The resisters to the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota are holding their ground despite mass arrests and the coming brutal cold. They are winterizing their encampment and hunkering down for a long stay. Solidarity among Native nations and with non-Native people who have come to help is inspiring and shows how cooperation on every level — from keeping the camp clean and the people fed to standing up to the forces of repression — can be maintained even under the harshest conditions.
It would seem, however, that their foes — the oil companies buttressed by the armed forces of the state — have the greatest material advantage. The companies command billions of dollars and a legion of political sycophants their money can buy.
In the current presidential race, Donald Trump openly supports the DAPL, having invested in it and received campaign contributions from the companies involved. Hillary Clinton, under pressure for ignoring this struggle, still refuses to support the protesters.
While the oil companies are hated more and more — especially by younger generations who recognize how corporate greed has disrupted the balance of nature and brought on shattering climate change — they are still a formidable force.
Yet there is evidence of great instability in the camp of Big Oil. And it comes not from humanitarian regret over what their industry has done, but from the very workings of capitalism itself.
Even as the oil companies work feverishly to line up the forces of state repression against those saying #noDAPL, the rationale for building the pipeline in the first place may be drying up.
Oil companies in crisis
The DAPL is a $3.7 billion project intended to convey shale oil some 1,134 miles, from the Bakken oil fields in northwestern North Dakota to a depot in Illinois. At the time it was planned and construction began, oil was selling at top dollar. That is no longer the case.
If completed, this expensive and environmentally dangerous project would provide only 40 permanent jobs. And the shale oil it carries is not competitive at today’s prices.
In the past two years, the price of crude oil on the international market fell from a high of $100 a barrel to as low as $30, stabilizing this year at a little less than $50. The tremendous drop in the price of oil was in response to a global oil glut, caused in part by increased production in the United States.
From being a net importer of oil, the U.S. became a net exporter within a few years — due largely to the development of new technologies that enabled the exploitation of tar sands and shale oil, like the kind to be carried by the DAPL.
Extracting oil from tar sands and by fracturing shale rock is much more expensive than finding a pool of oil underground and just pumping it up to the surface. When oil was selling for $100 a barrel, extracting oil from tar sands and fractured shale was profitable — and a huge amount of capital went into these technologies. But at $50 a barrel, the oil companies that rely on this expensive form of extraction are in trouble. One of the companies invested in the Bakken oil fields is Exxon Mobil.
Here’s what the New York Times business section on Oct. 28 had to say about this looming crisis: “Exxon Mobil, in a concession to market and regulatory pressures, said Friday that it might be forced to write down the value of some of its oil and gas assets in Canada and elsewhere if energy prices remain low through the end of the year.
“The announcement, which accompanied the company’s release of another quarter of lackluster earnings, was an apparent reversal of Exxon Mobil’s stance in recent years.
“The company has long insisted that it has been adequately accounting for the value of its oil and gas reserves — even as many other petroleum companies have taken big write-offs to reflect a two-year price slump.
“On Friday, though, the company acknowledged that it faced what could be the biggest accounting revision of reserves in its history. Exxon Mobil might have to concede that 3.6 billion barrels of oil-sand reserves and 1 billion barrels of other North American reserves are currently not profitable to produce.”
Those “other North American reserves” include the Bakken shale oil fields.
Capitalist overproduction bigtime
Capitalist overproduction has long occurred on a cyclical basis, when the development of the means of production, prompted by a feverish race for profits, outstrips the ability of the market to absorb all that is produced. In other words, the workers have been exploited so efficiently by the capitalists that they can’t afford to buy the increasing amount of commodities being sold. And so the markets crash, often followed by capitalist wars that destroy much of the existing means of production, along with millions of people.
But today’s crisis goes even deeper. Human labor is being displaced by technology so rapidly that the further existence of capitalism itself is called into question. At the same time, climate change is deepening this crisis.
As capitalist entities are compelled — often kicking and screaming — to acknowledge the existence of global warming and begin to back off from fossil fuels, the corporations that have ruled the roost, morphing from oil companies into global banks and other financial institutions, are faced with a humongous problem.
In another article directed at Wall Street, the Times on Oct. 26 wrote in “A New Debate Over Pricing the Risks of Climate Change” that the Securities and Exchange Commission, acting on behalf of big investors, is pressing companies like Exxon Mobil to disclose the true value of their assets, given the risks of climate change to their business.
“Advocates of fuller corporate disclosure say the sums at stake are vast,” reported the Times. “Even under a plan that would limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius — a goal agreed to as part of the Paris deal — climate change could wipe out $1.7 trillion of global financial assets, according to a peer-reviewed study published earlier this year in the journal Nature.”
The colossus that is the oil industry has feet of — not clay — but shale rock and tar sands. This should give heart and comfort to the defenders of Native nations and the environment, as it hastens the day of reckoning for these corporate exploiters and despoilers of the Earth.