As President Obama Hints At Dakota Access Possible Reroute, Tensions Swirl at Standing Rock


President Barack Obama, in an interview with Versha Sharma of NowThis News, said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may consider a reroute of the hotly contested Dakota Access Pipeline, one which would presumably not cross sacred Native American sites. The Obama administration is currently holding consultations with tribes across the US, and Obama alluded to the fact that the consultation process will “play out for several more weeks” before the administration takes action. 

Obama explained that “right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways we can reroute this pipeline, so 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 is properly attentive to the tradition of First Americans.” He also commented on First Amendment concerns, calling for restraint on the part of law enforcement and continued non-violence for protestors.

The Obama response has drawn mixed reactions, with some applauding and others calling for something more robust. The day after his November 1 interview, a confrontation ensued near the site of DAPL construction. 

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — whose land sits along the proposed Dakota Access route along the Missouri River and Lake Oahe — praised what it described as Obama’s “commitment to protect our sacred lands, our water, and the water of 17 million others.” The Tribe also called for a full environmental review, as opposed to the previous expedited permit review it received from the Army Corps.

Greenpeace USA, meanwhile, called for Obama to reverse the Army Corps permit granted for the pipeline. It opined that Obama was engaging in a stalling tactic. 

The administration seems to be buying time to maintain the status quo and profits for fossil fuel investors,” Greenpeace USA spokeswoman Lilian Molina said in a press release. “There is only one option that is truly attentive to the Native lives and lands at stake: respect the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous communities by revoking the permits immediately.”

Ongoing formal, government-to-government consultations

The U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior are currently conducting formal, government-to-government consultations with Tribes across the US seeking tribal input on federal infrastructure decisions. The final one is set for November 21 via teleconference and between now and then, five more sessions are slated including one today in Billings, Montana.

Perhaps the most closely watched will be the consultation set for November 17 in Rapid City, South Dakota — just a few hours drive from Standing Rock.

Rather than “buying time” as some have argued, it is likely that President Obama was referring to the need to complete the consultations before the administration takes any further action regarding the Dakota Access controversy.

Sanders, Clinton React

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also weighed in.

“I am very grateful to President Obama for listening to the voices of Native Americans and their many allies who have been protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Sanders said in a press release, which also pointed to his October 28 letter calling for a comprehensive environmental and cultural review.

“We are already seeing the consequences of global climate change, including rising sea levels, drought, wildfires and extreme weather. We should be transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable sources of energy. This pipeline, if completed, will do the exact opposite. It will lock us into burning more and more fossil fuels for generations to come.”

Sanders also recently did a tweetstorm, laying out his reasons for opposing Dakota Access.

The Clinton campaign, by way of juxtaposition, recently offered a wishy-washy statement on the project, using many words to say very little. 

“From the beginning of this campaign, Secretary Clinton has been clear that she thinks all voices should be heard and all views considered in federal infrastructure projects,” her campaign stated.

“Now, all of the parties involved—including the federal government, the pipeline company and contractors, the state of North Dakota, and the tribes—need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest. As that happens, it’s important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators’ rights to protest peacefully, and workers’ rights to do their jobs safely.”

Pipeline Proponents Taken By Surprise By Obama’s Reroute Mention

Pipeline opponents were not the only ones to react to the Obama interview.

Dakota Access Pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners also weighed in, telling The Hill that ““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.” A Morton County official also denounced the Obama statement.

Standing Rock Fact Checker, a Dakota Access Pipeline LLC-funded front group run by the PR firm DCI Group, also chimed in and denounced Obama.

President Obama’s remarks are a concerning response from the nation’s Chief Executive who is charged with the enforcement of the rule of law. The President fails to acknowledge that the project is already more than 77 percent constructed, making a “reroute” wildly difficult, if not impossible…Obama’s “let it play out” suggestion is a dangerously ambiguous and flippant comment on a serious issue. Dakota Access is a multi-billion dollar infrastructure investment that has been highly regulated and examined for over two years. There is nothing left to review.

Singing a similar tune, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also decried the Obama interview.

“With a few words to a reporter, President Barack Obama just took the rule of law, crumpled it up, and tossed along a riverbank in North Dakota,” said the Chamber. “We’re more than three-quarters through the game and President Obama thinks it’s ok to pull a Lucy and yank the football away from billions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs by changing the rules of the game. We’re long past the point of no return for a project that went by the book.”

“People Are Getting Hurt”

As the statements passed back and forth through the airwaves and internet, on the ground at the Standing Rock encampments, tensions escalated and police use of force continued. Among the tense moments was a stand-off between heavily armed law enforcement officials and protestors at the Cantapeta Creek along the Missouri River.

“I was shot in point blank range,” one protestor told NBC News. “Another water protector was also shot at twice at point blank range, but the rubber bullet hit the water, and not him.”

Josh Fox, director of the “Gasland” documentary films, was on scene and also spoke to NBC News. about the events at the Creek.

“[President] Barack Obama said we can wait a few weeks. People are getting hurt, people are getting shot with rubber bullets, people are getting maced, and Obama is not stepping in,” said Fox. 

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene to help quell tensions between law enforcement and those on the ground at Standing Rock. As DeSmog reported, a law passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 created the interstate compact now being used to send out-of-state cops to North Dakota.

Photo Credit: Johnny Dangers

Steve Horn is the owner of the consultancy Horn Communications & Research Services, which provides public relations, content writing, and investigative research work products to a wide range of nonprofit and for-profit clients across the world. He is an investigative reporter on the climate beat for over a decade and former Research Fellow for DeSmog.

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