Winter at the #NoDAPL encampment in North Dakota. Photo by Spencer Keeton Cunningham
A billionaire businessman with no experience in Indian issues is slated to oversee the federal agency whose handling of the Dakota Access Pipelinehas come under repeated criticism.
Vincent Viola went from a humble immigrant background to the founder of a highly-successful financial firm in New York. Forbes pegged the Army veteran’s net worth at $1.77 billion and his business prowess was one of the reasons he was tapped by Republican president-elect Donald Trump.
“Whether it is his distinguished military service or highly impressive track record in the world of business, Vinnie has proved throughout his life that he knows how to be a leader and deliver major results in the face of any challenge,” Trump said in a press release on Monday.
A huge legal, political and public relations challenge will be facing Viola should be confirmed as Secretary of the Army. The post exercises direct authority over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that holds the fate of the $3.8 billion crude oil pipeline in its hands.Officially, the project is on hold in order for the Army Corps to conduct a more thorough review of the final portion of the pipeline in response to concerns raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its many allies. Oil spills, treaty rights and even a potential reroute away from the reservation in North Dakota are to be considered during the environmental impact statement.
“We’ve denied the easement for the crossing for DAPL. We’re going to start the NEPA process soon,” Charles “Chip” Smith, an official with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at a hearing on December 9.
Smith was referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, the federal law that will guide the upcoming review. But the process has yet to begin, more than two weeks after Jo-Ellen Darcy, who is the outgoing Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, announced the December 4 decision on the easement.
With Trump coming on board in just a month, the Army Corps doesn’t have much time to get the ball rolling. It’s crucial for the review to start soon because it would be difficult — though not impossible — for the incoming administration to change course.
Sacred Stone Camp on Facebook: We Stand Like Sitting Bull
“An arbitrary order from the new White House to issue the easement — despite the Army Corps’ statement that further work is needed — would be illegal and would subject the decision to close judicial scrutiny,” attorney Jan Hasselman, who is representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in federal court, wrote on the Earthjustice blog on Friday. “Together with the tribe, we are prepared to defend the Corps’ decision and challenge any effort to reverse it.
Even before winning the November 8 election, Trump made no secret of his support for large scale infrastructure projects like Dakota Access. He’s now stacking his team with pro-development figures, including former Texas governor Rick Perry, his pick to lead the Department of Energy. Perry sits on the board of directors for Energy Transfer Partners, the firm behind the pipeline.
Though he comes from a business background, Viola doesn’t come with similar baggage or preconceptions about pipelines. At the same time, he doesn’t have any experience with Indian Country either and the Army Corps’ handling of Dakota Access has been seen as a failure of its tribal policy.
“As we look and see what is going on in North Dakota with the pipeline, the Sioux people are in for a long fight,” Chairman Harry Barnes of the Blackfeet Nation said last month in Washington, D.C., where he celebrated the protection of the tribe’s sacred lands in Montana from energy development after a decades-long effort that spanned three presidential administrations.
“But they’re winnable fights,” Barnes added.
Separate from the pending environmental review, the Army Corps has to defend itself from a cross-claim filed by the wealthy backers of Dakota Access. The firm argues that it has a right to drill under the Missouri River, less than a half-mile north of Standing Rock, despite lacking the easement that was denied this month.
The agency is facing a January 6, 2017, deadline — before Trump is sworn into office — to submit crucial papers in court on the issue. The Department of Justice, which will soon be under new leadership, plans to contest the cross-claim, an attorney said at a December 9 hearing in D.C.
The Army Corps also joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Yankton Sioux Tribe in seeking an “abeyance” of their separate but related claims against the agency. Judge James E. Boasberg agreed to the request as he prepares for a hearing in early February on the easement.
By that time, though, Trump will be in office. “None of us have any idea whether the incoming administration will make any or all of this moot,” Boasberg said on December 9.
He quickly added: “It’s not my business to guess.”
Beyond the legal and political realms, the new Trump administration will have to face the public, which has rallied behind Indian Country in its effort to stop the pipeline from crossing the Missouri River. Tribal activists, ranging from youth to elders, aren’t giving up and their defiance turned the #NoDAPL movement into an international and celebrity cause.
“To fight for our way of life and we will be here, on this land, to stand up for our people, for the water, for the land,” said LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who founded the Sacred Stone Camp, the original #NoDAPL prayer camp. “We will not back down. We will not stop. We will be here.”
About 1,000 people remain at Sacred Stone, which sits on Brave Bull Allard’s property, and at the other #NoDAPL camps, which are located on land managed by the Army Corps. A string of brutal winter storms has prompted many to leave, with promises to return once conditions improve.
Earlier this month, the population there swelled to 10,000 with the arrival of nearly 4,000 veterans and other supporters. During the late summer and early fall, anywhere between 5,000 to 7,000 people were regular visitors and workers to the camps, located on land promised to the Sioux Nation by treaty.