July 13, 2021

At Armed Services Hearing, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Nominee Commits to Making Army Corps Respect for Tribal Nations Among His “Highest Priorities”

As the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Connor will oversee the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has major influence over oil and gas pipelines, including the Dakota Access Pipeline; Connor also committed to ensuring that the Corps follows the law regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline, and engages in “robust, meaningful” tribal consultation

Video of the Hearing Exchange (Youtube)

Washington, DC - During today's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned Michael Connor, nominee to be Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, a position that oversees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which has major influence over many oil and natural gas pipelines in the U.S.  

Senator Warren’s questions to Connor focused on the Dakota Access Pipeline and on USACE’s relationship with tribal nations. In response to Senator Warren, Connor committed to ensuring that USACE follows the law regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline and that the process includes “robust, meaningful” tribal consultation. Connor also said that it will be among his “highest priorities” to ensure that the Corps respects tribal nations and the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations to them. 

Earlier this year, Senators Warren and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Representatives Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) led 28 of their colleagues in asking President Joe Biden to order a shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline during its court-ordered environmental review. In May 2020, Senator Warren joined a group of House and Senate colleagues on an amicus brief urging the court to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline while the government analyzed the potentially disastrous effects on the environment and nearby tribal communities. In September 2020, she also joined a second amicus brief supporting tribal challenges to the pipeline. In 2017, Senator Warren made a statement against President Trump's executive orders to advance the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Transcript: Exchange with Michael Connor, Nominee to be Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works
United States Senate Committee on Armed Services 
Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Senator Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

And thank you to all our witnesses for being here. Congratulations on your nominations. 

Mr. Connor, I am very pleased to hear from a nominee with your deep experience and understanding of Native American policy and natural resources issues. 

I am, however, very concerned about the Dakota Access Pipeline and what it reflects about the Army Corps of Engineers’ relationship with tribal nations.

Several tribal nations with homelands along the Missouri River have sued the Corps over the Dakota Access Pipeline. I joined with a number of my colleagues to support the tribes’ cause. A federal district court found that the Corps violated federal law when it failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before granting approval for the pipeline to run under Lake Oahe. I am concerned that the pipeline continues to operate without a completed environmental review, despite the legal requirements.

So, Mr. Connor, will you commit to making sure that the Corps follows the law and that this situation with the Dakota Access Pipeline is addressed as quickly as possible?

Mr. Connor: Senator, thank you. Absolutely. The Corps will be following the law with respect to the directions of the court and all other applicable laws and policy with respect to completing the work on the Dakota Access Pipeline and that includes addressing the issues identified by the court and robust tribal consultation. And I think that's the next step. Tribal consultation’s not a check-the-box exercise. It's got to be robust, meaningful, and that means it's got to be substantive in the interaction with tribes. So, I look forward to working through-- on this issue if I'm confirmed. I understand there’s a solid schedule that's been put together to finish the work on the Environmental Impact Statement and it’s my intent to oversee that, not obviously interfere with that. The Corps is doing good work with very substantive direction now from the court. And we will be overseeing that and ensuring that the laws are followed. 

Senator Warren: Well, I very much appreciate hearing you say that you're going to make sure that the laws are followed. You know, I think you have your work cut out for you here. The district court has noted, I think with some exasperation, that the Corps has dragged its feet on making a decision about whether to use its enforcement powers to halt operation of the pipeline, even though the pipeline is, in the court’s words, “an unlawful encroachment.”

So, let me just ask. Mr. Connor, will you commit to promptly exploring the appropriate use of the Corps’ enforcement powers in this case?

Mr. Connor: Yes, Senator. I will promptly look into that issue if I'm confirmed.

Senator Warren: Good. Well, I want you to look into it, and I want you to enforce the law here. 

This is about the federal government’s fulfillment of its trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations, and about the Corps’ adherence to federal law. So I hope you agree that this deserves your urgent attention.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints from tribal representatives that over the years, the Department of Defense has not done enough to consult tribal nations, or to respect the federal government’s nation-to-nation relationship with them.

So, let me ask the question another way, Mr. Connor. Will you commit to ensuring that the Corps respects tribal nations and the federal government’s obligations to our tribal nations?

Mr. Connor: Senator, that will be one of my highest priorities. I have spent a long time in government. I have spent a long time working on Native American issues on behalf of tribes and trying to improve the relationship of the federal government as a whole with tribal nations. You have my strong commitment that I understand the concerns. I've heard them many, many times over the years. I understand them, and I want to act on them and improve that relationship, improve the federal trust responsibility, improve the way we do consultation. It is-- will be one of my highest priorities if I'm confirmed. 

Senator Warren: “Strong commitment.” “Highest priorities.” That's what I like hearing. Thank you, Mr. Connor.  I’m looking forward to working with you to ensure that we’re treating tribal nations with the respect to which they are entitled, both legally and morally. Thank you.