US President Barack Obama said that his Administration was considering ways to "re-route" the Dakota Access oil pipeline after a week of violent clashes between authorities and activists protesting the controversial project.
In an interview with the media site NowThis, Obama addressed concerns from Native Americans that the pipeline cuts too close to tribal lands in North Dakota. The US$3.8 billion project was approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers and is slated to cross under a section of the Missouri River less than 1.5km from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
"We're monitoring this closely," Obama said. "My view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans. And I think that, right now, the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline."
He added: "We're going to let it 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 first Americans."
Obama's interview represents the most explicit remarks he has made on the simmering controversy. During a White House tribal conference in September, the President offered an elliptical reference to the issue, telling hundreds of tribal representatives gathered in Washington, "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're making your voices heard."
Yesterday aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to say what the Administration might do about the pipeline because of the ongoing litigation.
"What I can say more generally is that the White House has been in touch with the Department of Interior and a couple of other agencies that are taking a fresh look at the procedures that they follow to incorporate input from Native American communities that could potentially be affected by infrastructure projects," Earnest said. "The President believes that that's a worthwhile thing for the Department of Interior to do. And so he's supportive of that process to consider reforming some of those procedures."
The President has elevated American Indian rights during his tenure, establishing a White House tribal liaison and laying the groundwork for a government-to-government relationship with native Hawaiians. During the tribal conference, Obama recalled how he had pledged during his first White House bid to do more for tribal communities.
"And I want everybody in this auditorium and all the folks back home in your respective communities to know that whole time I've heard you, I have seen you. And I hope I've done right by you," he said.
But even as Obama raised the possibility of rerouting the pipeline, he seemed to suggest that it would go forward. Many climate activists have called on him to halt the project altogether, the way he blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last year between Canada and the US Gulf Coast.
Jamie Henn, a spokesman for the environmental group 350.org, said in an email that it would be hypocritical for Obama to allow the pipeline to be completed.
"There's no re-route that doesn't involve the same risks to water and climate," Henn said. "The President must submit Dakota Access to the same climate test as Keystone XL, a test it will surely fail."
Obama has also faced criticism for the delay from a coalition of energy and manufacturing groups, who note that the pipeline is a major infrastructure project that is mostly built and could boost economic activity along its route.