A winter storm hit the Standing Rock protestors the day after the Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement needed to build the pipeline. The pipeline has been boosted by politicians who have been heavily funded by the oil and gas industry. (Photo by Michael Nigro / Pacific Press) (Sipa via AP Images)
BY: SOO RIN KIM
When the Army Corp of Engineers announced Sunday it would block construction of an essential part of the Dakota Access Pipeline Project and study alternative routs, thousands of protestors at the site -- members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, environmentalists, veterans and others -- joined hands in jubilation.
Concern about potential damage to the tribe's sacred lands and leaks that could poison the water supply led to the outcry; a semi-permanent encampment of RVs, teepees and tents sprang up in recent months as the ranks of the objectors grew.
But they're not breaking camp just yet. The forces behind the $3.8 billion pipeline, which is expected to carry Bakken Shale oil from northwest North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to connect to an oil reserve in Illinois, have a lot of sway with President-elect Donald Trump, who could order the Corps to reverse course, and those around him. Trump indicated his support for the pipeline, including the segment that has triggered the controversy, on Monday.
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D), who has been mentioned as a possible Interior secretary under Trump, has avoided taking a position of the pipeline per se, but encouraged the protestors to go home: "When you look at it, we know one thing for sure: When the administration changes, the easement is going to be approved," Heitkamp said Monday. "I understand the frustration of the protesters, I just think that this fight is not winnable."
A member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Heitkamp and her leadership PAC have raised $8.7 million since 2011, with $277,879 from the oil and gas industry. That includes $1,500 from the political action committee of Energy Transfer Partners, which owns Dakota Access, LLC, the key player in the project.
Fellow North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven (R), who recently came out supporting the pipeline, also received $5,000 from the PAC during his re-election campaign this cycle. With seats on the Energy and Natural Resources and Indian Affairs committees, Hoeven's single biggest financial supporter throughout his senatorial career has been the oil and gas industry, which has given his campaign $673,030 since 2011.
In total, Energy Transfer Partners' PAC donated $128,000 to federal candidates this in the 2016 cycle.
Trump's interest in the pipeline has been more than just tangential: His 2015 financial disclosure report showed he owned Energy Transfer Partners stock valued at between $500,000 and $1 million. Trump's latest financial report, filed in May 2016, shows he reduced his investment to somewhere between $15,000 and $50,000, but also revealed an investment in Phillips 66 of between $100,000 and $250,000. Phillips 66 owns about 25 percent of the pipeline, making it the biggest partner in the project after ETP. Trump sold all his shares in companies in June, including the investment in ETP, according to his spokesperson, though no documentary evidence of that has been shared.
Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren showed his strong support for Trump in late June by donating $100,000 to his joint fundraising committee, $3,000 of which went straight to his campaign.
Like many big donors this cycle, Warren flirted with other presidential prospects first, most notably former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The pro-Perry super PAC Opportunity & Freedom I got a $5 million donation from Warren soon after Perry announced his bid last year -- but Warren received a refund after Perry dropped out of the race a few months later. Perry, it turns out, is on the board of Energy Transfer Partners. National Republican party committees also received $203,400 from Warren this election cycle.
At the state level, Warren donated $250,000 to Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott (R) in this election cycle and $10,400 to Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who overseas public utilities in the state. Angelle, the onetime head of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, is a board member of Sunoco Logistics Partners, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer and one of the smaller owners of the pipeline project. Angelle faces a run-off election for Louisiana's 3rd Congressional District seat on Saturday, and his single biggest supporter has been the oil and gas industry, which has contributed $103,150 so far.
Heitkamp is only the latest addition to the list of oil executives and pro-development politicians being considered to run the Interior Department, overseeing the nation's wildlife and natural resources.
Trump's key energy advisor and Continental Resources CEO Harold G. Hamm, in particular, has been the mastermind of the energy policies of the president-elect.
Hamm and his wife Sue Ann Hamm have donated nearly $1.9 million to federal candidates and committees over the years. This election cycle, individuals (including the chief executive) and the political action committee of Continental Resources donated $15,226 to Trump as well as $10,300 and $10,200 to Heitkamp and Hoeven, respectively. The oil billionaire who was at the forefront of the fracking boom in North Dakota was also considered a leading contender for the top job at the Department of Energy, but recently denied any plans to join Trump's cabinet.
In a Wall Street Journal column published Monday, another key energy adviser to the Trump campaign, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) -- who also received $7,400 from Continental Resources this year -- censured the protesters. He, too, counts the energy and natural resources sector as his biggest source of financial support, especially the oil and gas industry: The sector has given his campaign and his leadership PAC $932,925 throughout his congressional career, including his unsuccessful 1996 campaign. Oasis Petroleum, whose well leaked more than 67,000 gallons of crude oil last year, endangering a tributary around the Missouri River, topped Cramer's donors, giving $68,500. North Dakota-based Armstrong Corp and Koch Industries also have given Kramer $32,800 and $33,000, respectively.
While members of Congress have voiced their views on the high-profile project, the permitting process has mostly been in the purview of the states. Both the Iowa Utility Board and the North Dakota Public Service Commission have been key here.
Unlike IUB members, who were all appointed by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, the three North Dakota public service commissioners -- Julie Fedorchak, Randy Christmann and Brian Kalk -- were elected to their six-year terms and boasted strong financial support from the energy and natural resources sector. Combined, they brought in a total of $117,550 from those interests. The North Dakota Petroleum Council forked over a total of $15,900 to the three. Hamm, of Continental Resources, gave them $1,000 each.
And energy and natural resources donors have been crucial to Branstad, too, accounting for over $1 million out of $1.8 million total contributions to the governor since 2010.
Unfortunately for protesters, the Dakota Access Pipeline is not the only pipeline plan that could be revived by the new administration.
Cramer -- formerly a North Dakota Public Service Commissioner who helped approve the original Keystone Pipeline in 2010 -- has been a leading voice in reviving the fourth phase of the Keystone project, which would add North Dakota and Montana to its route.
Called the Keystone XL, the pipeline proposal was a top election issue in 2014. The Obama administration rejected it last year, but Trump says he backs it to free America from dependence on foreign oil. Beneficiaries of the pipeline would be American oil moguls operating in the region, like Hamm and the Koch brothers.
Keystone XL's biggest owner, TransCanada, appears to be stepping up its political game. Contributions from the company's employees and PAC jumped from $4,600 in the 2014 cycle to $243,226 this time around. Ohio Gov. John Kasich received $11,000, while Cramer and Trump received $5,000 and $4,136 each. Even Hillary Clinton, who publicly opposed the extended pipeline, received contributions totaling $1,639.