TRAHANT REPORTS—On Friday I tweeted: “What an extraordinary day, the federal government has a pulse.” The United States finally weighed in on what many of us believe is the most important issue in the country right now: The question of how this nation will address climate change.
And pulse or not this remains an unsettled question. But at least last week the federal government took one small step toward the right answer.
Let’s back up. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the agency did not adequately consult with the tribe as required law. On Friday U.S. District Judge James Boasberg disagreed, saying that the tribe had not demonstrated that an injunction was warranted to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The most remarkable section of the ruling, however, was the background of the case. “A project of this magnitude often necessitates an extensive federal appraisal and permitting process. Not so here. Domestic oil pipelines, unlike natural-gas pipelines, require no general approval from the federal government. In fact, DAPL needs almost no federal permitting of any kind because 99 percent of its route traverses private land.”
The only regulatory role for the federal government in this case “concerns construction activities in federally regulated waters at hundreds of discrete places along the pipeline route. The Corps needed to permit this activity under the Clean Water Act or the Rivers and Harbors Act – and sometimes both. For DAPL, accordingly, it permitted these activities under a general permit known as Nationwide Permit 12.”
In other words — as a public policy — there is no public debate about this pipeline except in the context of water.
Several minutes after the court ruling three federal agencies issued their own statement.
“We appreciate the District Court’s opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. However, important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain.”
So the Department of the Army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior acted to “reconsider” previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site and its approval. “The Army will move expeditiously to make this determination, as everyone involved — including the pipeline company and its workers — deserves a clear and timely resolution,” the statement said. “In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
The statement also called for a serious discussion on tribal consultation about such projects. (More about that later.)
So what does this all mean? It means there will be a quick review (who knows what quick means in Fed-speak) about the underground water crossing of the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Reservation.
And, if the federal government has a pulse, it also has the ability to keep a secret. There is no way this was a rushed decision. This had to be debated at the White House level because so many multiple federal agencies were involved (it’s interesting that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy did not join in on this statement.)
The idea that the water crossing needs a second look is an entry point into a larger question, how important are water resources in the era of climate change?
I suspect the oil and pipeline industry already knows the answer. A news release from the National Association of Manufacturers said, “President Obama has crossed the line.” This decision “sets a bad precedent that could threaten future infrastructure projects.” The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now was even gloomier in its assessment. “Should the Administration ultimately stop this construction, it would set a horrific precedent. No sane American company would dare expend years of effort and billions of dollars weaving through an onerous regulatory process receiving all necessary permits and agreements, only to be faced with additional regulatory impediments and be shutdown halfway through completion of its project.”
This is too rich. A federal judge (in a ruling the industry liked) said the process was not onerous. In fact it’s the opposite because domestic oil pipelines require no general approval from the federal government.
The Midwest Alliance went on to say: “We hope and trust that the government will base its final decision on sound science and engineering, not political winds or pressure.”
And that is exactly where the country ought to start the conversation, using sound science.
The federal government’s best science comes from the U.S. Global Research Program. In its most recent report, it says “climate change does not occur in isolation. Rather, it is superimposed on other stresses, which combine to create new challenges.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline is such a challenge. The industry’s own promotions say this pipeline will move more oil to markets faster, eventually moving 570,000 barrels a day. Instead of reducing consumption, it makes it easier and cheaper for Americans to have more.
Yet at the same time the United States has promised the rest of the world that we will slow down our use of oil and reduce our carbon impact. The official goal is to limit the increase (not reverse) global warming to “well below” 2 degrees centigrade. That will not happen with more, cheaper oil.
Again, consider the Federal Government’s best science. It says: “Climate change challenges the idea of hydrologic stationarity, which assumes that the statistical characteristics of hydrologic data are constant over time—in other words, that water dynamics of the future can be expected to be similar to those of the past. Climate change means that this assumption may not hold for all cases, undermining fundamental paradigms of water resource management and infrastructure design.” My translation: We need to protect water as the most important resource on the planet.
That same report says in order to protect basic human needs there needs to be “a safeguarding of natural assets, promoting resilience in urban and rural areas, decoupling carbon emissions from economic growth, and encouraging sustainable production and consumption patterns.”
The sound science is clear. We need to make sure that water is treated as the nation’s most important natural resource. Water is life. That’s not politics. It’s science.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports.