President Obama, breaking his silence on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, said Tuesday that the federal government is looking for ways to "reroute" parts of the $3.8 billion project to address concerns raised by Native American tribes in North Dakota.
“My view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans,” Obama told online news site “NowThis.” “I think that right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline.”
The president weighed in following high-profile clashes last week between protesters and law enforcement.
Obama said government agencies will let the situation “play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the First Americans.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been fighting the pipeline for two years, arguing it could traverse sacred ground and burial sites and pose health risks. Their bid to block the four-state, 1,172-mile pipeline, so far has succeeded in at least delaying the project.
The Obama administration was heavily criticized by lawmakers and oil industry groups in September after stepping in and temporarily suspending construction on the pipeline minutes after a federal judge ruled it could go forward.
North Dakota GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer said the reversal “does nothing to ensure certainty or calm, but rather adds further confusion.”
The pipeline is being built by a group of companies led by Energy Transfer Partners and was pitched as the fastest and most direct route to bring Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
According to court records, Energy Transfer has changed the route on its own dime – 140 times alone in North Dakota – to avoid building over burial sites. Ninety-nine percent of the pipeline route, of which roughly half has been built, is on private property.
Upon completion, the pipeline could move 470,000 barrels of crude in a 24-hour cycle – enough to produce more than 374 million gallons of gasoline a day.
For its part, the company maintains it is committed to completing the pipeline and would “obey the rules and trust the process.”
Blueprints show construction would stretch from the Bakken Formation – an underground deposit of oil and natural gas where North Dakota and Montana meet Canada – into Iowa, Illinois and South Dakota.
Proponents say the pipeline would create 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs and pump an estimated $156 million in sales and income taxes into the economy. The pipeline is projected to generate an estimated $55 million annually in property taxes in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.
Those against the pipeline argue that environmental concerns – water contamination and greenhouse gas emissions – outweigh any economic benefits.
Despite the Justice and Interior Departments along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halting construction on part of the pipeline in September, the protests have continued.
Last Thursday, it hit a chaotic pitch after hundreds of law enforcement officers moved in to force activists off private property. Officers in riot gear fired bean bags and pepper spray into the crowd. The six-hour standoff netted 141 arrests.
One woman taken into custody allegedly pulled out a .38-caliber pistol and fired three times at officers, just barely missing a sheriff’s deputy, North Dakota State Emergency Services spokesman Cecily Fong said.
Law enforcement officials did not fire back.
Obama called the protests in North Dakota a “challenging situation.”
“There is an obligation for protesters to be peaceful and there is an obligation for authorities to show restraint,” he said on “NowThis.” “I want to make sure that as everybody is exercising their constitutional rights to be heard, that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt.”
Some have drawn similarities between the North Dakota pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada Inc. is seeking $15 billion in damages after the Obama administration rejected the Canada-to-Texas project.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.