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Obama To Discuss Controversial Pipeline With Tribal Leaders

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Native American leaders from around the country are here in Washington, D.C., today. They are here to meet with President Obama in what is his last Tribal Nations Conference.

And it's important to note the timing here. This is happening just as a high-profile protest is taking place in North Dakota over a controversial oil pipeline at the edge of a reservation.

Leigh Paterson from Inside Energy reports.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: One of the biggest issues on the table is something called consultation. Troy Eid is a Denver-based attorney specializing in American Indian law. It seems like a pretty straightforward word, but Eid says it's a big deal.

TROY EID: Consultation is the process of one sovereign talking with another. In this case, it's the United States government talking with tribal governments.

PATERSON: But what constitutes real consultation is now central to the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline. And it means different things to different people.

DAVE ARCHAMBAULT: We shared all of our concerns, but it just fell on deaf ears.

PATERSON: That's Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, describing what consultation over the Dakota Access Pipeline felt like to him.

UNIDENTIFIED TRIBE MEMBERS: (Chanting).

PATERSON: Members of that tribe, along with others drumming and chanting at the protest camps, worry the pipeline could disturb ancestral sites. So they sued, in part over - yes - consultation, especially alleged violations of the National Historic Preservation Act. So this battle is now playing out in competing court documents.

In the tribe's complaint, the consultation process for the Dakota Access Pipeline was, quote, "fundamentally flawed." It alleges that the consulting agency - that's the Army Corps of Engineers - didn't give them enough time to respond, that it sent a generic form letter to initiate consultation, and that it didn't consider all of the potentially sensitive areas.

Sarah Krakoff is a professor at the University of Colorado, specializing in American Indian law. She says some tribes feel that consultation is just a formality.

SARAH KRAKOFF: Their hope and their sense is that they're not being consulted just to have a box checked - consultation, check.

PATERSON: In another court document, the Army Corps of Engineers said it did its best to consult. A laundry list of dates details when it contacted the tribe - or tried to and just never heard back.

This tribe is not the first one to sue the government over energy infrastructure projects. This issue of consultation comes up again and again.

Four years ago, the Quechan tribe of Arizona sued over a proposed wind farm in nearby California.

VERNON SMITH: We feel like that's our ancestors that you're disturbing.

PATERSON: That's Vernon Smith, a tribal administrator with the Quechan. The tribe also sued over a solar project. Again, lawyer Troy Eid.

EID: And now you're seeing this play out in the courtrooms, you know, with Dakota Access. You know, these issues are going to be debated. And they're going to be litigated all over the United States.

PATERSON: Eid says that's in part because the Obama administration has worked hard to beef up the consultation process. The Dakota Access Pipeline fight may prove to be a turning point.

The federal government on Friday invited all federally recognized tribes to meetings starting next month. They plan to discuss ways to ensure meaningful tribal input on infrastructure projects, or in other words, formal consultation.

For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

GREENE: And Leigh's story comes to us from Inside Energy, which is a public radio collaboration that focuses on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.