Tribe, Dakota Access developer face off at House hearing

Tribe, Dakota Access developer face off at House hearing
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Representatives from the company building the Dakota Access pipeline and the tribe opposing it both told a House committee Wednesday that the government is responsible for the tense debate over the project.

But the officials found time to point fingers at one another, as well. 

At a hearing on energy infrastructure improvements, an Energy Transfer Partners official said political appointees in the Obama administration were behind the push to slow down the project. He said it was a “political decision” to withhold an easement allowing construction at a controversial river crossing in North Dakota. 

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But the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has sued to stop the pipeline, also had “no interest in discussing the project with us,” Dakota Access project director Joey Mahmoud charged. 

“Requests for consultation were mostly denied,” Mahmoud told the Energy and Commerce Committee. “We had some conversations with the tribal chairman, but at the same time we were not able to have meaningful consultation due to lack of engagement.”

Energy Transfer Partners last week received an easement to build its pipeline under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River in North Dakota. The company hopes to begin running oil through the 1,172-mile pipeline within two months, after it was delayed for much of the past year while the Obama administration reconsidered permitting decisions for the project.

“We came to realize that good-faith efforts to meet accommodation — with many different stakeholders involved — can be a fool’s errand when political motivation overrides the rule of law,” Mahmoud said. 

Chad Harrison, a councilman-at-large for the Standing Rock Sioux, said the company improperly “argues it is the victim here,” when it has instead benefited under the Trump administration. 

“Dakota Access is a multibillion-dollar pipeline company in which the president of the United States has been an investor and whose CEO has been a campaign contributor to the president,” Harrison said. “When in history has such a company been a victim of an improvised Indian tribe? The answer is never.”

Wednesday’s hearing didn’t reveal new ground in the roiling debate over the pipeline. 

Harrison said the tribe wasn’t properly consulted before federal officials approved the pipeline. He proposed a series of updates to federal procedures that would give tribes a bigger role in future infrastructure permitting decisions.

Energy Transfer Partners has maintained that it worked hard to reach out to the tribe before finalizing Dakota Access’s route, a position Mahmoud and panel Republicans repeated on Wednesday. 

The hearing served as a new venue for the back-and-forth debate between developers and the tribe, and it gave them the chance to vent about the approval process directly to lawmakers.

“We came to realize that even a company as large as Energy Transfer is helpless in the face of a government which will neither obey nor enforce the law. We came to realize that playing by the rules can count for little,” Mahmoud said of the Obama administration’s refusal to grant the North Dakota easement.

“We wish to be heard,” Harrison said. “We are Americans. We are the First Americans, and we wish to be treated as such.”