echoes of espeland: competing rationalities in the dakota access pipeline


Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced a temporary halt to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project. It stated that it would explore alternative routes for the pipeline that would, presumably, avoid the areas of deep concern to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The DAPL story has been in the news on and off since September, when journalist Amy Goodman captured a clash in which guards used dogs and pepper spray to drive back protesters. I had only been paying superficial attention to it, but started thinking more yesterday with the Corps’ decision to hit pause on the project.

Specifically, I was thinking about the echoes between this battle and the one chronicled by Wendy Espeland in her classic book, Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest.

Espeland chronicles a conflict between another Native tribe, the Yavapai, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau spent decades in pursuit of the Central Arizona Project, which would divert the waters of the Colorado River to Arizona, and in particular to the (never built) Orme Dam. The Orme Dam, however, would flood the Yavapai reservation, leading the Yavapai, unsurprisingly, in protest of the project.

The book centers around the idea of commensuration, and in particular the of the fundamental incommensurability between what the Yavapai wanted, which was not money but their sacred land, and what the Bureau could offer.

But it also turns on the conflict between two groups within the Bureau: what Espeland calls the Old Guard, deeply committed to the project of dam-building and the idea of reclaiming the desert West; and the New Guard, technocrats brought to the agency to implement the cost-benefit calculations required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and its Environmental Impact Statements.

In the end, the dam is stopped, and a less damaging alternative (the expansion of another dam) is found. The conflict turns on a delicate sort of alliance between the New Guard and the Yavapai. The Yavapai and their environmentalist allies provide the political pressure, and the Environmental Impact Statement requirements provide the means for the New Guard to use cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to identify other solutions.

The two groups never quite understood each other, but their divergent rationalities ultimately aligned in practice. Today, 35 years later, the Yavapai still hold Orme Dam Victory Days to celebrate their success in fighting back the project.

The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy seems, in many ways, to be a very similar story. The Army Corps, like the Bureau of Reclamation, was built on dams. And, like the Bureau, the Army Corps has historically had a deep commitment to engineering: to building things as a way to solve problems.

But just as the Bureau had its technocratic New Guard, brought in to weigh costs and benefits for NEPA, the Corps has its own bean-counters. Indeed, if anything the Corps’ were better established, since it has been conducting CBA (of a sort) ever since the Federal Navigation Act of 1936.

Part of the very complex conflict around DAPL is that since 2012 the Obama administration has been using something called “Nationwide Permit 12” to circumvent full Environmental Impact Statements—which would require a more rigorous accounting of costs and benefits, as well as public comment—for pipeline projects. NWP 12 essentially bypasses the need for full review by pretending that pipelines are many small, individual projects—too small to require full impact analysis—rather than one big project.

So, once again, you have a Native tribe—the Standing Rock Sioux, in this case—arguing on the one hand, the inviolability of their (already violated) sacred land—a rationality fundamentally at odds with cost-benefit analysis and its commensuration of all things through money.

But (and I’m oversimplifying the legal issues here) the tribe is making its claim in part on the basis that the Army Corps, under pressure from the oil industry, is failing to follow its own technocratic rationality by conducting the appropriate cost-benefit analysis of the project and its environmental impacts.

And, of course, the Sioux would not have achieved the halt at all if it wasn’t for the social movement tactics—the successful mobilization of a wide range of Native Americans, environmentalists, and distant social media supporters—they have executed so successfully over the last several months (and doubtless years).

It remains to be seen whether this is a real reprieve for the Sioux or a mere pause in the process. The incoming administration, as we all know, has very different priorities from the current one. But the Army Corps’ announcement, and Espeland’s book itself, is a good reminder that although the economic rationalism of cost-benefit analysis can sometimes seem bloodless and inhumane, it can be channeled in a variety of directions. We may like some of these directions, and dislike others. Ultimately, though, such analysis is a political, as well as a technocratic, tool.


Written by epopp

December 5, 2016 at 11:11 pm

%d bloggers like this: