The acting Secretary of the Army has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to issue the final remaining easement for the Dakota Access pipeline for a disputed crossing at Lake Oahe.
Robert Speer, who was designated as the acting Secretary of the U.S. Army on Jan. 20, notified Congress Tuesday that the agency will be granting the easement. The move follows a memo from President Donald Trump on Jan. 24 directing that the agency expedite reviews and approvals for the project, which was proposed to carry Bakken crude 1,172 miles across four states to Illinois, where it can more readily access refineries that handle light sweet crude.
Proponents of the pipeline have said it will take thousands of trucks off the road and represents the safest way of transporting crude, while opponents have questioned whether safety measures at Lake Oahe will be adequate to protect the water, which provides drinking water to the tribe and many others downstream.
Delegates for North Dakota have generally supported completion of the project, seen by industry leaders as critical infrastructure for the Bakken’s future.
“It’s time to get to work and finish this important piece of energy infrastructure, enhancing America’s energy security and putting North Dakotans and Americans back to work,” Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. said. “President Trump has proven to be a man of action, and I am grateful for his commitment to this and other critical infrastructure projects so vital to this nation.”
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the issue has been difficult for all concerned, but that he is confident the right decision has been made.
“Building new energy infrastructure with the latest safeguards and technology is the safest and most environmentally sound way to move energy from where it is produced to where people need it,” he said. “It can and will be built with the necessary safety features to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others downstream.”
Hoeven and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., have both, meanwhile, been pressing for additional federal law enforcement support in the vicinity of the pipeline, where protesters have been camped for the most of 2016 on property managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Heitkamp said a decision on the pipeline has been too long in coming.
“For months, North Dakotans have been on edge over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests surrounding it, and for months they have faced uncertainty and delays on the ultimate fate of the project, while constant disruptions took a toll on the sense of safety and security of communities near the construction," she said. “Now that the Acting Secretary of the Army has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to issue an easement to complete the project, we know construction will move forward – though we are waiting on more information in regards to a timeline for when construction can begin.”
Industry groups were also pleased with the announcement.
"After nearly 1,000 days since the beginning of this process, we are hopeful that we may be one step closer to the ultimate completion of the project,” said Craig Stevens with the MAIN Coalition, an industry group that supports infrastructure projects including pipelines. “We appreciate that President Trump is keeping his word to move lawful, carefully sited energy projects forward. This is a positive development for the pipeline, construction workers across the country, and those who seek to invest in our nation's infrastructure. It also begins the clock that will mark down the moments until the dedicated local and state law enforcement officers, as well as community members throughout North Dakota, will be able to get back to their normal lives. And finally, we hope that individuals on all sides of this issue will be able to move forward peacefully as this process draws to a close."
North Dakota has so far spent an estimated $22 million on law enforcement activities in Morton County. The North Dakota delegation has been united in calling for the federal government to help pay some of those costs.
A cleanup of the camps which lie in the floodplain has meanwhile begun, with members of the Standing Rock Tribe leading calls for protesters to leave the area and instead take the fight to Washington D.C.
Standing Rock Sioux youths helped begin the protest last year, questioning whether their sacred sites and water would be adequately protected. National environmental groups joined the fray soon after, bringing the issue to international attention.
Members of the tribe did not have an immediate statement Tuesday night, but have repeatedly called on President Trump to respect their treaty rights and stick with the Environmental Impact Statement the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had said it would grant in the waning days of the Obama administration.
In the most recent media release, Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said Trump’s change in course was “arbitrary and without justification.”
“The law requires that changes in agency positions be backed by new circumstances or new evidence, not simply the President’s whim,” Archambault said. “It makes it even more difficult when one considers the close personal ties you and your associates have had with Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco.”
Standing Rock Sioux have vowed to fight any efforts to withdraw the Environmental Impact Statement in court.
“Your memorandum issues these directives with the condition that these actions are carried out ‘to the extent permitted by law,’” Archambault said. “I would like to point out that the law now requires an Environmental Impact Statement. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lacks statutory authority to issue the easement because it has committed to the EIS process. Federal law, including the requirement of reasonable agency decision making, prevents that."