President Obama said Tuesday that his administration was considering ways to “reroute” the Dakota Access oil pipeline after a week of violent clashes between authorities and activists protesting the controversial project.
In an interview with NowThis, Obama addressed concerns from Native Americans that the pipeline cuts too close to tribal lands in North Dakota. The $3.8 billion project was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is slated to cross under a section of the Missouri River less than a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
“We’re monitoring this closely,” Obama said. “My view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans. And I think that right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline.”
“We’re going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of First Americans,” he said.
Obama’s interview represents the most explicit remarks he has made on the simmering controversy. During a White House tribal conference in September the president offered an elliptical reference to the issue, telling hundreds of tribal representatives gathered in Washington, “I know that many of you have come together across tribes and across the country to support the community at Standing Rock. And together, you’re making your voices heard.”
On Tuesday afternoon aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to say what the administration might do about the pipeline because of the ongoing litigation. “So there’s not much that I can say about that particular project.”
“What I can say more generally is that the White House has been in touch with the Department of Interior and a couple of other agencies that are taking a fresh look at the procedures that they follow to incorporate input from Native American communities that could potentially be affected by infrastructure projects,” Earnest said. “The president believes that that’s a worthwhile thing for the Department of Interior to do. And so he’s supportive of that process to consider reforming some of those procedures.”
The president has elevated American Indian rights during his tenure, establishing a White House tribal liaison and laying the groundwork for a government-to-government relationship with native Hawaiian. During this fall’s tribal conference, he recalled how he had pledged during his first White House bid to do more for tribal communities.
“And I want everybody in this auditorium and all the folks back home in you respective communities to know that whole time I’ve heard you, I have seen you. And I hope I’ve done right by you,” he said.
But even as Obama raised the possibility of rerouting the pipeline, he seemed to suggest that it would go forward. Many climate activists have called on him to halt the project altogether, the way he blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last year between Canada and the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Jamie Henn, a spokesman for the environmental group 350.org, said in an email Wednesday that it would be hypocritical for Obama to allow the pipeline to be completed.
“There’s no reroute that doesn’t involve the same risks to water and climate,” Henn said. “The president must submit Dakota Access to the same climate test as Keystone XL, a test it will surely fail.”
Obama has also faced criticism for the delay from a coalition of energy and manufacturing groups, who note that the pipeline is a major infrastructure project that is mostly built and could boost economic activity along its route. The 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline is to transport crude oil from fields in North Dakota to an existing pipeline and refinery in Illinois.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been fighting the pipeline for months, arguing that the project could harm sacred lands and pollute the tribe’s only water supply.
David Archambault II, who chairs the Standing Rock Tribe, said in an interview that his members welcomed Obama weighing in on the project.
“I applaud the president’s promises, and commitments on, protecting out sacred lands and water and the water for many others,” Archambault said, but added, “we can’t wait for a long time for this to get this resolved.”
Over the summer, Native American tribes and environmental activists from across the country set up a camp in Cannon Ball, N.D., near the pipeline’s path, and have used it as a staging ground for protests.
Violence broke out last week when a group of protesters tried to create a second camp on land owned along the pipeline’s path. Hundreds of law enforcement officers in riot gear used pepper spray, rubber bullets and high-pitched noise cannons to disperse the activists who refused to leave, arresting 141 people in the process. Some protesters set fires and threw rocks and molotov cocktails at authorities, and at least one protester fired a gun, police said.
In his interview Tuesday, Obama addressed allegations that authorities used excessive force against some of the protesters who were arrested last week. He called for both sides to keep calm, alluding to Black Lives Matter protests that have followed fatal shootings by police.
“It’s a challenging situation,” Obama said. “There is an obligation for protesters to be peaceful, and there is an obligation for authorities to show restraint. And I want to make sure that as everyone is exercising their constitutional rights to be heard that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt.”
Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline developer, and regulators say the pipeline, which is nearly complete in North Dakota, is safe and will not disrupt cultural sites. Vicki Gradano, spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, said in a statement Wednesday: “We are not aware that any consideration is being given to a reroute, and we remain confident we will receive our easement in a timely fashion.”
North Dakota on Tuesday borrowed $4 million to cover the cost of sending law enforcement to monitor the protests near the pipeline, bringing its spending on security to $10 million since people began demonstrating against the project, the Associated Press reported. North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson (R) criticized the White House for not helping with security expenses.
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am at the lack of support from the Obama administration on an issue that’s clearly a federal issue,” Carlson said.
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