Singing group Ulali performs at the Native Nations Rise rally in front of the White House on March 10, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

President Trump finally acknowledges opposition to Dakota Access Pipeline

President Donald Trump finally acknowledged opposition to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline but came up with a new and curious claim about an issue that galvanized Indian Country over the last year.

During a speech at an oil refinery about 40 miles north of the formerly massive #NoDAPL encampment in North Dakota, Trump again boasted of his decision to approve the final portion of the $3.4 billion project. Although almost all of it was completed before he came on board, he insisted no other politician would have taken action.

"Now, what other politician, if elected president, would have done that?" Trump asked. "They would have stayed far away. And I did it immediately."

"I didn't even do it, in that case, for jobs -- it was the right thing to do," Trump said to cheers at the refinery in Mandan. "And that is flowing now beautifully. So it was the right thing to do."

But in patting himself on the back, Trump contradicted his prior claim about the decision being non-controversial. He admitted that "so many people" were in fact contacting the White House and urging his administration not to approve the final portion.

That's when the new explanation surfaced. Trump said critics couldn't articulate why they opposed the pipeline even through the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe were consistently demanding a more thorough environmental review of the impacts on their treaty rights and water resources.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: President Trump in North Dakota [#NoDAPL remarks start around 13:30]

"We opened it despite so many people that were on the other side, calling and asking for this not to happen -- 'Please, we don't want to it to happen,'" Trump said in characterizing the opposition.

"I said 'Why?'" he continued.

"They didn't know," Trump said as some in the crowd laughed. "There was no -- they just didn't want it to happen."

The comments fly in the face of ongoing litigation against the project. In June, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that approving the final portion was not the "right thing to do" because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to address concerns raised by the tribes.

Trump's explanation also runs counter to a different lawsuit filed by the wealthy backers of the pipeline. In a complaint filed in North Dakota, Energy Transfer Partners alleges that the opposition -- described in dramatic terms as a "criminal enterprise" -- was so organized, widespread and influential that it caused "billion of dollars" in monetary damages, not to mention extremely negative coverage about the firm in the media.

But with oil flowing as of June 1 thanks to the president, the tribes are at a significant disadvantage despite the court victory. They have asked Judge James Boasberg to stop operations pending the environmental review, a request opposed by the Trump administration, Energy Transfer and industry groups.

Attorneys at the Department of Justice are also hinting that the review won't result in a different outcome. That's not terribly surprising, given Trump's stance.

"There is a serious possibility that the Corps will substantiate its prior decisions, in part because the risk that any oil will spill into Lake Oahe is low," an August 17 brief stated.

Oil spills are among the concerns raised by the tribes. The judge, in his June 14 ruling, said the Army Corps's environmental analysis, or EA, didn't address the impacts, for example, on fishing and hunting rights guaranteed by treaties signed at Fort Laramie in 1851 and 1868.

"Given the cursory nature of this aspect of the EA’s analysis, the court agrees with the tribe that the Corps did not properly consider the environmental-justice implications of the project and thus failed to take a hard look at its environmental consequences," Boasberg wrote in his 91-page decision.

Boasberg hasn't indicated when he will issue a decision on the "remedy" sought by the tribes. A shutdown would be unprecedented but not unheard of -- a judge in Oklahoma has ordered an energy company to remove a natural gas pipeline from Indian land because the operators have been in trespass for years.

Regardless of the timing of the decision, the case will be affected by the forthcoming environmental review, which government attorneys have indicated could come by the end of the year. Presumably, the tribes will be able to continue litigating if the Army Corps reaffirms its approval of the final portion of the pipeline.

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