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Reactions mixed to Obama's comments about pipeline reroute

President Barack Obama participates in a "Get Out the Early Vote" campaign event for Hillary Clinton in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday night. Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

BISMARCK — President Barack Obama's comments about possibly rerouting the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline drew mixed reactions Wednesday, with tribal leaders applauding it and calling for a halt to construction and others warning that prolonging the situation will threaten public safety and put lives in danger.

The president was asked about intervening in the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline during an interview posted Tuesday by online news outlet NowThis. He said it's being closely monitored and "as a general rule my view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans.

"And, you know, I think that right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline in a way," Obama said. "So, we're going to let it play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans."

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault II applauded Obama for his "commitment to protect our sacred lands, our water, and the water of 17 million others." He called on the administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue an immediate stop-work order on the pipeline and order a full environmental impact study.

"The injustices done to Native people in North Dakota and throughout the country must be addressed," Archambault said.

The Corps has issued a permit for Dakota Access LLC to cross 6,430 feet of Corps land under and along the Missouri River at Lake Oahe less than a mile north of the Standing Rock reservation. But the agency has yet to issue the consent to easement that gives the company access to the land, and federal officials aren't saying when that decision might be made.

"We are not aware that any consideration is being given to a reroute, and we remain confident we will receive our easement in a timely fashion," company spokeswoman Vicki Anderson Granado emailed Wednesday.

Reroute would require process

The Corps, Department of Justice and Department of Interior announced Sept. 9 they were pausing construction under the lake until the Corps could determine whether it needs to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the river crossing permit.

Eileen Williamson, spokeswoman for the Corps' Omaha District, which covers the area of North Dakota that supports roughly 350 miles of the 1,172-mile pipeline, said the agency had no comment about the president's remarks.

She said a reroute "would have to go through the exact same process" as the existing route.

Any Missouri River crossing would need a Section 404 permit for crossing a navigable water of the United States, she said. And while that wouldn't trigger an additional environmental assessment, it would require consultation with tribes, the State Historical Society and others.

Meanwhile, the company faces a Jan. 1 delivery date for the pipeline. In a court filing in September, Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, said customer contracts "could be permanently lost" if it misses the deadline. The company estimated the cost of a temporary delay at more than $430 million, with each additional month costing interested parties at least $83.3 million.

As recently as last week, the Justice Department reiterated its call for Dakota Access to voluntarily stop construction within 20 miles of Lake Oahe. But the company has continued working on the pipeline, which it says will safely move 470,000 barrels of Bakken crude daily from North Dakota to a hub in Patoka, Ill.

Early in the routing process, the company had considered a river crossing 10 miles north of Bismarck as an alternative, but it was eliminated by the Corps during its environmental assessment.

The Corps concluded it was not a "viable alternative" for many reasons, including its proximity to wellhead source water protection areas that are avoided to protect municipal water supply wells. The Bismarck route also would have been 11 miles longer and required crossing more waterbodies and wetlands as well as affecting additional acres of land, the Corps said.

In addition, that route was constrained by the Public Service Commission's rule requiring a 500-foot buffer between pipelines and homes. The Bismarck route also would have crossed an area considered by federal pipeline regulators as a "high consequence area," which is an area determined to have the most significant adverse consequences in the event of a pipeline spill.

Officials urge resolution

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Wednesday encouraged the Obama administration to help resolve the situation, which has involved thousands of pipeline opponents camped just north of the Standing Rock reservation near Cannon Ball since Aug. 10.

Authorities have made more than 400 protest-related arrests so far, including 141 last Thursday as hundreds of officers using pepper spray, bean bag rounds and other less-than-lethal tactics evicted protesters from their camp on the pipeline company's property.

"Public safety continues to be our top priority, and we will continue to seek reimbursement from the Obama administration for costs incurred to ensure public safety," Dalrymple said Wednesday, one day after voting to borrow an additional $4 million from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to pay for protest-related law enforcement efforts, on top of $6 million borrowed in September.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the Corps should approve the easement, noting the pipeline will be safely built at least 90 feet below the lakebed and is on an existing right-of-way that has a natural gas pipeline and electric transmission line already in place.

"Further, the pipeline has been completed up to the river, so rerouting it would not avoid any sensitive sites. We need to get this situation resolved for our farmers, ranchers and everyone living in the area," Hoeven said.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., also said she'll continue to demand a "quick and final" decision from the Corps and push for more federal resources for law enforcement.

The head of the National Sheriffs' Association called the situation in Morton County a "powder keg," and County Commission Chairman Cody Schulz said the delay would allow the "out-of-state militant faction" of the protest to keep escalating their violent activities. Of the 415 arrests made so far, less than 9 percent were of North Dakota residents, according to a list from the county.

"Letting the situation 'play out' is quite literally putting lives in danger," Schulz said in a statement.

Asked about the treatment of protesters, Obama said there's an obligation for them to be peaceful and for authorities to show restraint.

"And I want to make sure that as everybody is exercising their constitutional rights to be heard, that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt," he said.

'A good political move'

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a Standing Rock tribal historian who founded the Sacred Stone Camp in April on her private land next to Lake Oahe, said even though most of the pipeline route has been disturbed, "it's never too late" to stop the project. She said pipeline opponents are ready to ride out the winter if the issue drags on for several more weeks as Obama said.

"It's a good political move for him, because he doesn't have to make the decision and do anything because he'll be out of office," she said.

The major party candidates for president, who will likely inherit the issue from Obama, haven't taken firm stances on it.

Last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign said all parties involved "need to find a path forward that serves the broadest public interest."

"As that happens, it's important that on the ground in North Dakota, everyone respects demonstrators' rights to protest peacefully, and workers' rights to do their jobs safely," the campaign stated.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has not addressed the pipeline publicly but has previously supported oil and gas development, including pipelines such as the Keystone XL.

Last week, The Guardian reported that Trump has $500,000 to $1 million invested in Energy Transfer Projects and a $500,000 to $1 million holding in Phillips 66, which will have a 25 percent stake in the pipeline, according to his Federal Election Commission filings. Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren also has donated more than $100,000 to Trump since June, Reuters reported.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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