The Obama administration halted construction on the Dakota Access oil pipeline Sunday, saying it would hold off on granting the final easement for the project while it conducts a thorough environmental review.
Both the developer and President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJudd Gregg: Trump gets his sea legs Week ahead: US raises pressure on WikiLeaks Trump's Hollywood Walk of Fame star defaced MORE’s transition team have vowed to finish construction, while protesters say they could bring the conflict to court.
When Trump and his administration take office, approving Dakota Access probably won’t be as simple as signing a piece of paper.
The Army Corps of Engineers ordered an environmental impact statement for the project Sunday. Experts say that because of that, Trump’s administration will have to either complete the yearslong process or find a way to remove the requirement for testing the environmental impact. Doing the latter, however, would be a rare move that could subject the pipeline to a lawsuit.
“I think it ties the hands of the next administration,” said Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School.
Trump may look for a way to undo Obama’s decision so that the environmental review isn’t needed anymore.
Alternatively, Trump could wait for a decision from the federal District Court of the District of Columbia. It must rule on a motion from Energy Transfer Partners, Dakota Access’s developer, that the Army Corps must grant it a permit to build the pipeline.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe previously sued the Army Corps to prevent it from issuing the easement. The federal courts have thus far declined to intervene.
Jan Hasselman, the tribe’s attorney, promised to keep fighting, regardless of whether Trump tried to approve the project.
Energy Transfer is also suing to force approval of the pipeline. It argues that since the Army Corps already granted a permit for the pipeline’s route under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the agency is obligated to approve the easement.
Christi Tezak, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners, said it’s possible the challenges could be tied up in court for years.
“Given that there is apparently no precedent, it’s very hard to figure out what the procedures are,” she said.
“It’s very difficult to discuss in any analytically honest fashion what’s going to happen here when the Obama administration is improvising the process as it goes along.”
The Standing Rock protest camp
The protesters camped out for months near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation have become the big pipeline story.
About 10,000 people are now in the camp, and it has created ready-for-television scenes of teepees lined up against a wintry North Dakota backdrop. Veterans supporting the indigenous and environmental groups at the center of the fight began arriving over the weekend.
Clashes between police and protesters have frequently become violent, bringing more attention to the standoff. Both the federal and state governments have ordered the area evacuated, in part because of North Dakota’s sub-zero weather.
The Army Corps’ decision on Sunday has empowered protesters, said Tara Houska, national campaigns director for indigenous rights group Honor the Earth.
She said protesters realize Trump wants to approve the pipeline, but they aren’t going away anytime soon.
“While folks have been celebrating here on the ground, it’s also with a measure of vigilance,” she said.
“We’re all very much aware that the Trump administration is coming into office very shortly and that he’s made Dakota Access one of his top priorities.”
Federal and state officials have no plans to forcibly remove protesters, so they are likely to stay there, no matter how cold it gets.
Keep it in the ground
The Dakota Access fight has empowered greens, who say that the fight against fossil fuels has just won a huge boost.
Environmentalists have rallied around calls to “keep it in the ground,” which argues that fossil fuels should not be dug up with the construction of pipelines.
“This movement has been an inspiration for people around the country already,” said Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, which fights oil development.
“We will continue to fight, and we will continue to see this kind of grassroots engagement on projects around the country.”
For greens, the protests were often compared to the Keystone XL fight. Environmentalists didn’t think the momentum from Keystone would be easy to match, but in some ways, the Dakota Access battle has been larger.
It shows that the Keep it in the Ground movement is only getting larger.
Lawmakers could look to play a role in the Dakota Access saga.
Congress took a string of votes on legislation in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline project, forcing one veto by President Obama.
Keystone and Dakota Access are covered by different areas of the law, however, raising questions about the effectiveness of a legislative solution.
Republicans haven’t outlined any ways for Congress to act on the pipeline, but if Trump needs legislative cover, the GOP Congress could be on stand-by.
And members are ready to sound off on the issue.
“I’m encouraged we will restore law and order next month when we get a president who will not thumb his nose at the rule of law,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said on Sunday night.
Some might be in a tough spot.
Sen. Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampBusiness groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Sanders supporter to run against red-state Democrat GOP lays out regulatory reform wish list MORE, the North Dakota Democrat who has walked a fine line on the project, criticized the Army Corps’ decision on Sunday and said the Trump administration will need to clarify what happens next.
“The pipeline still remains in limbo,” she said.
Devin Henry contributed to this story.