Fate of Dakota Access Pipeline At Stake With Upcoming Trump Administration

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Protesters demonstrate outside of the US Army Corps of Engineers office in West Virginia in November, 2016.
Photo Credit: 
SHOLTEN SINGE/THE HERALD-DISPATCH/AP

Pipeline protesters in North Dakota and their allies received word last week that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said they would not grant a permit to allow the current construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. While those opposed to the project have been celebrating the announcement, the upcoming administration could soon destroy their joy.

The Pipeline

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers first approved the Dakota Access Pipeline, despite the absence of a robust environmental review process, which is required by law under the National Environmental Policy Act. The 1,172 mile pipeline would run through North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, and was slated to carry up to 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Originally planned to cross the Missouri River near Bismark, North Dakota, the project was moved in order to avoid the possibility of an oil spill contaminating the city's drinking water. Interestingly, the city of Bismark is 90% white.

The current proposed path is set to cross under Lake Oahe near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. It would run through areas of great historical and spiritual significance to the Sioux Tribe, which has occupied that land for centures. The current path would destroy a major Sioux archaeological site and threaten their primary source of water. While pipelines are deemed the safest mode of transporting crude oil, they are extremely dangerous to the environment. The first Keystone XL pipelines was supposedly the safest pipeline and it spilled oil 12 times during its first year of operation.

Dozens of tribes and thousands of other supporters gathered in North Dakota in protest and countless demonstrations took place all over the world, calling for an end to the project. Peaceful protesters were met with police in riot gear, deploying military tactics and setting up unwarranted stops for unlawful strip searches and to intimidate free speech. After months of demonstrations and protests, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally announced that they would not approve the easement required for the construction of the pipeline to continue. Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers will now conduct a thorough environmental assessment and work with Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company building the pipeline, to explore alternative routes.

For those opposed to the construction of this pipeline, the Army Corp's decision is encouraging. However, the upcoming administration should leave many in doubt.

Trump and Big Oil

Trump has expressed support for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Spokesperson Jason Miller issued a statement in support of completing the project, "With regard to the Dakota Access Pipeline, that's something that we support construction of and we'll review the full situation when we're in the White House and make the appropriate determination at that time."

Trump said that his backing for the pipeline "has nothing to do with his personal investments and everything to do with promoting policies that benefit all Americans." Yet Trump has deep ties to Energy Transfer Partners. According to financial disclosure forms filed in May, Trump owned stock worth between $15,000 and $50,000; the previous year he owned stocks worth between $500,000 and $1 million. Trump also owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in stock in Phillips 66, which holds a one-quarter share of the pipeline project. Energy Transfer Partner's CEO, Kelcy Warren, is a personal donor to Trump's presidential campaign. Warren donated $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund and $3,00 directly to the Trump Campaign.

When asked about the fate of the pipeline, Warren said he was "100 percent sure that the pipeline will be approved by a Trump administration."

And then there is Trump's administration. Trump's pick for Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, sits on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners. ETP's top executive employees also contributed millions of dollars to support the Texas governor's 2015 presidential bid. Scott Pruitt, Trump's choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency has raised thousands of dollars energy company PACs and executives, including PACs connected to Exxon Mobil and Koch Industries and Harold G. Hamm, the chief executive of one of the nation's biggest oil producers, was a co-chairman of Pruitt's re-election campaign. Rex Tillerson, nominated to Secretary of State, is the chief executive of Exxon Mobil.

What Trump Could Do

Trump can overturn the Army Corps of Engineer's decision. He has supported the completion of the pipeline and has pledged to invest in infrastructure projects. During his campaign, he also supported the Keystone XL pipeline. While Native American Reservations cover just 2% of the population, they may contain about 20% of the nation's oil and gas. In 2009, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes estimated that Indian energy resources are wroth about $1.5 trillion. Privatization of these lands would could benefit both tribes and private oil drillers. Tribes and their members could make money from more easily tapping resources beneath reservations while private oil drillers could reap vast wealth by developing leases on reservations through deals with tribal government.

Tribal and spiritual leaders oppose the privatization of Indian land. For more than a century, federal bureaucracy holds title to 56 million acres of tribal lands, designed to protect Indian tribes. Treaties made between 1778 and 1871 to end wars between indigenous Indians and European settlers left tribal governments with the right to govern their land as sovereign nation. Regardless of tribal and spiritual leaders opposition, Trump's advisory group on Native American Affairs had proposed to put tribal lands into private ownership.

This of course makes sense Trump, as at least three of the four chair-level members of Trump's Native American Affairs Coalition have links to the oil industry. Markwayne Mullin received about eight percent of his campaign funding over the years from energy companies, Sharon Clahchischilliage received about 15% from energy firms, and Ross Swimmer is a partner at a Native American-focused investment fund that has invested heavily in oil and gas companies, including Energy Transfer Partners.

Fracking and oil development continue to threaten Native American lands. The proposed Pinon oil pipeline in New Mexico is in early planning stages and the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado continues to impact Navajo people along the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Regardless of the outcome of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Native Americans will continue to face many environmental conflicts all over the country.

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