President Donald Trump’s Jan. 24 memo to the Secretary of the Army signaling the go-ahead for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines was great news for the project’s developers, Energy Transfer Partners and Trans Canada. The memorandum, like Trump’s surprise election, signaled new confidence in a declining market that is still fighting to prove its mastered environmental liabilities.
But the memo did something else, as well, something that proponents of troubled projects like DAPL and Keystone XL had a problem surpassing in past decades: It suggested a route for approval that bypassed the rigorous environmental assessment and vetting processes that are usually expected in infrastructure projects.
It did so by suggesting that oil and gas developments and their potential impact upon communities that have already been victim to oil spill controversies could be “review[ed] and approv[ed]” efficiently in what Trump calls an “expedited manner.”
This past week, the snowy fields of North Dakota became the staging grounds to a growing contingent of Native American tribes and environmental organizations (such as Earth Justice, which is assisting with legal defense), as well as U.S. veterans and other supporters determined to protest the president’s decision.
For many, their protest isn’t just a defense for clean drinking water, but for constitutional rights. Veterans who made their way to the camp this week said they weren’t there to incite or take part in violence. They came to lend recognition to human rights.
“We are prepared to put our bodies between Native elders and a privatized military force,” Air Force veteran Elizabeth Williams told the Guardian Newspaper.
“This is a humanitarian issue,” Navy veteran Matthew Crane added. “We’re not going to stand by and let anybody get hurt.”
By detouring processes that have, in the past, given executive agencies the intelligence and the footing to avoid (or at least minimize) liability in court, the administration hasn’t just increased risk for court challenges, but it’s also given fuel to the belief that with rights abridged and a recent history of violence against protesters, there is more reason to oppose and dissent than to dialogue and to propose alternatives.
More than 50 North American tribes coalesced to protest the completion of DAPL. Native tribes across the world, from Norway to Latin America, also voiced their solidarity for the effort to stop the pipeline.
And the ripple is beginning to show on more fronts than the fields of North Dakota. Earlier this month the city of Seattle announced that it would terminate its business with one of the country’s largest banks. Wells Fargo’s public standing has been mired in controversy for months over accusations of fraud. But according to the magazine Governing, it was Wells Fargo’s financial support of DAPL that inspired both Seattle and Davis, California, to sever their business with the bank.
Seattle’s announcement represents a $3 billion loss for Wells Fargo and will take effect in 2018 (although the council said the new law means the city will no longer seek new contracts with the bank effective immediately). The Davis decision will pull another estimated $124 million from Wells Fargo’s revenue and indicates that the growing call for divestment from DAPL is working.
Rainforest Action Network (RAN) pointed out that by sanctioning the go-ahead of DAPL and Keystone XL without allowing court and investigative processes like environmental assessments to conclude impartially, the government is signaling to the 17 financial institutions disbursing more some $1.4 billion (of the $2.5 billion cost of the project) that it’s okay to overlook human rights. And that’s a perilous position for a federal government and businesses to be in.
"Disbursement of this project loan is a key test of the seriousness of these banks’ commitments to human and Indigenous rights," Lindsey Allen, executive director of RAN, said in a statement. "If Citibank, Wells Fargo and the other 15 banks involved with this loan sign the final check, they will have bankrolled committed a serious violation of human rights."
And then there is the federal government’s relationship with Native American tribes that believe the DAPL decision will forfeit transparency. As Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II explained to President Trump in a recent letter:
“The problem with the Dakota Access pipeline is not that it involves development, but rather that it was deliberately and precariously placed without proper consultation with tribal governments.
“This disregard for tribal diplomatic relations and the potential for national repercussions is utterly alarming,” wrote Archambault, who said he requested meeting with the president but did not get a response.
With dozens of environmental, human rights and academic organizations (as well as businesses) speaking out in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, the Trump administration may soon find that there is a reason why governmental processes seem mired in decades of convention and regulations seem hard to change. They don't just protect the environmental and human rights of communities, but they also protect the government's budget from lengthy court cases when something unexpectedly goes wrong.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.