The federal government is now giving a green light to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the hotly debated oil pipeline that drew thousands of activists, including Native Hawaiians, to frigid North Dakota for months of public protest.
Opponents believe the pipeline, located near the border of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, poses a threat to drinking water supplies and to their cultural heritage.
Protesters, meanwhile, are pledging to return to the site, with what they predict will be “mass resistance.”
“Donald Trump will not build his Dakota Access Pipeline without a fight,” said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, which has played a central role in the protest.
The Department of the Army has informed U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, that it intends to issue an easement that will permit the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline to go forward, possibly as early as tomorrow.
In a letter dated Feb. 7, Paul D. Cramer, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary of installations, housing and partnerships, said the Army intends to issue the easement for a term of 30 years.
Cramer said the line is being buried using a horizontal directional drill under Lake Oahe. He said the company building the project, the Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, of Houston, would be responsible for mitigating any damages to water, soil or vegetation in the event of oil spills.
The federal action reverses the position taken during the final days of the administration of President Barack Obama. On Dec. 4, the Army Department and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced they would deny the company’s request for an easement and instead prepare an environmental impact statement suggesting alternate routes for the pipeline.
Cramer’s letter referred to Trump’s executive order, dated Jan. 24, which expedited environmental reviews and permit approvals for what the White House called “High Priority Infrastructure Projects.”
In his executive order, President Trump said that these projects create jobs and strengthen the U.S. economy. He ordered government agencies to expedite the approval process for such projects, including the U.S. electric grid, telecommunications systems, port facilities, airports, bridges, highways and pipelines.
“Federal infrastructure decisions should be accomplished with maximum efficiency and effectiveness, while also respecting property rights and protecting public safety and the environment,” he said.
A presidential memorandum issued the same day specifically endorsed the Dakota Pipeline, which the president called a “substantial, multi-billion-dollar investment in our Nation’s energy infrastructure.”
It is expected to carry 500,000 barrels of oil each day from North Dakota to oil markets in the eastern United States.
“I believe that construction and operation of lawfully permitted pipeline infrastructure serve the national interest,” Trump said.
Goldtooth, however, said the “granting of an easement, without any environmental review or tribal consultation” would lead to what he called “mass resistance.”
“The granting of this easement goes against protocol, it goes against legal process, it disregards more than 100,000 comments already submitted as part of the environmental review process — all for the sake of Donald Trump’s billionaire oil cronies,” Goldtooth said in a statement. “And it goes against the treaty rights of the entire Seven Councils Fires of the Sioux Nation.”
Goldtooth said that Trump had not yet met with leaders of a single Native American tribe since taking office.
“Our tribal nations and indigenous grassroots people on the frontlines have had no input in this process,” he said.
Hawaiian activist Andre Perez, who traveled to Standing Rock to join the demonstration there and show solidarity with Native American activists, said in an interview with Civil Beat that he was “disappointed,” but not surprised by the Army’s reversal.
“Everyone was hoping and praying for the best but now we are seeing what this administration’s values are,” he said. “This is bigger than Standing Rock. Indigenous people are in for a long struggle with this administration, which has no respect for indigenous rights.”
Perez said he expects that more “protector” camps will spring up along pipelines and other infrastructure.
“This administration puts capitalism and profits over the well-being of the being,” Perez said. “Profits are being prioritized over drinking water.”
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii went to Standing Rock to observe and participate in the protest with a group of fellow military veterans. On Jan. 24, the day Trump issued his executive order, Gabbard reiterated her opposition to the project.
“The dangers of oil pipelines like The Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline are clear and deeply alarming,” she said in Facebook posting. “Just weeks ago, a leak in the Belle Fourche Pipeline spilled 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a North Dakota creek. True Companies, Inc., the parent company of Belle Fourche, has also reported an additional 36 spills totaling 320,000 gallons of petroleum products in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota since 2006. This is alarmingly common with oil pipelines across the country. The responsibility we have to protect our precious water is great, and cannot be taken lightly. Without water, there is no life, there are no jobs, there is no future.”
Perez said he hopes Gabbard will continue opposing the pipeline.
“I hope Tulsi Gabbard intervenes or attempts to intervene,” he said. “She needs to stand up for her own constituents as we struggle with our own water rights.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.