Energy & Environment

Tensions emerge between green groups and Biden over Dakota Access Pipeline

The Biden administration is drawing public criticism from environmental groups after the Justice Department last week declined to temporarily shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline as the project undergoes regulatory reviews.

The statements mark the first signs of significant tension between President Biden and environmentalists since he took office.

Groups that backed Biden on the campaign trail, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and League of Conservation Voters, criticized the administration after the Justice Department announced its position in court on Friday.

"President Biden campaigned and was elected on the boldest climate platform ever. Minutes after being sworn in, Biden began taking real, meaningful climate action," Sierra Club Director Michael Brune said in a statement Friday.

"Yet, President Biden's actions today fail to live up to the climate and Tribal commitments he made, nor is it in line with the bold action he has taken since taking office."

Asked about the criticism, a White House spokesperson characterized it as an issue of Justice Department independence. The spokesperson said the court asked if the Justice Department planned to carry out an enforcement action and that the department makes independent decisions about enforcing laws.

Such explanations did not mollify green groups.

"There was no question that there was disappointment that the Biden administration did not act on Friday and we are looking to the Biden administration to take action," Anthony Swift, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Canada Project, said in an interview.

But Swift also described the action as a "blip."

"The environmental community is aligned with the Biden administration's vision," he said. "We are looking to the Biden administration to take action on Dakota Access as well as other pipelines."

In January, an appeals court ruled that an easement that allowed for the Dakota Access Pipeline's construction did not undergo a sufficient environmental review.

It reversed a lower court's decision which said the pipeline's operations should be stopped during a subsequent review, and said that whether to stop its operations "may well be" up to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Attorney Ben Schifman said Friday while representing the federal government that the Dakota Access vessel will be required to abide by the conditions that were set in the now-vacated easement, but said the Biden administration "has not taken any additional action."

Not shutting down the pipeline has also created tensions with progressives.

Joye Braun, a frontline community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said the issue pipeline issue is so important because "it embodies so many different things, it embodies the climate, it embodies tribal sovereignty." 

"The rule of law already says that it is operating illegally, so why are we continuing to allow these corporations to roll over the law, that makes no sense," Braun said.

John Paul Mejia, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, argued that Biden should be fighting harder.

"Biden is not fighting for the promises that he campaigned on right now," Mejia said. "If he was really swinging for the fence with the ambition that he touted on the campaign trail, then he would use the bully pulpit of the presidency to rescind this pipeline."

On the campaign trail, Biden sought to balance support from both progressives and moderates. Since taking office, his environmental actions have mostly been cheered by progressives.

But other tests like the Dakota Access Pipeline are on the horizon. The administration is slated next week to announce its emission targets under the Paris Agreement.

Groups including the NRDC have called on the administration to set the goal of slashing carbon emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030, when compared to 2005 levels. 

"In order to achieve a 50 percent reduction, we're going to have to take a hard look at our fossil fuel development," Swift said.

He said that "will require a hard look at projects like Dakota Access."

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