use permit without having to consider the environmental impact of the pipeline on St. James parish).

A gender hierarchy that privileges males.

Not only are ETP and Philips 66 dominated by white men, but so also are the other institutions that are backing the pipeline. For example, of Louisiana’s elected officials, 67% are white men, who make up only 29% of Louisiana’s population (in contrast, women of color, who make up 21% of the population, constitute only 5% of Louisiana’s elected officials). Many of these elected officials are recipients of fossil fuel industry largess.

A “media /informational hierarchy” where the primarily white male power structure has control over the means of “media production and information technology” to make its point of view “enter media networks,” which then privilege that point of view.

The mainstream media have generally failed to cover pipeline resistance, the environmental hazards of fossil fuel production, environmental racism, and climate change. This is no less true of mainstream media in Louisiana, the effect of which is to shield fossil fuel interests, and their apologists, from scrutiny and critique.

Though Tillies’ fight with BBP to get compensation for the damage done to her home did receive local media attention, the media presented that fight as primarily an individual struggle disconnected from the wider harms (mentioned only briefly) caused by pipeline construction in Louisiana – including climate change.

A system of political-law enforcement-private security organizations controlled by white men.

The primarily white male Louisiana House of Representatives this past spring introduced and then passed legislation that criminalizes the activities of groups that protest the extraction, transport, and burning of oil and gas. This legislation they adopted specifically to quash BBP resistance. Three anti-BBP activists have just been chargedunder this law. While protesting in Louisiana’s public waterways, they were “abducted” by ETP’s private security, which then turned the activists over to police.

Lest the gravity of this isn’t clear: the company’s private security abducted citizens who were lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights in a public space. Rather than questioning the abduction, the police charged the activists with violating Louisiana’s new anti-First Amendment rights law.

This abduction should remind us of the fact that ETP used TigerSwan, a private security firm, to oversee protection of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Employing “military-style counterterrorism tactics”against the Water Protectors, TigerSwan infiltrated the Water Protectors’ camps, conducted aerial surveillance, and used social media to execute a “counterinformation campaign” against those protesting the pipeline – all with the blessing of the state.

Established “simultaneously in time and space” throughout the pipeline project, these (and other) entangled global hierarchies are what everyone in the pipeline’s path – from Louisiana to North Dakota – is up against. They are what all of us are up against in our fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the fact of which a focus solely or primarily on capitalism does not fully capture because, as Grosfoguel makes clear, capitalism is “only one…constellation of power” entangled “with other power relations.” Indeed, it does not fully capture how critical are these pipelines to these other hierarchies of power, or just how much the reification of these hierarchies are part of what produced climate change.

What we need, then, is “a new language” (again, Grosfoguel) to account for what we see from Tillies’ front yard, a language that does not reduce the struggle before us to a solely anti-capitalist struggle. Of course, with this new language must come new models and methods of resistance. These must be able to recognize, name, and then dismantle, the more complex world system that the pipelines, and ultimately climate change itself, both embody and express.

*Photograph is copyrighted by, and reprinted with permission from, Julie Dermansky.

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