Fight to Stop the Dakota Access Oil Line Revived in Court

  • Judge to hear more arguments over potential halt of operations
  • Court ruling comes two weeks after pipeline went into service

The Dakota Access oil pipeline may already be carrying crude. But the fight to stop it is just getting started again.

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to adequately consider the impacts of a potential spill from the line on fishing, hunting and “environmental justice, or the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.” The Corps must review those parts of its decision to allow the $3.8 billion project to go forward.

Whether the pipeline must cease operations during the review will require further legal arguments, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington said in his 91-page ruling. The judge said the Corps complied with some but not all of its National Environmental Policy Act obligations. He has scheduled a conference for June 21.

The Corps may be able to persuade the judge to allow Dakota Access to keep operating during the period of further environmental review, Clearview Energy Partners LLC analysts led by Christine Tezak said in a note to clients Wednesday. That’s based on the view that Energy Transfer Partners LP, which operates the line, will argue it has the necessary information to address omissions in the environmental review, the note said.

"Pipeline operations can and will continue as this limited remand process unfolds," Lisa Dillinger, a spokeswoman for the Dallas-based company, said in an emailed statement. "Dakota Access believes the record supports the fact that the Corps properly evaluated both issues, and that the record will enable the Corps to substantiate and reaffirm its prior determinations."

Tribe’s Battle

Boasberg’s ruling is the first in at least three attempts by Native American groups to stop the controversial project. His decision comes just two weeks after the Dakota Access pipeline went into service, moving crude 1,172 miles (1,886 kilometers) across North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.

Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that sued to block the project last year, said in a statement that his group will ask the judge to shut down the conduit immediately.

Upon taking office in January, President Donald Trump quickly made the Dakota Access and TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipelines symbols of his support for energy projects that had been blocked by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Thrust into the center of an escalating battle between the energy industry and environmentalists last year, the Dakota Access construction site near Lake Oahe in North Dakota served for months as a stage for demonstrations by Native Americans and activists waging war against shale oil and gas projects. 

Mark Ruffalo

In early 2016, members of the Sioux nation and environmentalists began camping out along the proposed route in protest. Their ranks swelled in late summer after construction crews bulldozed a site sacred to Native Americans. Hollywood celebrities including Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio flocked to the Standing Rock reservation to lend support. Actress Shailene Woodley was arrested and led away in handcuffs. It all went viral on social media.

For more on the startup of the Dakota Access pipeline, read this story.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued to halt the project last year, and was later joined in its efforts by another band, the Cheyenne River Sioux. Their initial contentions that it crossed historic lands and religiously sacred waters were rebuffed by the court.

Still, the Army Corps under the Obama administration hesitated to grant final permission for the project to traverse the man-made Lake Oahe. That waterbody, created upon the erection of a Missouri River dam in 1958, spans the North and South Dakota border and touches both the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations.

Trump, in a Jan. 24 memorandum, urged the Corps to expedite its review. Approval came in early February, prompting the tribes to try again, this time focusing the court’s attention on that environmental review process.

The pipeline remains a potential boon to drillers in the once-prolific North Dakota Bakken shale formation who have lost market share amid low oil prices to rivals in Texas and elsewhere with better access to Gulf Coast refineries and terminals.

“This is a major victory for the tribe and we commend the courts for upholding the law and doing the right thing,” Archambault said in his statement. “The previous administration painstakingly considered the impacts of this pipeline and President Trump hastily dismissed these careful environmental considerations in favor of political and personal interests.”

The case is Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 16-cv-01534, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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