On Tuesday evening, Kevin Cramer, a Republican congressman from North Dakota, announced in a video statement that completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which had been indefinitely delayed since December 4th, “now has its final green light.” The Department of the Army had confirmed to him, he said, that it would soon issue the permit required to dig the pipeline’s last segment, under Lake Oahe, on the Missouri River, half a mile upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Cramer did not mention the tribe, even though the pipeline crosses sacred tribal lands and could, if it ever ruptured, contaminate the reservation’s water supply. Instead, he focussed on his admiration for the President, who signed a directive last week expediting the pipeline’s completion. “I am so, so grateful to Donald Trump,” Cramer said, beaming into the camera, a vanity license plate reading “BAKKEN” perched on the shelf behind him. “He is a man of action.”
Cramer, for all his enthusiasm, got one significant detail wrong. As the Standing Rock Sioux quickly noted in a written response, the Dakota Access permit has not been granted. “The congressman jumped the gun,” Jan Hasselman, the attorney representing the tribe, told me. The acting Secretary of the Army, Robert Speer, had only instructed the Army Corps of Engineers to grant the permit, beginning the process outlined in the Presidential directive. “These initial steps do not mean the easement has been approved,” an Army spokesman told the WashingtonPost. The Corps will now conduct its own analysis to decide whether it can approve the permit “in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted,” as the directive states. Then it will notify Congress of its decision before actually granting the permit to Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s parent company.
The Army Corps has made a decision on the pipeline once before; less than two months ago, it denied the permit, resolving instead to prepare an environmental-impact statement (E.I.S.) evaluating alternative pipeline routes, potential spill risk, and the tribe’s historical treaty rights. On January 18th, the Corps formally announced the E.I.S. in the Federal Register, beginning a public-comment period that will remain open for another three weeks—unless the Corps reverses itself, as it is pressured to do by the Presidential directive, which states that it should “withdraw” the E.I.S. and consider modifying or rescinding the December 4th decision. “The writing on the wall is that it’s likely to happen,” Hasselman said. If it does, according to a statement released by the tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux will “vigorously pursue legal action” against what they characterize as “corporate interest superseding government procedure and the health and wellbeing of millions of Americans.”
Trump’s support for the Dakota Access Pipeline is of a piece with the G.O.P. platform and his “America First Energy Plan,” with its promise to “embrace the shale oil and gas revolution.” It also may be motivated by his own energy portfolio. As of last summer, according to financial-disclosure records, Trump owned between fifteen and fifty thousand dollars of stock in Energy Transfer Partners. While Trump’s campaign spokeswoman said this fall that he had sold all of his E.T.P. shares, he has provided no documentation of the sale. And whether or not he remains personally financially tied to the company, it has substantial connections to his Administration. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, owned more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in partnership units in E.T.P. in 2015, and until the end of last year sat on the company’s board of directors. Kelcy Warren, the billionaire C.E.O. of E.T.P., donated more than a hundred thousand dollars to Trump’s campaign after he won the Republican primary. The day after he won the general election, E.T.P.’s shares were up 12.2 per cent.
For the tribe, the decision the Corps issued on December 4th was the culmination of two years of negotiation, litigation, and, finally, protest. At the time, thousands of Native Americans and their allies from across the country were camped out near the Standing Rock reservation in a show of solidarity. Many had been there for months, despite the freezing weather. Some are still there. In December, however, Dave Archambault II, the tribe’s council chairman, started urging the protesters, who call themselves water protectors, to pack up and return home. He cited the severe weather and the need to begin cleaning the accumulated garbage and detritus left by the tens of thousands of people who had camped across the area since early summer.
Intensifying security measures were also a factor. North Dakota’s senior senator, John Hoeven—who, like his Republican colleague Kevin Cramer, issued a premature statement on Tuesday night, claiming the pipeline was about to receive its final permit—announced that in the coming days and weeks there would be bulked-up security around Standing Rock. He said that he was working to secure additional federal law-enforcement resources, and reported that, in the meantime, twenty additional Bureau of Indian Affairs officers had been dispatched to the protest encampment. His message seemed clear: any upswell in protest would be quashed. And so it went. On Wednesday, after protesters moved onto land owned by E.T.P. and set up a new camp, police and National Guardsmen approached with bulldozers, sound cannons, and military trucks, and made dozens of arrests. Archambault issued a statementscolding the protesters involved, saying that they did not represent his tribe or the water protectors’ original intent. “Yesterday, some took advantage of the impending easement and used it as a call back to camp,” he wrote. “The fight is no longer here, but in the halls and courts of the federal government.”
How long the Corps will deliberate before issuing its next decision is unclear. In the meantime, a new round of pipeline opposition has begun. In Seattle, on Wednesday, the City Council Financial Committee voted unanimously to divest three billion dollars in city funds from Wells Fargo, citing the bank’s role as a lender to the Dakota Access project. And at Standing Rock the protesters remain, with others expected to return. Archambault continues to plead for people to go home. “Those who planned to occupy the new camp are putting all of our work at risk,” he said. “They also put people’s lives at risk. We have seen what brutality law enforcement can inflict with little provocation.”