With a few words to a reporter, President Barack Obama just took the rule of law, crumpled it up, and tossed along a riverbank in North Dakota.
Here’s what he told NowThis about the recent actions by his administration and the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline:
I think, right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline. So we are going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved.
This was “resolved” months ago, after state and federal agencies signed off on the project.
The point of the rule of law is to protect rights by having a known, understandable, and certain process.
The pipeline’s builders, Energy Transfer Partners, did what they were supposed to do: 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.
After following the rules, all state and federal permits were acquired (including from the Army Corps of Engineers). Energy Transfer Partners was awaiting a final easement from the Army Corp to go under the Missouri River, so building started.
Only then did anti-energy extremists rile up people to protest the pipeline by setting up camp near its construction, chaining themselves to equipment, and regularly confronting law enforcement, security guards, and construction workers.
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. We’re long past the point of no return for a project that went by the book.
For reaction to the president’s comments, here’s Rob Port, a North Dakota blogger who has been covering the story for months:
It’s worth keeping in mind that almost the entirety of this pipeline traverses private land. “In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99% of its route traverses private land,” Obama-appointed federal judge James Boasberg wrote in his September opinion rejecting arguments against the pipeline from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
It’s actually more than 99 percent. It’s like 99.8 percent. Just 0.2 percent of this pipeline is on federal land.
But Obama, apparently, thinks that 0.2 percent gives the federal government the authority to re-route the 99.8 percent of the pipeline on private property.
Pipeline supporters also weighed in.
“While a reroute sounds simple enough, it is in fact incredibly difficult, time intensive, costly and may actually be impossible,” said Craig Stevens, spokesman for the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now. “It would require new easements, new environmental and cultural studies, and hundreds of millions in additional costs.”
Stevens added, it also puts future energy infrastructure projects as risk: “It would send the signal to other companies seeking to invest in the U.S. infrastructure that the country is closed for business. Because no company would invest the billions of dollars necessary to complete the already time-consuming and onerous regulatory process only to be subject to a re-review in the latter stages of construction and shut down.”
This is an important point. Over the next few years we’ll need all types of energy infrastructure. Renewable energy supporters should be worried at Obama’s words and actions. It’s not just about oil and natural gas infrastructure. Long-haul electrical transmission lines require similar permitting and public comment periods as pipelines. Often, they run into local objections.
When federal agencies upend the results of a fair regulatory process, everyone suffers.
Under this Obama administration precedent, a transmission line supplying customers with electricity from solar or wind that made it through the permitting process could be “rerouted” by presidential decree.
Don’t expect reliable energy supplies in that kind of environment. It doesn’t matter how much energy abundance you have, if you can’t get it to where consumers can use it—which is exactly the point of the extremist protesters. “There's no reroute that doesn't involve the same risks to water and climate,” Sara Shor, 350.org’s Keep It in the Ground campaign manager is quoted by The Hill.
Back to the rule of law. A letter from 22 pro-energy groups last month to the administration, including the Institute for 21st Century Energy, cited John Adams who wrote the United States is a “government of laws, not of men.” The letter continues:
This North Dakota project has complied with the procedures laid out in law, engaged in more than two years of federal review and has received the necessary federal approvals.
The previous decisions now being “reconsidered” were properly considered and made through a fair and thorough process on which the company and others are entitled to rely. In our “nation of laws,” when an established legal process is complete, it is just that—complete.
When your agencies upend or modify the results of a full and fair regulatory process for an infrastructure project, these actions do not merely impact a single company. The industries that manufacture and develop the infrastructure, the labor that builds it, and the American consumers that depend on it all suffer.
The AFL-CIO also understands the importance of abiding by a fair and certain process:
We believe that community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americans. However, once these processes have been completed, it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay.
Along with damaging the rule of the law, with his words, the president has emboldened extremists like Bill McKibben who reject all fossil fuels use and pour fire on an already volatile situation.
In North Dakota, cars have been burned, explosive projectiles have been launched, shots have been fired, and hundreds of people have been arrested. (92% arrested have been from out of state, according to the National Sheriff’s Association.) Along the pipeline’s route in Iowa, millions of dollars of construction equipment has been destroyed.
This is chaos, and it could continue for “several more weeks.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline has been unnecessarily politiziced. Unfortunately, the president's words and actions have only made things worse.