Joe Biden scrapping the Keystone XL permit is a huge win for the Indigenous-led climate movement. It not only overturns Trump’s reversal of Obama’s 2015 rejection of the pipeline but is also a major blow to the US fossil fuel industry and the world’s largest energy economy and per-capita carbon polluter.
There is every reason to celebrate the end of a decade-long fight against Keystone XL. Tribal nations and Indigenous movements hope it will be a watershed moment for bolder actions, demanding the same fates for contentious pipeline projects such as Line 3 and the Dakota Access pipeline.
Biden has also vowed to review more than 100 environmental rules and regulations that were weakened or reversed by Trump and to restore Obama-era protections to two Indigenous sacred sites, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which are also national monuments in Utah. And he issued a “temporary moratorium” on all oil and gas leases in the Arctic national wildlife refuge, sacred territory to many Alaskan Natives.
None of these victories would have been possible without sustained Indigenous resistance and tireless advocacy.
But there is also good reason to be wary of the Biden administration and its parallels with the Obama administration. The overwhelming majority of people appointed to Biden’s climate team come from Obama’s old team. And their current climate actions are focused almost entirely on restoring Obama-era policies.
Biden’s policy catchphrases of “America is back” and “build back better” and his assurance to rich donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” should also be cause for concern. A return to imagined halcyon days of an Obama presidency or to “normalcy”- which for Indigenous peoples in the United States is everyday colonialism – isn’t justice, nor is it the radical departure from the status quo we need to bolster Indigenous rights and combat the climate crisis.
Obama’s record is mixed. While opposing the northern leg of Keystone XL in 2015, Obama had already fast-tracked the construction of the pipeline’s southern leg in 2012, despite massive opposition from Indigenous and environmental groups.
His “all-of-the-above energy strategy” committed to curbing emissions while also promoting US “energy independence” by embracing domestic oil production. Thanks to this policy, the lifting of a four-decade limit on exporting crude oil from the United States, and the fracking revolution, US domestic crude oil production increased by 88% from 2008 to 2016.
Domestic oil pipeline construction also increased – and so, too, did resistance to it. During the protests against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, Obama’s FBI infiltrated the Standing Rock camps. “There’s an obligation for protesters to be peaceful,” he admonished the unarmed Water Protectors at the prayer camps who faced down water cannons in freezing weather, attack dogs, mass arrests and the ritualistic brutality of a heavily-militarized small army of police.
In 2018, Obama claimed credit for the United States becoming the world’s largest oil producer, urging industry elites in Texas to “thank” him for making them rich. Trump’s subsequent, and more aggressive, policy of “unleashing American energy dominance” built on Obama’s gains.
Undoing four years of Trump – and the lasting damage it brought – can’t be the only barometer of climate justice. Nor should we lower our expectations of what is possible and necessary for Native sovereignty and treaty rights.
Biden partly owes his election victory to Native voters. Arizona voting districts with large Native populations helped flipped the traditionally Republican state last November to his and Democrats’ favor.
Native aspirations, however, don’t entirely align with Biden’s climate agenda, the Democratic party, or electoral politics.
In Arizona, where Biden won the Native vote, the Forest Service could, in the coming months, hand over 2,400 acres of Chi’chil Bildagoteel, an Apache sacred site, to the Australian mining company Rio Tinto. In 2014, the Arizona Republican senator John McCain attached a rider to a defense authorization bill to allow the transfer of land to make way for a copper mine, which would create a nearly two-mile wide open-pit crater destroying numerous Native burial sites, ceremonial areas and cultural items in the process. (Last year, Rio Tinto blew up Juukan Gorge Cave, a 46,000-year-old Indigenous sacred site, to expand an iron ore mine in Australia.)
A Democratic Senate passed Resolution Copper; Obama signed it into law; and Trump fast-tracked the environmental review during his last days in office. Resource colonialism is a bipartisan affair.
Much like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s dilemma with the Dakota Access pipeline, the Apache Stronghold, made up of members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe opposing the copper mine at Oak Flat, has little recourse. No law exists giving Native people control of their lands outside government-defined reservation boundaries.
Rio Tinto’s copper mine aims to meet at least a quarter of the United States’ annual copper needs, an essential metal that will be in high demand for renewable energy and electric vehicles. According to the World Bank, three billions of tons of metals and minerals like copper and lithium will be required by 2050 for wind, solar and geothermal power to meet the base target of the Paris agreement, which Biden has committed the US to rejoining.
And before Trump left office, the Bureau of Land Management issued a final permit to the Canadian mining company Lithium Americas to create an open-pit lithium mine at Thacker Pass on traditional Paiute land in Nevada. The mine could bolster Biden’s $2tn “green energy” transition plan. Lithium is a key ingredient of rechargeable batteries, and it’s what attracted Elon Musk’s Tesla battery factory to Nevada. Last October, Biden reportedly told a group of miners that he planned to increase domestic lithium production to wean the country from foreign sources like China.
These “green” techno fixes and consumer-based solutions might provide short-term answers, but they don’t stop the plunder of Native lands. Even the addition of Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, to the Biden cabinet won’t fundamentally change the colonial nature of the United States. We must ask ourselves why Biden and his supporters can imagine a carbon-free future but not the end of US colonialism.
But no matter who is US president, Indigenous people will continue fighting for the land and the future of the planet. For us, it has always been decolonization or extinction.
Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He is an assistant professor in the American studies department at the University of New Mexico. In 2014, he co-founded The Red Nation, an Indigenous resistance organization. He is the author of the book Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (Verso, 2019)