By John O. Sullivan
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.” -Frederick Douglass
If you don’t know what DAPL is, I can hardly blame you. The mainstream media coverage of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has been sparse, at best.
The summary is this: The Dakota Access Pipeline is a crude oil pipeline passing in a southeasterly direction from northwestern North Dakota to an oil tank farm in southern Illinois. The pipeline would cross over 1000 miles of Midwestern countryside through four states. At 30 inches in diameter, it could transport up to 450,000 barrels (24.75 million gallons) of crude oil a day.
The pipeline route is being protested by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, as well a large number of sympathetic people including conservationists and even U.S. veterans. The protests are because of the routing of the pipeline. Originally there were concerns over the eminent domain easements granted in the states that the pipeline was passing through, and questions were raised as to why eminent domain easements were granted when there would be no substantial, direct, benefit to the residents of those states, except perhaps those employed in the oil facilities at either end of the pipeline. These concerns exploded into the current state of large-scale protest because the pipeline is currently slated to run through Standing Rock Indian Reservation and underneath Lake Oahe, which detractors of the pipeline say brings up a number of legal and ethical questions as well as environmental concerns. The Army Corps of Engineers originally conducted a limited environmental impact study of certain sites with high potential for environmental risk, such as river crossings, and found no cause for concern with the current (protested) route. However, the original (concerning, but not protested) route was set to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, and that route was scrapped due to an apparent high risk to Bismarck’s water supply. This led to the re-routing through the Standing Rock reservation, and that re-routing was a leading factor in the protests. Members of the Standing Rock tribe want to know, rightly, why something that was considered too dangerous for Bismarck and its population was not too dangerous for a protected reservation.
Some days ago, the Army Corps of Engineers caused headlines and celebrations by denying a permit for easement in the protested section of pipeline underneath Lake Oahe and through the Standing Rock reservation. As the Army Corps of Engineers is part of the United States Army, which is part of the United States Armed Forces, of which President Barack Obama is Commander-in-Chief, it is possible, even likely, that the President directly intervened to halt pipeline construction. Certainly he had the ability to do so, and certainly many were pressuring him to do so, and he is certainly getting plenty of credit for halting the pipeline.
Protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline had been ongoing for some months. There were many incidents that were remarkable mental callbacks to the Civil Rights era. Protesters sprayed with fire hoses in below-freezing weather, dogs set loose on protesters by police, and even threats of legal action against those who aided the protesters. Even after a woman was gravely injured by a grenade thrown by law enforcement, the administration and the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t even blink. Even after a group representing the protesters filed a suit against law enforcement agencies over police brutality, there was no public indication at all of a shifting policy or official view, which almost always happens through the inevitable leaks and blind quotes from unnamed government sources as the slow wheels of bureaucracy turn. To me, this lack of gradual shift indicates a mandate from a higher-up, not the decision of some mid-level Army lackey. This is what has led many to speculate that President Obama intervened to stop the pipeline, and I agree with that speculation.
However, this action is unlikely to have much impact at all. While there has been wide speculation that a delay past January 1st, 2017 will kill the pipeline, that claim seems to be baseless. While a lack of progress past January 1st, 2017 would allow third-party contractors to pull out, that is highly unlikely. Why? Because 19 days later, on January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the next President of the United States.
President-Elect Trump has expressed interest in and support for the DAPL project, and has said he would strongly consider restarting the project, and one his spokespeople said of the DAPL: “That’s something we support construction of.” President-Elect Trump may also have a conflict of interest on his hands with the DAPL, as it was revealed recently that he owns between $115,000 and $300,000 worth of stock in the pipeline’s main controlling companies, and as such, he would certainly have an interest in preserving the profitable future of the pipeline.
President Obama knew all these things when he (allegedly) revoked the easement. So why did he do it? If it was truly a move to stand politically with the much-maligned native american population of this country, why didn’t he do it earlier? If it was intended to be a strong show against the pipeline based on environmental principles, why have there been no accompanying speeches, press conferences, or statements? Neither President Obama himself nor the administration seems to be leaping to take credit for the delaying tactic of denying the permits, and yet, as previously stated, President Obama and his administration are getting most, if not all of the credit, even from leader of the liberal wing and vocal DAPL-opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders.
President Obama is about to leave office. Donald Trump will be sworn into office in five weeks. Merrick Garland’s future evaporated early in the morning on November 9th. President Obama has little remaining hope of pushing any major initiatives in the time remaining in his term, but his approval rating is at 54%, one of the highest levels he has seen in recent years. What is he saving his political capital for? I propose that the President revoked the easement for the pipeline knowing it was an empty gesture. He knew he would get all the credit for stopping it, and future-President Trump would get all the blame when it was inevitably reinstated. He and his spokespeople haven’t made any statements on the matter because Obama is just trying to put a cherry on top of his environmental legacy. A legacy which, not unlike the DAPL easement, will almost certainly be entirely reversed within the next four years of Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, the Obama environmental legacy was built almost entirely on the same kind of executive order and mandate that ended the Dakota Access Pipeline, orders which can be overturned with a stroke of a pen by a new president. However, the DAPL action also seems strange coming from President Obama. At the same time as he has cemented his legacy as one of our nation’s most active environmentalist presidents since Teddy Roosevelt, President Obama has been one of the friendliest presidents to the 1% and corporations our nation has had since Ronald Reagan. Under his tenure, stock prices and the earnings of the richest Americans have skyrocketed while the debt and deficit have exploded to nearly unprecedented proportions, and the middle and working classes have stagnated. By denying the necessary permits to the Dakota Access Pipeline, President Obama has stayed true to his two selves: his corporate-friendly policies and his brittle, executive-order built environmental politics.