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Obama administration asks tribes about infrastructure projects






President Barack Obama with Native youth at the White House Tribal Nations Conference on November 5, 2015. Photo by U.S. Department of the Interior

With President Barack Obama heading into his last official conference with tribal leaders, federal agencies are opening talks on a hot-button issue.

Controversy over the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline prompted the Obama administration to put a hold on a key part of the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and allies in Indian Country have raised "important issues" about the decision-making process at the federal level, according to an announcement from three agencies on Friday.

But more broadly, the #NoDAPL movement has forced the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior to take a look at how tribes are consulted about large-scale infrastructure projects like Dakota Access. The agencies have scheduled a series of meetings in October and November to consider changes in existing processes and to consider whether new laws are needed.

'The consultations will focus on how the federal government can better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights, and will also explore with tribes whether new legislation should be proposed to Congress to alter the current statutory framework to promote those goals," the announcement read.

The announcement comes ahead of the eighth, and possibly final, White House Tribal Nations Conference. Obama, who promised regular meetings with Indian Country during his first presidential campaign in 2008, will be addressing hundreds of tribal leaders in Washington, D.C., on Monday for the last time of his term.

"One of the priorities that I’ve had as president is restoring an honest and generous and respectful relationship with Native American tribes," Obama said earlier this month when he was asked about the #NoDAPL movement during a forum overseas. "And so we have made an unprecedented investment in meeting regularly with the tribes, helping them design ideas and plans for economic development, for education, for health that is culturally appropriate for them."

So far, tribes have applauded the move for more consultation. They have tied the controversy in North Dakota to a long history of broken promises and bad policies that reach back to the very beginnings of the United States.

"While we are troubled this situation even reached this level of contention, we are grateful that it is now sparking meaningful conversations never held at this level of government – conversations that actually take into consideration the needs and wishes of tribes when it comes to infrastructure projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline," Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker said this month.

But with less than four months left in Obama's term, tribes will have to move quickly to get their issues on the table before the next president comes on board in January. In addition to the six meetings, written comments are being accepted until November 30 as the agencies keep an eye toward the changing of the guard.

While Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access, has only discussed the issue once so far in public, other industry groups are pushing back on the talks. The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, which supports the pipeline, said the administration's intervention 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 shutdown halfway through completion of its project," spokesperson Craig Stevens said on behalf of the group, which represents entities in the agriculture, business, and labor sectors in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois -- the states where the pipeline is being built.


Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources on YouTube: Taking a Stand: Protecting Water and Native American Sacred and Cultural Resources at Standing Rock

The perception that Indian Country stands in the way of development is a troublesome one to Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. At a forum on Capitol Hill on Thursday, he said tribes are open to economic, energy and other projects.

"What we oppose is it being done off our backs," Archambault said at the forum, which was hosted by the Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources.

"For too long, for too many cases, tribes have been forced to give, and continue to give," Archambault told lawmakers.

The White House Tribal Nations Conference is being held on Monday at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, not far from the White House. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will deliver opening remarks during the morning session. Obama typically gives remarks during the afternoon session.

This year's conference has expanded to a second day. The Department of the Interior is hosting a series of meetings of the White House Council on Native American Affairs on Tuesday. The Department of Health and Human Services is hosting the White House Tribal Youth Gathering on Tuesday as well.

Ahead of the main event, the National Congress of American Indians is hosting a meeting at the Emabassy of Tribal Nations on Sunday. The agenda includes an update on the Dakota Access Pipeline and a stark reminder of the work that lies ahead: "117 days and counting... what can be done before the next administration."

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals #NoDAPL Documents:
Injunction Blocking Construction of Dakota Access Pipeline (September 16, 2016)
Order Setting October 5 Hearing (September 21, 2016)
Order Allocating Oral Argument Time (September 21, 2016)

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