On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers seemed to hand a victory to the Standing Rock Sioux and their fellow protesters, who have been campaigning to stop the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota. After delaying a decision Nov. 14, a week after the presidential election, the corps now has said it won’t grant an easement for the pipeline to travel beneath a dammed portion of the Missouri River. The parties behind the Dakota Access Pipeline should look into alternative routes, the corps said.
But the saga is far from over. In fact, the reaction by the two companies constructing the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners, was telling. Dismissing the ruling as a “purely political action” that was part of the Obama administration’s desire to avoid making a final decision on the project, the companies insisted it would have no bearing on their plans whatsoever.
They said they are “fully committed to ensuring that this vital project is brought to completion and fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way.”
In other words, the companies believe that they, not the government nor the Native American tribes whose land could be affected by the pipeline, make the decision. They’ve deemed the ruling illegitimate because it was made by an administration with which they disagree, and they signaled they will move ahead regardless. Investors seem to agree. The stock of Energy Transfer Partners fell only about 2 percent in early trading.
There’s good reason to believe the companies’ analysis of the situation isn’t just posturing – and their confidence is downright terrifying. There are two possible reasons the Army Corps of Engineers issued this decision. First, it could be that the corps, which manages the health of large internal waterways and infrastructure projects, really believes that it is a bad idea to put a crude oil pipeline underneath a dammed portion of the Missouri River. Second, it’s possible that Obama political appointees higher up the chain of command leaned on the bureaucracy to issue a last-gasp environmental protection effort.
Either way, it’s easy to see how this could be reversed in a matter of months. President-elect Donald Trump said last week that he favors the pipeline. The fact that Trump owns shares in some of the companies backing the pipeline doesn’t seem to be a disqualifying issue for him. With remarkable speed, the media and political systems have normalized the notion that Trump will use his position to pursue policies that appear to benefit him and his family financially. Such activity will likely be a feature of the coming era rather than a bug. As Politico reports, congressional Republicans have concluded that until the public expresses concerns about Trump’s norm-busting financial conflicts of interest, they won’t.
The case against the pipeline rests on two principal legs: that the federal government should respect the prerogatives and interests of a minority group that has been abused and mistreated by the state in the past and the need to weigh our demand for fossil fuels against the emissions and environmental damage associated with their transport and use.
It’s pretty clear where the Trump administration will come down on both these issues. Trump didn’t spend much time on the stump insulting Native Americans, though he did seem to relish dubbing Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” and derogatory war whoops became a quasi-regular feature at Trump rallies. And whether he is calling global warming a China-inspired hoax, going after wind turbines or promising to revive the dying coal industry, it’s pretty clear that Trump will be largely indifferent to conventional efforts to improve air quality and the concerns that fossil fuels can have a negative environmental impact.
But there’s something else going on here. Read the statement from Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics again. The companies are confident that, regardless of the merits, regardless of the perceived independence and professionalism of the Army Corps of Engineers, the corporations will essentially be able to have their way. They’re confident that under the Trump administration, the executive branch will easily reach down into agencies to influence policy made by career civil servants in ways that benefit private corporations and investors.
This is, in fact, a widespread assumption. In the past few weeks, private prison stocks have gotten a boost because investors perceive a Trump administration will send them more business (through immigration enforcement) and reverse Obama-era decisions to phase out the federal government’s use of private prisons. For-profit university stocks have been booming because people presume the onetime proprietor of the sham Trump University will preside over Education and Justice departments that will go easy on them. And shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been rallying because investors believe the Trump Treasury Department, under the leadership of charmed bubble-surfer Steven Mnuchin, will do what the Obama administration refused to do: Deliver the two government-supported entities back into private hands on favorable terms.
Of course, investment theses predicated entirely on anticipated changes in government policy can be undone by reality and unrelated phenomena. If interest rates spike and the housing market goes south, then the prospects of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac look significantly less robust, for example. What’s more, it’s clear that Trump views his promises only as so much rhetoric. But as Trump showed in Indiana last week, he is very willing to convert those promises into stunts for political gain, no matter their wisdom from a policy perspective. Standing Rock may be no different.
No surprise, on Monday morning, Reuters reported that Trump advisers are interested in privatizing Native American reservations so they can be opened up for fossil fuel production.
The pipeline is dead. Long live the pipeline.