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By Ari Natter
Sept. 19 — The fight over the Dakota Access pipeline is making things awkward for the junior senator from North Dakota.
On the one hand, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, one of the most fossil-fuel-friendly Democrats in the Senate, is a staunch advocate of her state’s oil and gas industry. At the same time, Heitkamp, who serves on the Indian Affairs Committee, has vowed to support Native American tribes whose reliably Democratic votes helped deliver her 2012 election victory in a very red state.
So Heitkamp has reason to lay low amid the escalating battle between Native Americans and Energy Transfer Partners LP, the Dallas-based builder of the 1,172-mile pipeline, which would carry oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation to markets in Illinois.
But with implications that could extend to pipeline projects around the country and parallels to the Keystone XL pipeline rejected by the Obama administration, environmental advocates are demanding that Heitkamp take a stand on the $3.8 billion project.
“She’s in a box,” RL Miller, co-founder of the super-PAC Climate Hawks Vote and the chair California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, told Bloomberg BNA. “And the natural instinct of a politician in a box is to scurry to the corner of the box and try not to be visible.”
A MoveOn.org petition asking Heitkamp to take a position on the project garnered more than 27,000 signatures.
Asked about her position on the pipeline, Heitkamp said the matter was out of her hands and being decided by the courts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Obama administration halted work on part of the project Sept. 9 to allow it to reconsider prior decisions that allowed it to move forward--the same day a federal judge rejected a request by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to halt work on the pipeline.
“I look forward to finding out how the Corps of Engineers plans to move this issue forward given the court’s decision and given their analysis of what more needs to be done to do either historic evaluations or environmental evaluations,” Heitkamp told Bloomberg BNA. Asked to respond to criticism she hasn’t taken a strong enough stance on the project, the senator simply shook her head.
That’s not good enough for Tara Houska, a tribal attorney who advised the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Native American issues. She also serves as a national campaigns director for Honor the Earth, an environmental group.
“For our representation to be silent it speaks volumes,” Houska said by phone from an encampment outside the Standing Rock Reservation near Cannon Ball, N.D.
“We know Sen. Heitkamp has been very strong on different Native American issues including education and indigenous languages and violence against women,” she said. “This is probably the most prominent fight for indigenous rights occurring right now in the United States so I’m certainly hopeful she takes a stance and fulfills her commitment to Indian Country.”
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who has also pledged a strong stance for Native American rights, also has been silent on the project and should take a position, Houska added.
American Indians and environmentalists are opposing the pipeline, which has a capacity of about 470,000 barrels a day, because a portion of it would cross the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s northern boundary. Hundreds have gathered there and at other segments of the pipeline in protests that have garnered national media attention.
Energy Transfer Partners, which did not respond to a request for comment, “is committed to completing construction and safely operating the Dakota Access Pipeline within the confines of the law,” Energy Transfer Partners LP Chief Executive Officer Kelcy Warren wrote in a memo to employees.
However, the project, which Warren said was nearly 60 percent complete, is likely to miss its target Jan. 1 in service date because of the Obama administration’s decision to delay authorizing work on a portion of the project on Army Corps land bordering Lake Oahe, ClearView Energy Partners said in a note to clients.
Still, not everyone faults Heitkamp for largely remaining silent on the issue.
Chase Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who is running against Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), said he still supports the senator.
“She is definitely in an awkward position and if Native Americans voted then I think it would put a lot more pressure on her to find a solution involving the pipeline that includes anything other than the pipeline crossing the Missouri river,” Iron Eyes said in a phone interview. “She is a politician, she can’t make everybody happy all the time.”
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