Pipeline fight hangs over White House tribal summit

Valerie Volcovici and Julia Harte

The Obama administration will soon ask federal agencies to require that treaty rights be considered in decision-making on natural resource projects, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on Monday, hoping to avoid future conflicts with Native-American tribes such as the current one over the Dakota Access pipeline.

Jewell announced a forthcoming memorandum from President Barack Obama at a Tribal Nations Conference — the eighth and final one he will attend — that began on Monday. Leaders of more than 560 Native American tribes are discussing the environment among other issues as one of the largest Native-American protests in decades continues in North Dakota.

“Your voices are important,” Jewell said in her opening remarks to the tribal leaders’ summit, which included many youth groups. “The president gets this.”

The Interior secretary acknowledged the demonstrations by thousands of Native Americans and environmentalists against the $3.7 billion oil pipeline they say threatens the water supply and sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux. She praised the “the unprecedented solidarity” through weeks of “prayerful and peaceful assembly to make your voices heard.”

She also recognized to wide applause the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Dave Archambault, who has been the face of the demonstrations.

“What we have today is an opportunity to ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to live up to those principles of the nation-to-nation relationship,” she said.

The Justice and Interior Departments on Monday announced settlements with 17 tribes that had sued the U.S. government for allegedly mismanaging monetary assets and natural resources that the government held in trust for the tribes.

The “vast majority” of all such disputes have been settled, according to the government, which has paid $1.9 billion to resolve the cases that go back to April 2012.

Obama will address the summit Monday afternoon, though it was not clear if he would discuss the 1,100-mile (1,886-km) Dakota Access pipeline, being developed by Energy Transfer Partners.

He has not publicly commented on the pipeline since the Justice Department, Interior Department and the U.S. Army made a surprise move on Sept. 9 to temporarily block its construction.

At that time, the administration called for “a serious discussion” about how tribes are consulted by the government on decisions over major infrastructure projects.

The uproar over the Dakota Access pipeline has sparked a resurgence in Native-American activism.

The Army, Interior and Justice will hold hearings on the shortcomings of the present process on Oct. 11 and formal discussions with tribes in six U.S. regions from Oct. 25 through Nov. 21.

The deadline for written comments will be Nov. 30, the agencies announced.

On Thursday, Archambault told a House of Representatives panel there was no “meaningful consultation” before permits were issued to bring the pipeline through his tribe’s territory.

Archambault is scheduled to speak on Monday evening at a rally of pipeline opponents.