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 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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