Stop Fossil Fuels

Pipeline Activism and Principles of Strategy


What makes some actions more effective than others? Why do some campaigns succeed but others fail?

Military historians have long studied these questions in the context of war. We should learn from their answers—especially since in the war to defend our environment, we almost always lose. By considering strategic and tactical principles, we can better understand three recent campaigns against pipelines: the direct action civil disobedience of the Valve Turners, the ecosabotage of Ruby Monoya and Jessica Reznicek, and two approaches of #NoDAPL—static protests and mobile disruptions. This table shows their material effectiveness, measured by time and money invested and barrels of oil stopped:

Return on investment: barrels of oil stopped per person month, and barrels stopped per dollar
Hover for a few seconds over underlined headers for explanations

Who Target Tactic Barrels stopped Person months BBLS/p-m Money BBLS/$
Valve Turners Tar sands pipelines Civil disobedience .75 million ~35 21,400 $12-$14,000 58
#NoDAPL DAPL Civil disobedience 45 million > 15,000 < 3000 > $20 million < 2.25
Ruby & Jessica DAPL Ecosabotage 30 million 10 3,000,000 ~$3000 10,000

(If you’re not familiar with any of these efforts, click their names to read their profiles.)

Why were the Valve Turners 8 times as efficient as #NoDAPL? How were Ruby and Jessica 1000 times as efficient? Two primary reasons: initiative, and duration of actions.

Initiative, Surprise, and Relative Strength

Success depends on these three closely related strategic and tactical principles. Going on the offensive affords activists the choice of when, where, and how to act. With this freedom, even a small group can concentrate personnel where the enemy is weak, achieving relative strength for an action. Furthermore, surprise is a temporary but powerful multiplier, enabling success with even fewer resources.

Protesters holding territory put themselves at the mercy of the police, sacrificing initiative and surprise. Early in the Standing Rock struggle, water protectors caravanned to disrupt construction sites up to 90 miles away. Although Energy Transfer Partners and the police expected this tactic, they couldn’t predict the precise destinations of the caravans, so couldn’t defend against the surprise actions. The protectors thus achieved local superiority of strength, shutting down site after site. Mississippi Stand used surprise lock downs similarly.

In contrast, within a few days of the defiant establishment of Treaty Camp directly in the pipeline’s path, a large police force assembled. With Energy Transfer Partners now ready to lay pipe just north of Standing Rock, the cops easily cleared the blockade, then used the opportunity to permanently secure the area. They bottled up the water protectors, blocking their access to nearby construction and to easy caravan routes to distant sites.

Instructively, the Valve Turners and Jessica and Ruby used pure initiative and surprise in their actions. Police and private security had little chance of stopping their unpredictable strikes on valves. Relatively low investments of time and money yielded big results.

Duration of Action

Guerrillas rely not just on surprise attacks, but on rapid withdrawal before enemy forces concentrate and reverse the balance of relative strength. The caravans of water protectors from Standing Rock didn’t have the option to withdraw, since construction would have resumed. Forced to hold ground, they lost their initial advantage of surprise and were vulnerable once police arrived.

The Valve Turners similarly relinquished surprise. After shutting off the flow of oil, they each awaited the arrival of police and subsequent arrest. They deliberately sacrificed material efficiency to pursue a strategy of raising awareness. In contrast, Jessica and Ruby, fully committed to underground action, refined a seven minute hit and run tactic maximizing their effectiveness.

Strategic failure

Unfortunately, all these activists failed to achieve their larger goals. Their approaches ranged from supplication to inspiring by example to direct action, but all were constrained within a strategy of attrition. Even when tactically successful, they hadn’t selected those tactics and their targets for maximum systemic impact. They settled for, at best, short-term, small-scale impact on the object of their protest.

To maximize impact with limited resources, activists must choose actions within and guided by a strategy of cascading failure. We must stop acting symbolically, even where the primary goal is to inspire others. Publicity stunts flare temporary excitement, but materially successful action animates long-term resistance. Success breeds success.

Collectively, our four case studies had most of the elements for successful systemic disruption: targeting operational critical bottleneck infrastructure, offensive surprise hit and run attacks, and damaging infrastructure. But none combined all these traits. Most importantly, none acted in a way to trigger further failures as a result of the initial damage. (See in contrast our case study of a pipeline explosion inducing cascading failure.)

Of course, those working against DAPL didn’t have systemic disruption as a goal; they simply wanted to stop a particular pipeline. Constraining one’s focus in this way makes success less likely. In a narrow sense, trying to stop one specific project limits tactics and targets to mostly predictable options. More broadly, even if one new pipeline is stopped, the rest of the system continues destroying the earth just as fast as ever. Slowing the acceleration of destruction isn’t enough; we must think and act systemically to shut down entire swathes of industrialism.

Summary Comparison

Actionists Initiative & Surprise Duration of Actions Tactical success Strategic success
Static #NoDAPL Defensive Permanent occupation Low Low
Mobile #NoDAPL Offensive, expected Hours Medium Low
Valve Turners Offensive, unexpected Hours High Low
Jessica & Ruby Offensive, unexpected Minutes Extremely high Low


Jessica and Ruby were by far the most materially efficient, by orders of magnitude. Their tactic of unexpected hit and run actions against completed DAPL segments allowed just two people to impact DAPL construction almost as much as the entire #NoDAPL movement.

The Valve Turners adhered to many strategic principles. Had they intended material rather than primarily symbolic action, they might have used hit and run tactics themselves to be as efficient as Jessica and Ruby.

#NoDAPL caravans and lock downs effectively disrupted construction sites, but the tactics precluded hitting and running. Furthermore, police eventually throttled the caravans at their predictable point of origin—Standing Rock.

To halt industrialism, activists must shift from attrition to cascading failure. Instead of trying to wear down each destructive project bit by bit, one project at a time, activists must intervene to topple element after element like dominoes. If this shift resonates with you, explore ways to get involved. Get in touch with us if you’d like to join us in aboveground work.

Profiles of the activists discussed in this piece:

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