The Latest Pipeline Fight Is Coming To D.C.

Activists try to pressure Heitkamp to stand with Native Americans, and against the oil industry.

A line of protesters against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota head to a unity rally on the west steps of the State Capitol late Thursday in Denver.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Sept. 12, 2016, 8 p.m.

The fight over the Dakota Ac­cess pipeline is com­ing to Wash­ing­ton this week—and act­iv­ists are de­term­ined to put pres­sure on Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to take a stand.

The con­tro­ver­sial pipeline, which would stretch 1,200 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, has been the cen­ter of a grow­ing de­bate about the rights of Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans and the im­pact of fossil fuels on the en­vir­on­ment. The Stand­ing Rock Sioux Tribe has chal­lenged the pro­ject, say­ing it would dam­age sites of his­tor­ic and cul­tur­al sig­ni­fic­ance to the tribe and would threaten Lake Oahe, a ma­jor drink­ing-wa­ter source.

The tribe on Fri­day lost a court chal­lenge to halt con­struc­tion, but the White House shortly af­ter­ward said it was paus­ing the per­mit for con­struc­tion un­der Lake Oahe un­til it could de­term­ine if fur­ther re­view was needed, and ask­ing Dakota Ac­cess to hold off on con­struc­tion with­in 20 miles of the lake.

Heitkamp has so far not taken a defin­it­ive stand on the pipeline, in­stead de­fer­ring to the court pro­cess and tribes’ rights to protest. In a state­ment Fri­day, the North Dakota Demo­crat said it was “dis­ap­point­ing that today’s back-to-back fed­er­al court rul­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cision brought more ques­tions than an­swers—with no light at the end of the tun­nel for North Dakotans.”

“For our state’s close-knit com­munit­ies, this pro­longed lack of cer­tainty is par­tic­u­larly pain­ful, and I’ll press the ad­min­is­tra­tion and vari­ous agen­cies for the fi­nal­ity they de­serve,” she said. “Go­ing for­ward, my main fo­cus will be on mak­ing sure that tribes are able to ex­er­cise their First Amend­ment right to protest peace­fully, and work­ers are able to do their jobs safely.”

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists, however, are try­ing to put pres­sure on the fossil-fuel-friendly Demo­crat to come out against the pro­ject. Act­iv­ists are ral­ly­ing Tues­day at the White House and else­where across the coun­try to try to bring a per­man­ent hold to the pro­ject and draw more at­ten­tion to the de­bate in Wash­ing­ton.

At the end of the week, the Cli­mate Hawks Vote su­per PAC will de­liv­er a Mo­ve­On.org pe­ti­tion to Heitkamp’s of­fice call­ing on her to op­pose the pipeline. As of Monday, the pe­ti­tion had more than 10,400 sig­na­tures.

“Sen­at­or Heitkamp has over the length of her ca­reer said she sup­ports nat­ive com­munit­ies and has made it a huge part of her plat­form to sup­port nat­ive wo­men and nat­ive com­munit­ies,” said Dal­las Goldtooth, who works on fossil-fuel is­sues for the In­di­gen­ous En­vir­on­ment­al Net­work. “That’s in dir­ect con­trast to sup­port for fossil fuel. We’d ask her to join these com­munit­ies in the fight against fossil-fuel ex­trac­tion, re­fin­ing, and de­vel­op­ment.”

Heitkamp was one of nine Demo­crats last year to vote in fa­vor of the Key­stone XL pipeline, which had emerged as a de­fault cli­mate test for politi­cians. Now en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are hop­ing to turn Dakota Ac­cess in­to the “next Key­stone,” char­ging that any large pipeline pro­ject pro­motes the burn­ing of more fossil fuels. The pro­ject would carry 470,000 bar­rels of crude oil a day from North Dakota’s oil-rich Bakken re­gion to re­finer­ies across the coun­try.

Us­ing the Key­stone mod­el, pipeline op­pon­ents are sure to keep the is­sue in the D.C. spot­light. Sen. Bernie Sanders pro­posed an amend­ment to the Sen­ate’s wa­ter-in­fra­struc­ture bill that would bar the Army Corps from ap­prov­ing the pro­ject un­til it com­pleted an en­vir­on­ment­al-im­pact state­ment (it is un­likely to see a floor vote). He will also speak at Tues­day’s White House rally.

Rep. Raul Gri­jalva traveled to North Dakota this week­end in sup­port of the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Tribe and, with Rep. Raul Ruiz, has called for a re­view of fed­er­al policies de­signed to pro­tect tri­bal lands.

Heitkamp also faces pres­sure be­cause of her ties to North Dakota’s Nat­ive Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tion, which some have cred­ited with de­liv­er­ing her slim mar­gin of vic­tory in the 2012 elec­tion. Heitkamp serves on the Sen­ate’s In­di­an Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, and her first bill in the Sen­ate had to do with chal­lenges fa­cing Nat­ive Amer­ic­an chil­dren.

Stand­ing Rock Sioux chair­man Dave Archam­bault II last month spoke to Heitkamp and Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Ho­even of North Dakota about the tribe’s op­pos­i­tion, say­ing, “The pipeline presents a threat to our land, our sac­red sites, our wa­ter, and to the people who will be af­fected,” ac­cord­ing to the Billings Gaz­ette.

On­go­ing re­view of the pro­ject is also sure to keep it in the pub­lic eye. The White House has not giv­en a timeline for when it would com­plete its re­view of the pro­ject, only that the Army Corps would “de­term­ine wheth­er it will need to re­con­sider any of its pre­vi­ous de­cisions.” The ad­min­is­tra­tion also said it would open a dis­cus­sion about pos­sible rule­mak­ing to re­form tribes’ in­put on in­fra­struc­ture pro­jects.

Pro­ponents, mean­while, are ur­ging that the pipeline move for­ward, wary of an­oth­er lengthy chal­lenge like the one that ul­ti­mately doomed Key­stone. Craig Stevens, a spokes­man for the Mid­w­est Al­li­ance for In­fra­struc­ture Now co­ali­tion, warned that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tions were “deeply troub­ling and could have a long-last­ing chilling ef­fect on private in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment in the United States.

“No sane Amer­ic­an com­pany would dare ex­pend years of ef­fort and bil­lions of dol­lars weav­ing through an oner­ous reg­u­lat­ory pro­cess re­ceiv­ing all ne­ces­sary per­mits and agree­ments, only to be faced with ad­di­tion­al reg­u­lat­ory im­ped­i­ments and be shut down halfway through com­ple­tion of its pro­ject,” Stevens said in a state­ment.

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