Barack Obama Standing Rock: Was DAPL Actually Stopped By The President?

As protests wore on, many called for Barack Obama to take action at Standing Rock and stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed on Sunday that they would deny the permit for the contested plot of land pending an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), some of those critics began to sing Barack’s praises. Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II specifically named Obama in his official statement celebrating the DAPL decision.

“We wholeheartedly support the decision of the administration and commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all of Indian Country will be forever grateful to the Obama Administration for this historic decision.”

It’s not just the Standing Rock protesters who are attributing this win to Barack, either. Bernie Sanders also specifically praised the outgoing president in his official statement on the DAPL easement denial.

“I appreciate very much President Obama listening to the Native American people and millions of others who believe this pipeline should not be built. In the year 2016, we should not continue to trample on Native American sovereignty. We should not endanger the water supply of millions of people. We should not become more dependent on fossil fuel and accelerate the planetary crisis of climate change. Our job now is to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels, not to produce more greenhouse gas emissions.”

Similarly, those fighting against the Standing Rock water protectors cast blame on Obama. Critics of the DAPL like Craig Stevens, a spokesman for pro-infrastructure group MAIN Coalition, condemned the decision in a statement published by the New York Times.

“Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that the president would, again, use executive fiat in an attempt to enhance his legacy among the extreme left. With President-elect Trump set to take office in 47 days, we are hopeful that this is not the final word on the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

Either positively or negatively putting the Standing Rock victory in the hands of Barack Obama is overly simplistic. Many analysts had argued in the weeks before the DAPL was finally blocked that Obama couldn’t really do much of anything, as the decision laid in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To step in the way of the pipeline, the president would have had to interfere in what is meant to be an independent agency — not a terribly prudent move with an incoming president who has promised to curb such overreach.

Alternatively, Obama could have also sent in the National Guard, something that was urged by many activists. Unfortunately, this move could also have set a dangerous precedent beyond Standing Rock, considering that the organization has generally only been unleashed when police forces were in direct defiance of federal law or a court order.

Still, that’s not to say that Obama had no influence on the U.S. Army Corps decision, he just wasn’t the part of the last push that brought about Sunday’s news. In September, the president lamented how the situation at Standing Rock was playing out at his annual Tribal Nations Conference, reported Reuters. Shortly afterward, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior released a joint statement urging the construction companies involved to consult with local tribes, echoing the president’s earlier statement.

“I know that many of you have come together across tribes and across the country to support the community at Standing Rock and together you are making your voices heard. This moment highlights why it’s so important that we redouble our efforts to make sure that every federal agency truly consults and listens and works with you, sovereign to sovereign… Our progress depends in part on who sits the in Oval Office, and whether they’re setting the right priorities, but lasting progress depends on all of us, not just who the president is.”

Speaking with three native law experts earlier this week, Grist was also told across the board that Obama couldn’t do much in terms of blocking the DAPL. Though he had expressed solidarity with Standing Rock and likely argued for such action privately, the halt that protesters celebrated on Sunday didn’t come directly from the White House. Still, Monte Mills, co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana, noted that progress had been made for future cases involving tribal lands.

“Those efforts set the stage for ensuring that tribes are going to have a different and more meaningful role in the consultation and permitting process going forward. In the long term, that’s a much more positive and groundbreaking outcome — no pun intended — than anything that would specifically come out of (stopping) the Dakota Access Pipeline itself.”

While Barack Obama’s Standing Rock statements do seem to have eased the blocking of the DAPL, headlines proclaiming that he laid the defeating blow are not quite accurate. That responsibility seems to lie closer to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who may have been influenced by action elsewhere in the government, but do not appear to have — at least directly — made this decision at the behest of Obama.

[Featured Image via Charles Rex Arbogast/Getty Images]