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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said the U.S. government is examining ways to reroute an oil pipeline in North Dakota as it addresses concerns raised by Native American tribes protesting against its construction.

Obama’s comments late on Tuesday to online news site Now This were his first to directly address the escalating clashes between local authorities and protesters over Energy Transfer Partners’ $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline project.

“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,” Obama said in the video interview.

The U.S. Justice and Interior Departments along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted construction of part of the pipeline in September due to protests by Native American tribes who contend the pipeline would disturb sacred land and pollute waterways supplying nearby homes. The affected area includes land under Lake Oahe, a large and culturally important reservoir on the Missouri River where the line was supposed to cross.

Construction is continuing on sections of the pipeline away from the Missouri River, U.S. refiner Phillips 66 said.

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 First Americans.”

North Dakota officials are girding for a long fight. The state’s emergency commission approved Tuesday another $4 million loan to support law enforcement during the protests.

The fight against the pipeline has drawn international attention and growing celebrity support amid confrontations between riot police and protesters.

The 1,172-mile (1,885-km) pipeline, being built by a group of companies led by Energy Transfer Partners, would offer the fastest and most direct route to bring Bakken shale oil from North Dakota to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, in a Wednesday statement lauded Obama’s comments and called on the administration and the Army Corp of Engineers to issue a stop-work order on the pipeline on federal land. He also called for a full environmental impact study.

“The nation and the world are watching,” he said. “The injustices done to Native people in North Dakota and throughout the country must be addressed. We believe President Obama and his Administration will do the right thing.”

Archambault told Reuters in an interview before Obama’s comments on Tuesday that the tribe “continues to look at all our legal options,” as the pipeline project moves forward.

Some have said an alternative pipeline route could be a way to get over the impasse.

In North Dakota, gubernatorial candidate Marvin Nelson, a Democratic state representative, said in an interview with Reuters last week that moving the route 10 miles north could make a difference.

“It would take some time to do that, but it seems to me to be a much safer route and it wouldn’t need to cross culturally sensitive land,” he said.

Meanwhile environmental group 350.org urged Obama to reject the federal permit for the entire project.

“There’s no reroute that doesn’t involve the same risks to water and climate,” said Sara Shor, a campaign manager for 350.org.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici, Ernest Scheyder and Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Will Dunham and Marguerita Choy)

IMAGE: A North Dakota law enforcement officers stands next to two armored vehicles just beyond the police barricade on Highway 1806 near a Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. REUTERS/Josh Morgan