Energy & Environment

Court sides with tribes in Dakota Access Pipeline case, ordering full environmental review

Greg Nash

The controversial Dakota Access Pipeline hit another roadblock Wednesday when a federal judge struck down permits for the pipeline and ordered a full workup of the environmental impacts of the project.

North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had sued over the project with protestors from around the country coming to rally against pipeline construction that would travel across native lands and cross the Missouri River.

The U.S. District Court for the D.C. Circuit sided with the tribe, ordering the Army Corps of Engineers, which granted the permits for the project, to do a full environmental impact statement. In the next phase of the case, a judge will weigh whether the pipeline should be shut down while the case continues.

“After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Mike Faith said in a statement. “It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet.”

President Trump signed an executive order to expedite construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline during his first week in office.

Judge James Boasberg, an Obama appointee, said the environmental analysis by both the companies behind the pipeline and the Corps was severely lacking.

“In projects of this scope, it is not difficult for an opponent to find fault with many conclusions made by an operator and relied on by the agency,” he wrote in the 42-page decision. “But here, there is considerably more than a few isolated comments raising insubstantial concerns.

“The many commenters in this case pointed to serious gaps in crucial parts of the Corps’ analysis — to name a few, that the pipeline’s leak-detection system was unlikely to work, that it was not designed to catch slow spills, that the operator’s serious history of incidents had not been taken into account, and that the worst-case scenario used by the Corps was potentially only a fraction of what a realistic figure would be,” he continued.

The 1,200-mile pipeline carries oil from North Dakota to Illinois. It became a rallying point for many environmental groups as the Standing Rock tribe voiced concerns that leaks from the pipeline could poison their water sources.

The environmental impact statement required by the court is more thorough than the environmental assessment the Corps completed earlier and could take years to complete.

Energy Transfer Partners, which operates the pipeline, did not immediately respond to request for comment, nor did the Army Corps of Engineers.

But Grow America’s Infrastructure Now, which advocates for pipeline development, said the decision could stymie investment in such projects.

“This is a stunning decision that flies in the face of decades of widely accepted practice. The Dakota Access Pipeline is already the most studied, regulated, and litigated pipeline in the history of our country and has been safely operating for nearly three years,” the group said in a release.

“These companies that invest and support large scale infrastructure projects want certainty from the government; and those who built and now operate the pipeline followed every applicable local, state, and federal rule – but now a court is putting their work in potential peril.”

The decision comes as the Trump administration is rapidly moving ahead with plans to roll back the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law Judge Boasberg relied on in his decision. The law requires thorough environmental review of projects like pipelines. 

Trump has repeatedly blamed the law for standing in the way of pipeline construction and other projects.

“From Day One, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority. And we want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster, and we want to build them at less cost,” he said in January, when announcing his plans to finalize a rollback of NEPA.

That decision could be completed within the coming weeks.

Updated at 3:04 p.m.

Tags Dakota Access Pipeline Dakota Access Pipeline protests Donald Trump Indigenous peoples of North America Sioux Standing Rock Indian Reservation

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