A federal judge has ruled that the Trump administration’s approval of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline violated federal law in certain critical respects and has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider parts of its environmental analysis.
The decision marks the first legal victory of the Trump presidency for the Standing Rock Sioux, which have been fighting the pipeline for nearly a year.
“This decision marks an important turning point,” Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing the tribe, said in a statement. “Until now, the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been disregarded by the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Trump Administration — prompting a well-deserved global outcry. The federal courts have stepped in where our political systems have failed to protect the rights of Native communities.”
The judge did not render a decision on whether the pipeline — which has been transporting oil since June 1 — should remain operational while the Army Corps reconsiders the environmental study. Parties were asked to present arguments for or against that question at a briefing to be held next week.
The Dakota Access Pipeline extends 1,168 miles from North Dakota to Illinois and is capable of transporting 570,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota to a distribution hub in Illinois. From there, the oil is transported via separate pipelines to refineries along the Gulf coast.
The Standing Rock Sioux’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline gained national attention last fall, when thousands traveled to North Dakota to join protest camps that had formed near the site of pipeline construction. The tribe argued that they had not been properly consulted in the pipeline permitting process, and they contended that allowing the pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe — just a half mile north of the tribe’s reservation — would endanger both sacred tribal resources and the tribe’s only source of drinking water.
In December, the Obama administration ordered a temporary hold on pipeline construction while the Army Corps conducted a full environmental impact study to determine whether the pipeline had been appropriately sited. But the Trump administration quickly reversed that decision, issuing an executive order just days after his inauguration that directed the Army Corps to “review and approve in an expedited manner” permits for the Dakota Access pipeline. Following those instructions, the Army Corps granted the final easement for the pipeline — allowing it to cross beneath Lake Oahe —just weeks later.
The Standing Rock Sioux instantly challenged the pipeline’s approval, arguing that the Trump administration had failed to review the project for any “significant” environmental impacts — a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires environmental assessments for all major federal projects.
In his decision, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, agreed with the tribe that the Army Corps environmental assessment fell short in some — but not all — aspects. Boasberg pointed specifically to the environmental assessment’s shortcomings with regards to the impact of an oil spill on “fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice,” as well as “the degree to which the pipeline’s effects are likely to be highly controversial.”
“This is a huge victory for the tribal nations of the Oceti Sakowin, Water Protectors around the world, and for the Indigenous leaders who led organizing efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Dallas Goldtooth, national Keep It In the Ground organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said in a press statement after Boasberg’s decision was rendered. “We’re ecstatic with the court’s decision, and applaud the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne Sioux for continuing to hold the line and take the fight against the Trump administration and the Dakota Access Pipeline to the nation’s courts.”
Beyond legal concerns, Energy Transfer Partners — the Texas-based company behind the Dakota Access pipeline — has suffered a string of spills and leaks related to both the Dakota Access pipeline and another pipeline project in Ohio. In April, the company admitted to spilling over two million gallons of drilling fluids into “pristine” wetlands in Ohio, according to reports submitted to the state EPA. The spill occurred during construction of a natural gas pipeline, which would stretch 710 miles from Appalachia to Ontario, Canada.
The Dakota Access pipeline leaked three times before becoming operational, spilling a total of 188 gallons of oil. No single spill was large enough to be considered “significant” by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, though pipeline protesters noted at the time that the leaks were merely a reminder of risks that communities near the pipelines face.
In April, Judge Boasberg ruled that Energy Transfer Partners could shield certain information about the Dakota Access pipeline — such as spill risks along certain points of the pipeline — from public view.