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How to blow up a pipeline (film)

Summary and critical analysis
8 min read
Last update: Sep 19, 2023

In this article, we review the film "How to blow up a pipeline". We provide a summary and a critical analysis of this fictional movie.


Contains spoilers

A young woman, Xochitl, cuts the tires of an SUV and leaves a bright yellow one-page manifesto on the window.

In Long Beach, California, Xochitl and her friend Theo witness the devastating effects of climate change. Xochitl's mother dies during a heat wave in a city plagued by pollution from oil refineries. Frustrated by the slow progress of their campus divestment campaign, Xochitl expresses a desire for more radical environmental action. Theo is diagnosed with terminal cancer caused by the pollution, adding a sense of urgency to their cause.

Theo and Xochitl convince Theo's skeptical girlfriend, Alisha, and a number of other individuals, to plot an act of environmental terrorism. Shawn, a film student who met Xochitl through the divestment movement, introduces the group to Dwayne, a blue-collar Texan with deep resentment towards an oil company that used eminent domain laws to seize his family's ancestral land, depriving him and his pregnant wife of their home. The team also recruits Michael, a Native American self-taught explosives expert from a North Dakota reservation. Completing the group are Rowan and Logan, an adventurous young couple drawn to the cause.

United by their shared belief that non-disruptive action is insufficient, the group devises a plan to strategically detonate homemade explosives along an unguarded section of a recently constructed oil pipeline in West Texas. The pipeline is partially built on Dwayne's land; his intimate knowledge of the targeted area helps the group plan the attack. They hope that the destruction of the segment will force the company to shut down its Texas operations for a period of time, causing crude oil prices worldwide to spike due to their indexing to West Texas crude. The group gathers at a remote cabin, where they begin manufacturing explosives and digging up a section of the pipeline.

While executing their plan, the group encounters several setbacks and challenges. Members of the crew are distracted by alcohol, Michael accidentally detonates a primer charge during preparation, a surveillance drone monitors their activities, and Alisha fractures her leg when a barrel of explosives falls on her. Rowan and Logan, entrusted to prevent local pollution by shutting off the pipeline flow, find themselves unexpectedly confronted by armed company property inspectors. Logan successfully distracts them while Rowan completes the task. In the process, he sustains a gunshot wound. Despite these challenges, the group successfully blows up the pipeline. Xochitl broadcasts a triumphant message on Instagram calling others to action.

Following the explosion, the group scatters and Rowan tends to Logan's injuries, removing bullet fragments from his shoulder. She then discreetly meets with two FBI agents. Xochitl knowingly included Rowan, an FBI informant, in their plan, enabling them to outwit federal and local police by convincing them that only Theo and Xochitl were involved in the sabotage. Rowan secures her freedom (having previously faced legal consequences following her involvement in a similar incident) and receives a substantial reward for her information. Michael, Alisha, Shawn, and Dwayne quickly establish alibis placing them away from the scene. The police find the cabin where the group had manufactured the explosives just moments after Theo and Xochitl detonate a final bomb inside. The duo peacefully surrenders as planned.

Theo and Xochitl are sentenced to lengthy prison terms, though Theo dies shortly afterwards. While the other group members remain free, family members suspect their involvement, federal agents monitor their actions, and they reflect on their decisions. Finally, another act of sabotage is shown. Inspired by the West Texas group, a trio of masked individuals plant a bomb in a Miami yacht, leaving behind the same manifesto seen earlier.

Critical analysis

Advocating violence

Violence exists in many forms. Verbal violence, physical violence against other people, property damage, ecocide, etc. Even a peaceful protest march can be perceived as violent, depending on how police, media and politicians respond.

This movie shows activists that decide to do property destruction, which they argue is justified in the context of the deadly climate crisis. There are activists who argue we should stay strictly nonviolent, both for moral and strategic reasons. Thus, they also criticise this movie for glorifying violence.

As explained below, the movie does not actually show how to blow up a pipeline successfully. Once could argue that it is merely a dramatised version of the moral argument that Andreas Malm's 2021 book under the same name presents.

Still, even activists discussing the topic of violence can be used by conservative media to insinuate that nonviolent change-makers are radicalising and could soon start to use violence. This, in turn, can be used by politicians as a cover to increase police repression and surveillance of the general public.

At Activist Handbook, we are not sure how to deal with the topic of violence within activism. As explained on our discussion page on violence, some possible answers are:

  1. We should not discuss violence at all.

  2. We discuss how violence is being used by activists. However, we clearly condemn the use of violence.

  3. We discuss how violence is being used by activists. We show all sides of the debate.

  4. We should be allowed to discuss violent tactics, without any disclaimers.

Probably, the answer lies somewhere in between option 2 and 3. Please help us refine our policy by contributing to the discussion!

