President Barack Obama’s suggestion that a new oil pipeline may need to be rerouted has angered critics who say his remarks threaten the rule of law.
The firestorm was ignited earlier this month when Obama announced that the Army Corps is considering alternative routes for the nearly complete Dakota Access Pipeline. "We are going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved,” he said.
That statement enraged the head of the National Sheriffs Association, who said the protesters who have been camped out around the pipeline’s construction route in south-central North Dakota included aggressive agitators with criminal histories.
And some of the more militant protesters have fired weapons at law enforcement officials and thrown Molotov cocktails, according to the association’s executive director, Jonathan Thompson.
“Mr. President, this is not a game,” Thompson said in a prepared statement last week. “Law enforcement is real life and, all too often, real death.”
But the protesters and some journalists have presented a different picture, saying that police have overreacted by dressing in riot gear, using pepper spray and rubber bullets. "I was shot by militarized police while interviewing a peaceful man at Standing Rock live on camera," journalist/activist Eryn Schrode said on her Facebook page.
More than 91 percent of the 416 arrests made by law enforcement in North Dakota since August are people from out of state, according to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Protesters from around the nation have traveled to the protest site near the home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which opposes the pipeline project and sees it as a threat to its source of drinking water and lands the tribes considers sacred.
When completed, the $3.4 billion project will transport oil from the Bakken and Three Forks region of North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois – a distance of nearly 1,200 miles.
A post by a senior editor for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also took Obama to task and described the lengthy approval process the pipeline builder, Energy Transfer Partners, went through.
“They worked with state and federal regulators, applied for the appropriate permits, held local hearings with people concerned about the project – including Native American tribes – and spent years making adjustments to the pipeline’s route after hearing concerns – 140 times in North Dakota alone -- to preserve cultural sites and minimize environmental harm,” Sean Hackbarth said on the chamber’s website.
Federal courts have affirmed the company’s right to move forward with the project, but now the route of the project through Army Corps of Engineers land near the Missouri River has been held up by the administration.
“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,” Hackbarth said.
Rerouting the pipeline at this stage would add hundreds of millions of dollars of additional costs to the project due to the need for new environmental studies and investigations, according to a spokesman for the pro-pipeline Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, Craig Stevens.
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II, however, saw the president’s words as hopeful.
“We applaud President Obama’s commitment to protect our sacred lands, our water and the water of 17 million others,” Archambault said in a prepared statement. “While the Army Corps of Engineers is examining this issue, we call on the administration and the Corps to issue an immediate ‘stop work order’ on the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
But the environmental group Greenpeace took a hard line against Obama’s statement, saying that the president was simply buying time and laying the groundwork for oil companies to maintain their profits.
“There are no safe options for rerouting the Dakota Access Pipeline because pipelines aren’t safe,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Lilian Molina in a prepared statement. “It is encouraging to see President Obama and the Corps of Engineers acknowledge that the Dakota Access Pipeline would be devastating to Native communities and lands, but it is simply unacceptable to ‘let this play out for several more weeks’ while indigenous lives are under attack.”
North Dakota’s congressional delegation has supported the pipeline project. Oil pipelines are generally have fewer environmental risks than alternatives, such as transporting petroleum products by rail car or truck, according to labor and industry groups.