A retired high-ranking officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played a significant role lobbying his former agency to push through the permitting process for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, new documents show.
The trove of emails, released last month as part of ongoing litigation by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Corps, sheds light on how retired Brig. Gen. Robert Crear worked to leverage his government connections on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners, a major partner in the pipeline. Despite environmental concerns and a staunch protest campaign driven by Native American efforts to protect their lands, the Corps issued multiple permits for the DAPL to proceed.
As the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues its legal battles against the pipeline, allies are alarmed by what the documents reveal. Jan Hasselman, a lawyer with Earthjustice who has been representing the tribe, read the emails with dismay. “It is totally unacceptable that a former high-ranking government official should be allowed to lobby his former agency on behalf of private interests,” he told HuffPost. “And it is so common that no one even looks twice.”
An April to October 2016 standoff between Native Americans and allied activists and the pipeline company at Standing Rock in North Dakota ended with a heavy-handed response by the state of North Dakota and the pipeline company’s private security contractors. During the last days of the Obama administration, the Corps announced a new and comprehensive review, which would have further delayed the project. In his first week in office, President Donald Trump essentially overturned that decision, advancing approval of the pipeline.
But even before the 2016 protests, the permitting process was fraught with disagreements between the pipeline company and the U.S. government over timelines and appropriate checks and balances.
Crear had a decadelong career in the Corps, where he served as chief of staff and commanding general, as well as head of the massive Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil infrastructure project in the early 2000s. When he retired in 2008, he opened a private consultancy and joined AUX Initiatives, a lobbying firm that represents a host of oil companies.
The newly uncovered emails suggest that in late 2014, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners brought in Crear after it decided that the environmental review and permitting process was not moving fast enough through the Corps. Since the pipeline was set to cross a number of bodies of water on Corps-managed land, the agency played a critical role in overseeing an environmental assessment and issuing a range of federal permits. Although ETP had secured state approvals for the pipeline, the Corps still had to issue the final permits.
In a July 2015 email, lamenting what he called “excess regulatory review,” Joey Mahmoud, an ETP vice president in charge of the project, tasked Crear with getting “some clarity” from the Corps as “this is spinning out of control.”
“It is totally unacceptable that a former high-ranking government official should be allowed to lobby his former agency on behalf of private interests. And it is so common that no one even looks twice.”
Mahmoud wrote that any delays would threaten “nearly 5 billion dollars of investment into the US economy plus delay the transport of the crude oil to the refineries and to the pubic ― a great tragedy to the US if this happens.”
Crear wasted no time.
Emails and meeting notes document numerous written communications, phone calls and meetings he arranged between ETP representatives and Corps officials in three districts and the agency’s Washington headquarters. They suggest that the former brigadier general exploited his professional capital and acquaintance with Corps personnel to push the project through the regulatory process.
On some occasions, Crear clearly leveraged past military connections. In the summer of 2015, a new commander, Col. John Henderson, was installed in the Corps’ Omaha District, the lead district in reviewing the pipeline. Crear emailed Mahmoud with this reassurance: “[T]he good thing is that I know him.”
Crear was also the former commander of Martha Chieply, who handled regulatory issues in the Omaha District. After receiving a call from Crear, Chieply informed her colleagues in a November 2014 email that he had been her boss and “early mentor” in two of her previous posts. She wrote that Crear “sees himself as a ‘safety-value’ to help consultants (DAPL) and the Corps navigate the approval process.”
Crear’s approach involved a mix of threats and bonhomie among Corps veterans. In April 2015, after complaining again about perceived delays, Mahmoud asked Crear to arrange a meeting with Henderson in order to “end the BS.” Mahmoud added, “Can you help push this more?”
“I will T up the issues for him and see when is the soonest that he would meet with us,” Crear responded. “On a plane to Omaha now.”
In his subsequent email to Henderson, who would later sign off on the pipeline’s crucial environmental assessment, Crear conveyed a barely veiled threat. He’d like things to move on the district level, he wrote, before ETP tries “political or some other drastic move.”
Henderson seemed to get the message. “Thanks for bringing this to my attention; I appreciate it,” he replied to Crear. “I agree that the best way to address this is to meet with Mr. Mahmoud and work through these issues at the District level. We’d be happy to facilitate this.”
In response, Crear softened his approach, bringing up a shared colleague who was sending her regards to Henderson: “She said to tell ‘John Wayne’ hi and that she hoped that you didn’t still have the Toyota.” (Henderson’s middle name is Wayne.)
Once Crear became involved, Corps commanders seemed to take a relatively conciliatory and accommodating approach in their dealings with ETP.
After Crear forwarded ETP’s list of priorities to them in April 2016, one commander responded to Crear with an estimated timeline for the issuance of the various permits. Another emailed his staff that month requesting they meet with the company to “set reasonable expectations while demonstrating some flexibility.” “We owe DAPL some predictability to inform their decision-making,” he wrote.
Following one of his conversations with Crear, Col. Anthony Mitchell of the St. Louis District, urged his staff in December 2015 to “exercise some C2 [communication and coordination] on this matter.” He asked: “How are we working with the customer to enable timely permit approval?”
Soon after, Mitchell wrote to Crear, informing him about the impending issuance of one permit. Crear replied, “That would be welcomed news,” adding, “I feel you need to let him [Mahmoud] know that.”
Yet the emails also suggest that Crear’s pressure on the Corps was not met kindly by everyone and may have created some internal rifts. At times, subordinate employees tried to push back on the company’s strong demands.
When Crear argued that the Corps should not be involved in endangered species consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April 2015, Chieply, the regulatory expert who had previously served under Crear, implored colleagues not to give in to ETP’s pressure. A month earlier, writing about Crear’s efforts to get the Corps to go along with a more pipeline-friendly judgment from the Fish and Wildlife Service, another subordinate said the Corps “must cut this off now before it gets out of hand.”
The Corps declined to comment for this story, pointing to the pending litigation, and referred HuffPost to the Department of Justice. A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment. Crear did not respond to a request for comment.
Given the tortured history of the DAPL, Hasselman, the Earthjustice attorney, said that whether Crear had any actual influence on the Corps’ final decisions is hard to tell. “What’s a lot more obvious is billionaire ETP owner and Trump contributor Kelcy Warren getting Trump to overturn the Obama permit denial on his second full day in office,” he said.
One former Corps commander wrote that it was generally unfair to point fingers at the Corps’ role amid hotly contested political battles over environmental permitting. But others argue that this case illuminates a key problem with the Corps’ environmental reviews.
“Due to the Corps’ use of a general permit that streamlines the review process, there’s often not even a public notice, let alone any comment period, when the Corps receives an application or approves a pipeline,” said Doug Hayes, an attorney with the Sierra Club, which lobbied against the pipeline.
“It’s completely done behind closed doors,” Hayes said.