Heitkamp Balances Politics With N.D. Pipeline Drama

Heitkamp Balances Politics With N.D. Pipeline Drama
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North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has been a longtime supporter of oil pipelines and she’s managed to survive an explosion of political drama within her state because of one of them.

In the past eight months,  a mass protest by more than 1,000 Native American and environmental activists blocked construction of the nearly completed Dakota Access pipeline. Almost 600 people were arrested last fall by local law enforcement near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the southern part of the state.

The Trump administration’s decision on Tuesday to grant the final permit for the pipeline signaled an end of the regulatory phase of the conflict, but not the legal or political drama surrounding energy infrastructure across the nation.

“Dakota Access is pretty much built, but I also imagine there will be continued litigation,” Heitkamp said during a Capitol Hill interview with RealClearEnergy for the “First 100 Days” podcast. “But given that the judge in the past has refused to issue a temporary restraining order, I think the likelihood of stopping Dakota Access isn’t that great.”

Heitkamp was elected to the Senate in 2012 after nearly two decades as a statewide elected official, first as tax commissioner and later as a two-term attorney general. The conflagration over energy infrastructure in North Dakota has been part of a national movement by environmentalist and others on the political left to keep fossil fuels in the ground. As a Democrat in a Republican region, this has forced her to walk a narrow political line as she considers running for re-election in a state that Donald Trump won by 36 percentage points.

In much the same way that the Keystone XL pipeline was finally blocked in 2015 by the lack of one last federal permit, the Dakota Access construction was blocked for months by a single unissued permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The pipeline would take almost half a million barrels of hydraulically fracked oil per day from the Bakken Shale formation in the northwestern corner of North Dakota to Midwest refineries.

Protesters are reacting quickly to the Trump administration announcement; the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which says the pipeline would threaten its primary drinking water source and desecrate sacred sites, is threatening to take legal action to keep the conduit from ever operating.

“The granting of an easement, without any environmental review or tribal consultation, is not the end of this fight – it is the new beginning,” said the Indigenous Environmental Network, an organizer of the protests, in a written statement. “Expect mass resistance far beyond what Trump has seen so far.”

Heitkamp has balanced her large in-state constituency of Democratic-leaning trade unionists and farmers, many of whom benefit directly from the explosion of oil field services jobs tied to Bakken development, with out-of-state environmental activists and their deep pockets.

She has not announced if she’ll seek a second term in 2018, telling RealClearEnergy she will make a decision when the time is right. Indeed, Heitkamp seems to relish her position as one of the few ideological moderates in the Senate.

“We have to make sure we have abundant, affordable energy,” she said. “I believe in ‘all-of-the-above.’ We need to get away from the ‘hell-no’ on both sides.”

Bill Murray is the editor of RealClearEnergy.

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