WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump paved the way Tuesday, Jan. 24, for approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but the controversial project’s timeline remained unclear as opponents vowed to keep fighting.
Four days after his inauguration, Trump signed a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to expedite reviews and approve the four-state pipeline that is more than 90 percent complete.
Trump’s action does not automatically authorize construction for the crossing under Lake Oahe north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which was still under review during the Obama administration.
His memorandum directs the Army to consider whether previous actions, including ordering an environmental impact statement, can be rescinded.
Also Tuesday, Trump issued an order that revives the Keystone XL Pipeline and took other actions related to expediting reviews of key energy and infrastructure projects. The president said the moves support thousands of “great construction jobs.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said Trump’s action on Dakota Access disregards treaty rights and they will take legal action to fight it.
“President Trump is legally required to honor our treaty rights and provide a fair and reasonable pipeline process,” Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement. “Americans know this pipeline was unfairly rerouted towards our nation and without our consent. The existing pipeline route risks infringing on our treaty rights, contaminating our water and the water of 17 million Americans downstream.”
Jan Hasselman, an attorney from the environmental law firm Earthjustice who represents the tribe, said he’s waiting to see how the Army will respond to Trump’s action.
“If all it is is Trump offering the opinion that he likes pipelines and telling the Army to get a move on, it doesn’t really change anything,” Hasselman said. “If the Army responds by issuing an easement, we’ll be back in court pretty quickly.”
The 1,172-mile project would be the Bakken’s largest pipeline, transporting 470,000 barrels per day of North Dakota crude to a transportation hub in Patoka, Ill., en route to refineries in the Gulf Coast.
Industry groups applauded Trump’s action, including the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
“The completion of this pipeline is a significant thing to be able to ensure that the Bakken can compete and attract more investment,” said Ron Ness, president of the industry group.
North Dakota oil producers will earn $3 to $5 more per barrel on Bakken crude by transporting on Dakota Access, Ness estimates. That difference would make the Bakken more competitive with other oil-producing regions and likely lead to an increase in drilling, well completions and other activity in North Dakota, he said.
The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota said Trump’s action will allow members to get back to work.
“We represent hundreds of members who took pride in using their skills and training to build the safest pipeline in North Dakota, and they deserve a chance to finish the job,” the union said in a statement.
Julie Fedorchak, member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission that approved the pipeline, said it wasn’t immediately clear what administrative steps will be required to move the project forward.
“I don’t expect this to take real long. I think the president was pretty clear that this needed to be expedited,” Fedorchak said.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum asked the Trump administration to provide federal law enforcement resources to assist in upholding the law and protecting people and property rights as the project moves forward.
Burgum also renewed a call for protesters who remain at the camp north of Cannon Ball to vacate the area so it can be cleaned up prior to potential spring flooding.
“While we support free speech and the right to peacefully protest, we are concerned about safety due to flooding and ongoing violent protests, including last Wednesday’s incident on the Backwater Bridge that resulted in 21 arrests,” Burgum said in a statement.
In Cannon Ball, protesters expressed concern about the order but said they would continue fighting to protect the environment.
"I'm staying here. I'm standing with the natives. This is our future," said Benjamin Buffalo, 45, a Blackfeet tribal member from Browning, Mont. "I disagree with what Trump did because he's ruining the future for our children."
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said law enforcement will be prepared if increased protest activity returns to the area north of Cannon Ball.
"I would hope that the people would realize that this has to go through the courts and through the proper judicial system to get this resolved,” Kirchmeier said. “It is not going to be resolved by committing criminal activities on private property and standoffs between protesters and law enforcement."
North Dakota’s Congressional delegation, which also has continued to push for federal law enforcement resources to assist with ongoing protests, supported Trump’s actions Tuesday.
“Today’s executive orders affirm President Trump’s respect for the rule of law and his support for responsible infrastructure development, energy production and job creation,” Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a statement.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she hopes the order provides a step forward for those affected by long delays related to Dakota Access.
“For too long, inaction or indecision paved the way even after the courts already stated twice that the Corps followed the required process in considering the permit,” Heitkamp said in a statement.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the company building Dakota Access has complied with federal and state requirements and should be allowed to complete the project.
“Pipelines like the Dakota Access Pipeline can be built safely and protect both the tribe and everyone living downstream,” Hoeven said in a statement. “Going forward, we can work together to improve the permitting process.”
Shares of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building Dakota Access, were up 3.7 percent in U.S. trading.
Trump owned ETP stock through at least mid-2016, according to financial disclosure forms, and ETP’s chief executive, Kelcy Warren, donated $100,000 to his campaign.
Reviving Keystone XL
North Dakota leaders also applauded Trump’s action that invites TransCanada Corp. to resubmit its application for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which had been rejected by President Obama.
Although the 800,000-barrel-per-day pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico does not cross North Dakota, the proposal included an on-ramp near Baker, Mont., to ship up to 100,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude.
“As it did when first proposed nearly a decade ago, the Keystone XL Pipeline holds the promise of new jobs and North American energy security,” Cramer said.
TransCanada said in a statement Tuesday the company is preparing its application to the U.S. Department of State. The company touted the project’s high-paying construction jobs and annual property taxes that will be paid to counties along the route.
Obama rejected the project in 2015 after opponents raised environmental concerns about the pipeline, which primarily would have transported oil sands from Alberta. Though Trump supports the pipeline, he’s said the deal should be negotiated so the U.S. receives some of the profits.
The Indigenous Environmental Network, among the opponents of both Keystone XL and Dakota Access, said Tuesday the organization is extremely alarmed by Trump’s actions and “our resistance is stronger now than ever before.”
“If Trump does not pull back from implementing these orders, it will only result in more massive mobilization and civil disobedience on a scale never seen of a newly seated president of the United States,” Executive Director Tom BK Goldtooth said in a statement.
Reuters and Forum News Service reporter John Hageman contributed to this article.