‘A David and Goliath kind of thing’: Oil spills on the Yellowstone River and an evolving truth regime

Authors: Susan Gilbertz*, Montana State University-Billings
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Cultural Geography, Qualitative Research
Keywords: environmental justice, truth regimes, discourse analysis, river morphology, oil spill, Yellowstone River
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


It is clear that climate change and human activities alter the flow regimes and channel morphologies of many rivers. Moreover, where oil and gas production is underway, these changes can also impact ecological, economic, and social systems of river valleys. For instance, in 2011 and 2015, pipeline ruptures contaminated the Yellowstone River. Analyses suggested that channel modifications, coupled with high flows, had caused scouring that exposed pipelines “under” the river. Once exposed, these pipelines were easily broken. Recently, some evolution of policy and best practices regarding rivers and pipelines has emerged; however, the pace of policy change has been slow, and the status quo appears to exert an inertia that houses certain environmental justice implications. Even among those impacted by oil spills, the status quo appears to anchor local acceptance of little or no policy action. In this study we employ a qualitative, longitudinal methodology to discover the lingering and the evolving components of the dominant ‘truth regime’ that supports the status quo. We analyze the discourse of citizen stakeholders on the Yellowstone River, gathered over three field seasons: 2006 (drought year), 2012 (after the 2011 flood) and 2018 (a flood year followed by drought). Our findings demonstrate how the ‘truth regime’ is reinforced and challenged over time and under differing circumstances. While this analysis is limited to the Yellowstone River, the regime components are likely found in other contexts where human impacts, climate change and policy development overlap.

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