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North Dakota lawmakers prematurely celebrate approval of Dakota Access Pipeline

Authorities say pipeline completion is inevitable, but the Corps of Engineers has not yet granted a key easement

The makeshift city at Oceti Sakowin (Photo: Amy Martyn and M. Aaron Martyn)

To say that North Dakota's authorities do not appreciate the Standing Rock Sioux-led opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline would be a gross understatement.

The pipeline was originally slated to cross under the Missouri River near Bismarck until federal regulators expressed concern that the location was a “high consequence area” and too close to Bismarck’s municipal water supplies. The pipeline is now all but ready to cross under Lake Oahe, a dam that still connects to the Missouri River but is located next to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation forty miles south of Bismarck.

Workers and equipment have been on the contested drill pad above Lake Oahe for months. The only thing standing in the way from Energy Transfer Partners finishing the job is an easement from the Corps of Engineers, which had announced in December that it was considering "alternative routes" and is now subjecting the project to further environmental review, or an Environmental Impact Statement, as it is officially called.

Local bills target protesters, federal reservation system

Literally standing in the way of the pipeline are protesters, though a bill proposed at the state level could fatally change that. North Dakota Representative Keith Kempenich has received much attention for the bill he introduced that would grant legal protection to people who “accidentally” run over protesters with their cars, should those protesters be blocking roadways.

But that’s only one of the numerous bills he has helped sponsor this legislative session pertaining to pipeline protesters. Other bills listed under Kempenich's name would do the following; order North Dakota to ask Congress "to return lands and mineral rights underlying Lake Oahe in North Dakota to the state of North Dakota," file a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers "for an amount not less than seventeen million dollars to recover damages as a result of anti-Dakota access pipeline protests," increase penalties for criminal trespassing offenses, and ask the federal government to hand control of all American Indian polices to the states in order “to improve the failed Indian reservation system.”

On the lighter side, Kempenich has also co-sponsored a bill asking state lawmakers to make January 27, 2017 an official holiday celebrating cowboys, to be called "Day of the American Cowboy.”

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies continue to try to end the Sioux’s resistance movement head-on. Late Wednesday, heavily-armed officers from local and federal agencies raided a new encampment that protesters organized near the Lake Oahe drill site, leading to the arrests of a reported 76 protesters. Dozens of protesters have already been arrested in previous confrontations between the camps and police, with some protesters now facing felony charges.

Facebook live shot of deputes arriving.

Pro-pipeline lawmakers say easement is imminent 

President Trump’s recent memo asking for an expedited review of the pipeline didn’t change the fact that the Corps had already agreed to conduct a new Environmental Impact Statement considering alternative routes for the project back in December. Neither did the recent claims from two lawmakers that the pipeline’s necessary easement had been granted.

Senator John Hoeven, a Republican representing North Dakota, has invested in sixty-eight different oil wells in his state and has also invested in Energy Transfer Partners, as the DeSmogBlog reported last year.

A staunch supporter of the Dakota Access Pipeline project, Hoeven was also recently elected chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. On January 31, Hoeven released a statement claiming that the Dakota Access Pipeline operators received all the approval they needed to finish their project.

“Today, the Acting Secretary of the Army Rober Speer informed us that he has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the easement needed to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Hoeven’s office wrote on his website. “This will enable the company to complete the project, which can and will be built with the necessary safety features to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others downstream.”

Congressman Kevin Cramer, who represents North Dakota in the House, released a similar statement assuring his constituents that the “Department of Defense is granting the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline and Congressional notification is imminent.”

Still legally bound

But the reality is that the Corps is still legally bound to follow the environmental review process it initiated in December, as the Standing Rock tribe and its attorneys have argued. In fact, the Corps just this week opened up its public comment period for the pipeline, the next step in its Environmental Impact Statement process. Members of the public have until February 20 to send their thoughts on the project to the Corps. 

"The Army has initiated the steps outlined in the January 24th Presidential Directive” that asks for an expedited review of the pipeline, Corps spokesman Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost writes in an email to ConsumerAffairs, but he adds that “these initial steps do not mean the easement has been approved. The Assistant Secretary for the Army Civil Works will make a decision on the pipeline once a full review and analysis is completed in accordance with the directive."

The reason or motivation behind the lawmakers’ premature celebrations claiming an easement had already been granted are unclear, as neither office returned messages left by ConsumerAffairs. 

Meanwhile, the NODAPL protesters, or water protectors, as they call themselves, aren’t the only environmental group to see their efforts potentially thwarted by a GOP-controlled House and Senate. 

Cramer is among the 228 congressmen in the House who recently voted to overturn a so-called stream protection rule that was implemented by the Obama administration. The rule, opponents argued, kills jobs in the coal industry. “North Dakota does not need the Stream Protection Rule and neither does the nation,“ Cramer said on the House Floor Wednesday. 

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