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© Taliesin Gilkes-Bower


Where It All Comes From

by Taliesin Gilkes-Bower
January 30, 2019

Taliesin Gilkes-Bower is a photographer and artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA.

In 2013 the US Geological Survey announced an estimate of 7.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil within the Bakken Formation. The Bakken is a rocky geological feature that stretches across nearly 200,00 square miles beneath Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. At the 2018 average price for crude oil the Bakken fields represent about 480 Billion dollars worth of oil. It is an important number to keep in mind when trying to understand why Energy Transfer Partners was able to muster armored troop carriers, surface to air missiles batteries, and police forces from 10 states when Standing Rock Sioux tribal members began a peaceful protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Despite igniting a global protest movement and garnering massive amounts of media attention, the moment Trump took office, it was clear that nothing was going to stop the necessary government approval for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be finished. 480 billion dollars is a larger sum than the nominal GDP of all but the wealthiest 25 nations. Despite massive reserves, the Bakken fields have required equally massive new infrastructure investments to keep extracted oil and natural gas flowing to the processing facilities required to turn it into sellable product.

The Bayou Bridge Pipeline, another Energy Transfer Partners project, connects Bakken oil to the refineries and processing plants in Louisiana that stretch along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The 160 mile pipeline crosses 700 bodies of water and weaves through traditional lands of the Houma, Chitimacha and Chat people, as well as predominantly poor and black communities like St James parish, where there currently exists no viable evacuation route in case of a major pipeline spill or explosion.

In 2017 it became clear to Cherri Foytlin, whose family home sits just miles away from the Bayou Bridge Pipeline route, that despite the environmental risks of the project, construction was going to move ahead. She formed a council of indigenous women to strategize about what action to take, and put the call out for support through her existing networks of indigenous and environmental activists. What began was a series of daring direct actions that placed human bodies in the way of massive machinery. They named their camp L’eau Est La Vie, French for Water is Life, as a nod to No DAPL camps who took the Lakota phrase Mini Wiconi of the same meaning as their slogan, and the cajuns who took in escaped slaves and collaborated with indigenous people to protect the swamp land they called home.

The direct action campaign of Cherri and her camp has now lasted over a year, moving from guerrilla style operations within the swamp, to a permanent home on land purchased to support their efforts and eventually house an environmental education and direct action training center. Activists from L’eau Est La Vie have travelled to Houston to protest ETP shareholders meetings, and taken action at banks and government buildings across Louisiana. Despite their camp usually consisting of no more than 50 water protectors, activists across the country have had fundraisers and actions in solidarity.

These photos capture the landscape of southern Louisiana, and the water protectors who continue to dedicate and risk their lives to bring attention to the massive environmental costs of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

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Waniya Locke, a prominent Standing Rock Sioux Lakota activist has her hair braided by Cameron Paine-Thaler, who joined camp from Seattle because of an Instagram post a friend made, at the L’eau Est La Vie camp.

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A sign post for a completed portion of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. A 2018 Louisiana state bill written by the right wing policy group American Legislative Exchange Council, has made trespassing on oil infrastructure sites a felony offense. Many the water protectors who have been arrested for peaceful protest on Bayou Bridge Pipeline construction sites are now facing felony charges.

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Mama Julz, a Lakota activist from Pine Ridge, SD. Julz is the founder of Mothers Against Meth Alliance, a non-profit that combats meth sales on Native land. In the Bakken, many construction, oil and natural gas projects are built by workers housed in temporary housing colloquially called “man camps.” According to Julz, meth use and sex trafficking are rampant at the man camps. She has travelled the country protesting pipeline projects and bringing attention to the brutal human cost that such projects have on indigenous women and girls.  

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Industrial infrastructure at the Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge Chemical Plant and Refinery facilities. Access to fixed petrochemical infrastructure without having to use rail or road transport is the primary financial incentive for the Bayou Bridge Pipeline project.    

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The Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge Refinery marks the start of the eighty-five mile stretch along the Mississippi River known as “cancer alley.”

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A school bus converted to a floating camp on the waterways of the Atchafalaya swamp. Because of its inaccessibility, Louisiana swamp land provided natural protection for the Cajun, Black and Native people from the American government. Local lore is rich in stories of successful interracial efforts to hide and house escaped slaves.

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Construction equipment used for clearing and preparing land for pipeline construction. In the last 15 years Energy Transfer Partners operated pipelines have spilled 3.6 million gallons of oil and hazardous waste.

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Construction workers unloading pipe sections from a barge. Energy Transfer Partners ran a state wide PR campaign promoting the economic benefits of the pipeline project.

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A security guard films water protectors as they monitor a section of pipeline being constructed. In North Dakota, Energy Transfer Partners hired TigerSwan a military intelligence contractor, to build dossiers on protestors and infiltrate organizing groups.  

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A heron flies over a scrap metal recycling lot along the Port Allen Lock outside of Baton Rouge.