First of all, what exactly happened with the Dakota Access Pipeline on December 4th? In short, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) refused to grant a final easement (right to use land) to complete construction of the $3.8 billion oil pipeline. The decision came after several weeks of contentious protests at the build site, where Native Americans and other protesters (including around 2,000 military veterans) camped out in snow and freezing weather to stop construction. A major opponent of the DAPL is the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who claim that the pipeline would endanger their drinking water and desecrate ancient sacred lands. While they and other protesters view the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision as good news, most are concerned about what the incoming Trump administration will do. This is where the possibilities get interesting…
Had the Obama administration chosen not to take action on the DAPL, Donald Trump could have taken office in January and essentially ignored it, chalking it up to the previous president’s tenure and keeping the appearance of clean hands. However, part of the ACE’s decision states that they will be preparing an environmental impact statement and exploring alternate routes for the pipeline – all of which will likely take until after Trump’s inauguration to complete. Trump will then be faced with a politically sticky situation because he will inevitably be attached to any efforts to restart DAPL construction. A big reason this position is problematic for Trump is because he personally owns shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline. It will be impossible for Donald Trump to support completion of the DAPL under Lake Oahe without facing vehement – and credible – accusations of conflict of interest. Indeed, since he stands to personally profit from completion of the pipeline, and will have the executive power to push it through, isn’t that the very definition of “conflict of interest?”
So Donald Trump winds up stuck between a Standing Rock and a hard place (sorry) – on one hand, if he allows the Obama stoppage to stand, his Republican colleagues and supporters will be furious, viewing it as continuing government overreach and allowing onerous regulation. They’ll call Trump weak, a capitulator, a RINO, hostile to business, etc. On the other hand, if he reverses the Obama administration’s stance and uses his position as president to resume construction, Trump will face not only a massive political backlash from the millions of Americans who oppose the DAPL, but also very real and credible accusations of corruption and conflict.
The conflicts of interest and potential for corruption in a Trump administration were already going to be a major issue from day one. The situation Trump faces regarding the DAPL is going to be an early test on the issue – a test Trump will need to approach with intelligence, compassion, transparency, and a politically smooth touch, and with America’s best interests placed before his own.
Based on what we know about Donald Trump, I’m not holding my breath.