What an Austin CEO learned at Standing Rock protests

Editor’s note: EnviroMedia CEO Valerie Salinas-Davis recently spent several days documenting the historic discourse at Standing Rock, capturing the emotions and controversies. Below are the lessons she has drawn from the experience on how an industry can move forward when opposing forces appear far from common ground.

What an environmental roller coaster.


In the final months of 2016, Donald Trump was elected president — he said he would “keep an open mind” about the Paris climate deal, then he appointed Clean Power Plan foe Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, and now former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for energy secretary.

Within the same timeframe, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe resolved to dig in for a tough North Dakota winter after being ordered to vacate the Oceti Sakowin Camp, but then celebrated on Dec. 4 when they were informed that the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) easement was denied to Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas.

Just four days after the presidential election, after having listened to my staff say Standing Rock would make water, energy and environmental justice history, I headed to North Dakota with a small team to see for myself.

My takeaway was not the obvious — that an oil pipeline might pose a threat to the water source of not just the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation but to 18 million people living along the Missouri River.

The bigger threat was that Standing Rock is a very dangerous situation, mainly because of little to no simultaneous dialogue among all parties: Native Americans, law enforcement, the government and Energy Transfer Partners. By the time I got back to Austin, I was convinced that if no one budged soon, blood would be shed.

Thankfully, the day before the Dec. 5 deadline to vacate the camp, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement, saying, “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.” By the next morning, however, Energy Transfer Partners defiantly declared it would construct DAPL with no rerouting of the pipeline.

The day before that climactic weekend, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch released a statement calling for “open dialogue between law enforcement, tribal leaders and protesters.” I wondered, “What about Energy Transfer Partners?”

In the big picture, I am not advocating for oil companies to lose and environmentalists to win. I am advocating for more of just what Attorney General Lynch asked for — open dialogue by all parties, sooner rather than later, to prevent crises like Standing Rock, and corporate offices from having to go into lockdown. Especially at this point in our country’s politically charged history.

The future is certainly bright and opportunities limitless here and abroad. Bill Gates earlier this month launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures. It will invest $1 billion dollars in scientific research to develop and deliver cheaper and more reliable clean energy worldwide. The stakeholders are entrepreneurs, business leaders and investors working together for a “true energy transformation.”

Ryan Popple of Proterra, an electric bus company, recently reminded me it was the “Horse Manure Crisis” of the late 1800s that led to the invention of motor-powered vehicles. Yes, cities around the world were “drowning in horse manure” from hansom cabs. The situation was so bad the problem was debated at the world’s first international urban planning conference in New York in 1898.

However, it wasn’t until a decade later that Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the line. As Popple points out, we’ve barely changed our fossil-fuel-reliant transportation technology since then. Now we deal with problems like tailpipe emissions, non-point source pollution and, as we very well know in Austin, too much traffic.

I believe today’s situation is not much different than our transportation dilemma of the late 1800s. Pollution and health threats necessitate innovation, but then politics and money complicate progress. We can’t flip a switch and change everything overnight, but we can communicate proactively and decently with one another, and invest in technology for positive change. Over time, as always, the innovators will win and society will benefit.

Originally published on Austin Business Journal