A bad how-to guide

Regardless of whether you are planning to blow up a pipeline, the film shows various bad practices that no activist should repeat:

  • Bad digital security practices:

    • [2:30] Getting rid of a phone by throwing it on a shelve: this is not a good way to get rid of sensitive data on a device. Instead, make use of self-destructing messages using end-to-end encryption messaging apps such as Signal. When erasing your the contents of your entire disk storage, make sure to also erase any cloud or disk backups. Remember that traces are likely to remain on your device and that cloud providers often backup their data as well, even for a period after you permanently delete your data.

    • [3:09] Modifying video camera metadata: one of the actors edits the metadata of security camera footage as a way to provide a alibi. It is likely this alibi would not hold under scrutiny of digital security experts, as they would be able to see the video was tempered with. In addition, you will likely be captured on video by many other surveillance camera's as well. Take into account step counters on your phone and smartwatch. If you are vacuum cleaning or making use of other electronic devices, smart home electricity measurements can tell a lot about what you were or were not doing. Navigation devices in your car also keep track of your activities. The movie even shows the actor calling someone else to lie about their current location: at that point their device connected to the local wifi network and mobile data towers, which gives away their location. All these electronic devices should tell the same story, just tempering some video metadata is not going to convince law enforcement.

    • Publishing a video on the internet telling you're trying to do something illegal: it should be obvious you should not tell the internet you're about to commit a serious crime if you do not want to get caught. No effort was made to stay anonymous on the internet whatsoever. Instead, look into using the Tor network and publishing anonymised documents without metadata.

    • Being captured on video while committing a crime: obviously, security practices are in place to protect critical infrastructure. If you are going to a location where you suspect will be surveillance camera's and you want to stay anonymous, at the very least make sure to draw some patterns on your face to make automatic face recognition more difficult.

      • [48:30] The group in the movie is captured on the video footage of a drone (that is allegedly using LiDAR for detecting erosion according to one of the activists). LiDAR can be used to make detailed depth images (it does not just "scan metal" as stated by one of the activists), so a group of activists digging a hole to reach a pipeline is probably going to be captured as well. In addition, it is interesting that they assume it does not contain a regular camera too. Then, they take down the drone, which is definitely going to be noticed, as this means that the drone does not arrive in its final destination where someone will probably need to pick it up to be recharged. They then leave the drone, which, assuming that it was not live streaming its images to the cloud, is also a mistake.

      • [53:50] The movie shows a piece of pipeline infrastructure with a valve to close of the oil supply. It is strange that such an important installation does not have any camera's. Of course, it is possible that the greedy capitalists economised on security practices (which also shows from the many oil leaks that have happened around the world), but in the US there are certain security standards that apply. And protecting oil infrastructure from eco terrorists probably gets more priority than preventing environmental disasters.

  • [24:50] Dangerous bomb-building practices: watch video below for more info

  • [32:40] Drinking alcohol: Do not drink alcohol or do other drugs while engaging in activism. You will make mistakes that endangers the safety of you and activists around you.

  • [1:11:30] Working together with informants: In the movie, it is suggested that you can mislead law enforcement agencies by allowing informants into your group and having them share false information with the police. This is a bad idea. The movie shows the informant carrying a phone with them, taking pictures of the other activists and sending these to the police. Likely, the suspicion alone of planning to blow up a pipeline would be reason for the police to bug the homes of all the involved activists, place trackers on cars, hack into mobile phones and perhaps even do this for people within their social networks (friends, family, etc.). Having bought the materials and looking up information online on how to use those materials to build a bomb is plenty of reason to be arrested before carrying out the act. Any lie from an informant to the police is easy to pick up on for all of the reasons above, as well as for the fact that they are trained to get information out of you, even if you think you can outsmart them with lies.

  • Not working together with other activist groups: The small group operates entirely on their own, without any collaboration with other activists and without being embedded in a larger community. This has various downsides:

    • Health: Several members of their group get wounded. They cannot make use of public health care for the risk of being found out. They have no safety net to fall back on within their community. Nobody in their group has experience as a medic, nor do they have access to medicine.

    • Materials

    • Knowledge exchange

  • Naive idea of not getting caught: if you plan to blow up a pipeline, assume you will be caught, likely before you succeed, but definitely after. If you are not a significant threat to the status quo, law enforcement will not be interested in you, and you will be able to get away with crimes. But once you form an actual threat, assume law enforcement will use all their resources to catch you, even if it is for an unrelated crime such as tax fraud. Governments nowadays have more surveillance powers than ever before. For any form of underground civil disobedience goes: you should definitely try to stay under the radar, but accept the risk that comes with your chosen form of activism.

Movie as sufficient threat?

Interestingly, perhaps the act of merely creating a movie about how to blow up a pipeline is enough to make oil infrastructure more expensive to operate. The risk of some people being inspired by the movie could be reason for insurance companies to raise their fees and for the companies operating the pipelines investing more resources into securing their expensive infrastructure.


The YouTube channel Maxism Today has published an interesting review, criticising dangerous bomb building practices in the movie. The video unfortunately has a clickbait title and introduction suggesting the movie is a 'psy-op' (psychological operations by the US government). It provides valuable insights nevertheless:


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