The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided to deny the permits needed for the construction of the controversial crude-oil pipeline near a Native American reservation in North Dakota. As a result, a key segment of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will not be allowed to pass underneath a dammed section of the Missouri River called Lake Oahe. That location was only a half-mile from the tribal reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux, who have argued that any leaks from the pipeline would contaminate their only water supply and claimed that construction of the pipeline would disturb some of their sacred burial sites. The tribe and a growing alliance of supporters have thus been protesting against the $3.8 billion pipeline for much of this year, both in court and in person near the construction site.
On Sunday, the Corps informed the tribe that they would deny the needed construction easement for the DAPL to cross Lake Oahe, at least while the Corps investigates alternative routes for the pipeline and prepares an environmental-impact statement.
This news does not mean that the project is permanently blocked, but rather that the pipeline, via its planned route underneath the Missouri River, has been suspended pending the aforementioned environmental-impact study and consideration of alternate routes. Put another way, the result — even if only temporary — is probably the best outcome the Standing Rock Sioux and NoDAPL protesters could have hoped for at this time, and it represents a significant intervention by the Obama Administration, which had repeatedly asked the company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, to halt construction voluntarily.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary for civil works at the Army Corps of Engineers explained, via a statement, that the issue “merits additional analysis, more rigorous exploration and evaluation of reasonable siting alternatives and greater public and tribal participation and comments.” She also emphasized that “although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do. The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
Corps and North Dakota officials had also grown increasingly concerned about worsening winter temperatures at the protest site, as well the periodic confrontations between police and protesters, some of which had turned violent. Both the Corps and the North Dakota governor’s office had ordered the protesters to vacate their encampments, though the activists had vowed to stay on no matter what.
Following the Corps’ judgment, Standing Rock Sioux leader David Archambault announced the development a victory and remarked that “the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all of Indian Country will be forever grateful to the Obama Administration for this historic decision”:
We wholeheartedly support the decision of the administration and commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel quickly released a statement supporting the decision, as well as underscoring the importance of respecting tribal rights when evaluating the pipeline project:
Archambault also thanked the many protesters and supporters who have rallied to the tribe’s cause and said they “hope that [Energy Transfer Partners CEO] Kelcy Warren, [North Dakota] Governor Dalrymple, and the incoming Trump administration respect this decision and understand the complex process that led us to this point.”
That may be wishful thinking, however. President-elect Trump, who at one point owned as much as $1 million in Energy Transfer Partners stock, has repeatedly expressed his support for the project. Furthermore, Kelcy Warren, the pipeline company’s CEO, told NBC News last month that regardless of what the Army Corps of Engineers decided, he was “100 percent sure” that the pipeline would be approved by the Trump administration.
North Dakota politicians, virtually all of whom support the project, quickly criticized the halt of the pipeline as well. The Bismarck Tribune reports that Governor Dalrymple said in a statement that the Corps decision “does nothing to resolve the issue, and worst of all it prolongs the serious problems faced by North Dakota law enforcement as they try to maintain public safety.” He additionally complained that it was “unfortunate that this project has become a political issue rather than one based on engineering science.” The state’s Democratic U.S. senator, Heidi Heitkamp, said in a statement that the already-late decision was just prolonging the “limbo” the project was already in. “If companies and individuals cannot rely on a system that follows the rule of law,” Republican senator John Hoeven added, “nobody will risk making future investments in our country’s vital infrastructure.”
With the in-state political forces in favor of the pipeline and a more-than-sympathetic new White House administration on the way, it seems likely that the Standing Rock protest, assuming activists even leave their encampments, may only be getting a several-week break.
This is a developing news story and this post has been updated throughout to reflect new details.