Energy groups sound alarm on new film, claim “How to Blow up a Pipeline” could spur new violence and vandalism

Photo by: IMDB
Photo by: IMDB

(Fargo, ND) -- A new movie that focuses on one of western North Dakota’s key industries is drawing positive reviews from some, and sharp criticism from others.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” began airing in theaters across the country on April 7th. It’s based on a book, of the same name, that was released in 2021. The author, Andreas Malm, argues that property crimes and vandalism are justifiable tactics considering the success of other social justice efforts throughout American history. The film is set in West Texas and revolves around a group of young people that decides to blow up an oil pipeline, due to one of the main characters’ family members dying during an extreme heat wave which that character attributes to climate change.

Speaking on The Flag Radio’s “What’s On Your Mind” program (AM 1100 / FM 92.3), Craig Stevens, Spokesman for the GAIN (Grow America’s Infrastructure Now) Coalition said, “The film is fictional, but it takes a pretty descriptive look at how individuals should, and could, blow up a pipeline. I’ve not seen the film, I’m not going to spend my money on that, but they get pretty ‘in the weeds’ about how to do it, and those who are funding the movie believe this is an appropriate response for protest, and I think that’s really troubling.”

North Dakota has long been in the cross hairs of environmental activists, most notably during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016 opposing the construction of Energy Transfer Partners pipeline. This pipeline was targeted by two Iowa women, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, who used blowtorches to cut into the pipeline. The two later admitted they did not know what was in the pipeline. In all they set 11 fires, and prosecutors successfully argued that the two put the lives of firefighters and other first responders at risk, as they did not know what they would encounter when responding to the vandalism. Montoya was sentenced to 6 years in jail, and Reznicek received a nine-year sentence. Both are currently serving out those sentences and were also ordered to pay more than $3 million each in restitution. Industry leaders are concerned that the film could give new inspiration to opponents of fossil fuels, whose actions could damage the industry, as well as the safety of area residents and workers. Professionally, the film has generally gotten positive reviews. The New York Times called the film a "cultural landmark" for its uniquely sympathetic portrayal of ecoterrorism.

On the website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 94%, based on 86 critic reviews with an average rating of 7.9/10. Its critical consensus says the film is a “high-stakes eco-thriller ignited by riveting and complex antiheroes". The accolades have not been unanimous. Armond White of National Review criticized the film as "propaganda" and "sociopathic filmmaking" and criticized the author of the Times review for "enforcing partisanship". There are nearly 3 million miles of pipeline that deliver natural gas and petroleum in the U.S. Someone who targets a domestic pipeline facility could face up to 20 years in prison.

VOA News reports that some of the worst incidents in the U.S. were on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Vandals blew up a section in 1978, spilling about 16,000 barrels of oil near Fairbanks. In 2001, a drunken man fired a hunting rifle into the pipeline near Livengood, causing more than 6,000 barrels to spray out.  Some of the most notable incidents in Canada happened in the 1990s and 2000s in Alberta and British Columbia. A series of bombings in 2008-09 targeted pipelines in British Columbia. An Alberta man was eventually convicted in several of the attacks.

Movie goers have not been flocking to the theaters to see the film. At least not yet. But there has not been great opportunity. The film is currently playing in just 12 theaters nationwide according to the website and ranked 90 th among current releases with $338,000 in ticket sales. The top-ranked film, The Super Mario Brothers Movie, was released two days earlier and has grossed more than $347 million, playing in nearly 3,500 theaters.

The Kansas City Regional Fusion Center, a consortium of law enforcement groups and elected officials, issued a report last week that warned of a potential threat from the movie. The group said while it had no direct knowledge of any threats, critical infrastructure projects like pipelines are consistently identified as an extremist target due to the high consequences of a successful attack. Stevens says the potential for terrorism has reached as far as the FBI. “They put out a bulletin to law enforcement across the country to keep an eye out on this. It is surprising that no one is really talking about this. It is unbelievable that this can be done in a theatrical way for entertainment but also for educational purposes. Stevens says it’s not easy to track the funding for this movie, and that two key investors went through public affairs firms to covertly fund the project.

The film is art, proponents say, and is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. And it does not advocate attacking or harming people, only objects. Aaron Terr, Director of Public Advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression told The Intercept, “(The film) tells a story about environmental activists who went on a mission to sabotage a pipeline. That’s constitutionally protected artistic expression. If a movie or book lost First Amendment protection for portraying illegal activity, we’d lose a huge chunk of our culture’s artistic output. Even if the movie gives viewers ideas on how to sabotage a pipeline or conveys a message of approval of the character’s actions, that’s not enough to take it outside the First Amendment’s protection.”

Stevens says that misses an important point; that energy security is part of what keeps our country strong and secure. He says his organization supports an “all of the above” energy plan for the United States, but that oil and natural gas, and the pipelines that transport them, are key elements of that strategy.

“We’re already attacking development…is what we’re seeing in North Dakota. We’re not allowing the development to happen especially under this administration. If we start attacking the pipelines, the infrastructure, and (the oil and natural gas) can’t get to the open market it will only strengthen the hand of (Russian) President Putin. And that is an absolute shame that these ecoterrorists are playing right into the hands of the Russians. They are fighting his war on our soil. And that is detrimental to the United States, it’s detrimental to our economic interests, and it’s also detrimental to our national security interests.”