New leader of key House panel defends handling of Dakota Access Pipeline

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California) addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 14, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Don't look to the new leader of the legislative committee in charge of Indian issues for any upcoming hearings on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, is toeing the Republican party line when it comes to the controversial project. While he said some of the "facts" might be in dispute, he defended the federal government's role in the permitting process for the crude oil pipeline.

"I don't think you are getting something that has been more scrutinized," LaMalfa told tribal leaders on Tuesday during the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C.

LaMalfa said the pipeline has been "very, very, very vetted for quite a few years" although the review and approval process hasn't stretched out for quite that long. Documents show the wealthy backers of the project submitted an application in North Dakota in December 2014. Regulators there approved the request in January 2016.

An application for an easement to cross federal land at Lake Oahe along the Missouri River took longer to process. It was submitted to the federal government on June 2015 and was ready for a decision a little over a year later, in July 2016.

But the easement was put on hold due to objections from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its many allies in Indian Country and around the world. Instead, the Obama administration ordered a new environmental review to address concerns about treaty rights, sacred sites and water resources.

Of course, everything changed with the arrival of Republican President Donald Trump in Washington. Just four days after taking office, he ordered his administration to conduct an "expedited" review of the pipeline. A week later, the easement at issue was granted to Dakota Access and the firm is aiming to ship oil much sooner than anticipated.

As the nation's largest inter-tribal organization, NCAI has supported Standing Rock throughout the controversy. President Brian Cladoosby said the tribe wasn't properly consulted before the route was approved just a half-mile from its reservation.

"We have seen too many examples of what happens when tribes do not have a seat at the table," Cladoosby during the first State of Indian Nations address in the Trump era on Monday. He said the the pipeline company has "made the mistake of turning sacred lands into a construction site."

LaMalfa, when asked about the issue on Tuesday, admitted that the tribe's involvement was a major issue of contention. He said the pipeline does not "directly go over tribal lands" but didn't acknowledge that it runs through territory promised to the Sioux Nation by treaties.

"There should be that consultation and that government-to-government conversation," LaMalfa said after being pressed further.

Most Democrats have expressed solidarity with the #NoDAPL movement. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who addressed NCAI on Monday, said tribal concerns have been ignored by the new occupant of the White House.

"Right out of the gate, President Trump has given Native Americans reason to doubt that he’ll respect tribal sovereignty. I’m very disappointed in his decision to grant the easement and begin construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline — without properly consulting with tribes," Udall said on a conference call with reporters. It is deeply disrespectful."

But the fate of Dakota Access, whose costs have been put at $3.8 billion, is now in the hands of another branch of the United States. A federal judge has scheduled another hearing on February 27 to determine whether to stop oil from flowing through the 1,172-mile pipeline.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe had asked for a temporary restraining order to halt ongoing construction based on religious grounds but now will proceed with a request for a preliminary injunction. The Lakota people believe the pipeline marks the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Black Snake, one that will destroy their very way of life.

"We must continue to fight for the future of our children and grand-children," Chairman Harold Frazier said on Monday after the temporary order was denied by Judge James E. Boasberg. Frazier and other Cheyenne River leaders attended a hearing in federal court in Washington, D.C., earlier in the day to listen to arguments.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, meanwhile, filed additional papers on Tuesday in hopes of counteracting the latest Trump developments. The motion seeks to set aside the easement that was granted to Dakota Access last week.

“President Trump claims he has not received ‘a single phone call’ opposing this widely criticized project,” Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a press release announcing the court submission. “Maybe he should turn the White House phones back on, because millions of people have raised their voices against this dangerous project.”

Dakota Access Pipeline Approval Documents:
Department of Justice Notice | Department of the Army Approval Memorandum | Notice of Termination of EIS for Dakota Access Pipeline | Easement Letter to Congressional Leadership

White House Documents:
Presidential Memorandum Regarding Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (January 24, 2017)
Presidential Memorandum Regarding Construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline (January 24, 2017)
Executive Order Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals For High Priority Infrastructure Projects (January 24, 2017)
Presidential Memorandum Regarding Construction of American Pipelines (January 24, 2017)
Presidential Memorandum Streamlining Permitting and Reducing Regulatory Burdens for Domestic Manufacturing (January 24, 2017)
Press Release: President Trump Takes Action to Expedite Priority Energy and Infrastructure Projects (January 24, 2017)

Federal Register Notice:
Notice of Intent To Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement in Connection With Dakota Access, LLC's Request for an Easement To Cross Lake Oahe, North Dakota (January 18, 2017)

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