A top executive at the company building the controversial Dakota Access pipeline on Wednesday compared pipeline opponents to terrorists.
Joey Mahmoud, executive vice president of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, said protesters have "assaulted numerous pipeline personnel," destroyed millions of dollars' worth of construction equipment and even fired a pistol at law enforcement during months of demonstrations against the 1,200-mile pipeline, which will carry North Dakota oil to an Illinois terminal.
Mahmoud said in written testimony to Congress that the protest movement "induced individuals to break into and shut down pump stations on four operational pipelines. Had these actions been undertaken by foreign nationals, they could only be described as acts of terrorism."
Mahmoud omitted the comment about terrorism as he read his testimony aloud to a House energy subcommittee Wednesday. The comment was included in written remarks submitted to the panel.
The chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux, one of two tribes suing to stop the project, called Mahmoud's comments unfair.
"The majority of them are there in prayer," Chairman Harold Frazier said of pipeline opponents. "From what I've seen (law enforcement officers) are the terrorists."
Law enforcement has used tactics such as rubber bullets, tear gas and water sprays against protesters during clashes in southern North Dakota near the pipeline route, Frazier said, adding that he personally has been hit by rubber bullets and tear gas.
Mahmoud, the pipeline executive, also blasted the Obama administration, which twice delayed the project last year.
"The Department of the Interior, and most likely senior members of the White House staff, interfered deeply and inappropriately in the waning stages of the regulatory process," he told lawmakers. "Even a company as large as Energy Transfer is helpless in the face of a government which will neither obey nor enforce the law."
Mahmoud called the delays "politically motivated actions" that were "accompanied by a host of half-truths and misrepresentations in both social and mainstream media."
Mahmoud also targeted the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose reservation lies near the pipeline's route and who say the pipeline threatens their water supply and tribal artifacts.
The company reached out to the tribe more than two years ago but has been continually rebuffed, Mahmoud said, adding that the project poses little threat to drinking water. The pipeline will be at least the 15th to cross the Missouri River, will employ state-of-the-art technology and will be buried more than 90 feet below the river, he said.
"To cast this as a dispute about protection of water resources is, quite simply, at variance with the facts, and it ignores universally accepted scientific and engineering practices," he said.
Chad Harrison, a councilman at-large for the Standing Rock Sioux, said the pipeline company and the government ignored the tribe's concerns for almost three years before the Obama administration paused the project last September. On Dec. 4, then-assistant Army secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, declined to issue an easement, saying a broader environmental study was warranted.
"To be clear, the tribe does not oppose economic development, energy independence or protecting our national security," Harrison said. "What we oppose is development that is undertaken without our consent and in such a way that our community, our people, our cultural sites and our natural resources are put at the most risk. We are the ones who will pay the cost when something goes wrong."
Mahmoud declined to comment after Wednesday's hearing, ignoring shouted questions as he walked away.
A federal judge on Monday refused to stop construction on the last stretch of the pipeline, which could be operational as soon as next month.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled that as long as oil isn't flowing through the pipeline, there is no imminent harm to the two tribes. Another hearing is scheduled on Feb. 27.
Associated Press writer Blake Nicholson in Bismarck, N.D. contributed to this story.