After court sided with a controversial oil pipeline, the government called for a construction pause

Scores of Native Americans march against the Bakken pipeline, or Dakota Access pipeline. CREDIT: FLICKR/JOE BRUSKY
Scores of Native Americans march against the Bakken pipeline, or Dakota Access pipeline. CREDIT: FLICKR/JOE BRUSKY

The government intervened soon after a tribe’s injunction request was denied.

Soon after a federal judge denied Native American tribes’ request to halt construction of the Bakken pipeline on Friday, federal agencies told developers to pause construction near a North Dakota site that has inspired months of massive protests.

In a joint statement, the Army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior said they won’t authorize construction of the line, also known as the Dakota Access pipeline, on federal land near Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River, until agencies can determine whether there’s a need to reconsider any of the previous decisions regarding Lake Oahe.

“This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects,” the statement said.


The ruling on the injunction request, and the unexpected intervention, comes about a week after Native American demonstrators in North Dakota clashed with the developers’ private security as construction crews building the $3.8 billion fracked oil line bulldozed over documented sacred sites.

Bulldozing started Saturday, a day after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a court document saying more than two dozen graves, and scores of stone rings, effigies, and other artifacts were in the area near where the Cannonball and Missouri rivers meet, Inside Climate News reported. After the violence both sides reported injuries while dozens of protesters said Dakota Access security personnel attacked them with dogs and pepper spray.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a temporary restraining order on Sunday, but the judge granted only a partial halt and brokered a temporary agreement between the parties that ended with his decision Friday.


In late July, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers over the permits the Corps granted to the developer, Dakota Access, to build under the Missouri River. That construction site is located about half a mile upstream of the tribe’s reservation boundary, where a spill would be culturally and economically catastrophic, according to the tribes.


Native Americans say the pipeline endangers sacred sites and their drinking water resources, and that no meaningful consultation took place. The Corps disagreed and said during the injunction hearing in August that the tribe declined to be part of the process. For its part, Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, says the project is safe as supporters tout thousands of jobs and millions in tax revenue.

Whether so-called meaningful consultation actually took place seems to have influenced the Obama Administration decision to intervene. In the statement, the agencies said they will invite tribes to formal, government-to-government consultations on what should the federal government do to better ensure “meaningful” tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews, as well as the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights. In addition, the agencies said they will explore if new legislation should be proposed to Congress.

Despite the intervention, the lawsuit will continue, Earthjustice, which is representing the tribe, says. A scheduling conference for the case is set for Sept. 14. and litigation will now happen with grounded construction crews unable to build on federal land, which accounts for the minority of the project.

Yet the Bakken pipeline affects mostly privately-owned land under state jurisdiction, and landowners attempts to stop the project have been futile, so construction can lawfully continue in most of its more than 1,150 mile course. It’s unclear whether developers will halt all construction.

Questions submitted to Dakota Access were not replied by press time.

“This federal statement is a game changer for the tribe and we are acting immediately on our legal options, including filing an appeal and a temporary injunction to force [the Dakota Access pipeline] to stop construction,” the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said in a statement.


As of last month, the Bakken pipeline is about 48 percent complete and it’s poised to start operating in January. Comparable in size to the rejected Keystone XL, the Bakken pipeline is set to be the largest oil line coming out of North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, which are among the nation’s most active due to the fracking boom. The line would move up to 570,000 barrels of sweet crude oil daily through the Dakotas, Iowa, and Illinois.

The line would also be the first to move crude oil from the Bakken shale, a vast oil formation in North Dakota, Montana, and parts of Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Reuters reported.

Protests were expected to intensify in North Dakota, where tribe members and other demonstrators have set up camps near a construction site adjacent to the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. Yet it is now unclear how exactly protesters — who call themselves protectors — will respond to the stunning move.


David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, had already called “upon all water protectors to greet any decision with peace and order” in a Thursday statement. “We will continue to explore every lawful option and fight against the construction of the pipeline,” he said.

Security around the North Dakota protest camps is already high as Governor Jack Dalrymple ordered National Guard troops to the area Thursday.

Meanwhile, the public profile of the opposition is growing. This is in part thanks to actresses activists like Susan Sarandon, Rosario Dawson, and Shailene Woodley who have joined past protests that are proliferating beyond North Dakota. Other actors are following suit, giving the movement more high profile exposure.

On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is scheduled to speak during an afternoon rally in Washington D.C. that, the Sierra Club, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and others are organizing. Past Dakota Access protests in the nation’s capital managed to get a considerable number of people involved, but the presence of the former presidential candidate could inspire many more and further emboldened the growing opposition.

The rally aims to call on President Obama to stop the Bakken pipeline as he stopped the Keystone XL. Obama has been silent on this issue, though the sudden multi-agency intervention could be a sign that the Bakken pipeline is now under his radar.

Just on Wednesday during a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative town hall in Laos he dodged a direct question on the Bakken pipeline and what he could do to ensure the protection of ancestral land, clean water, and environmental justice.

“I can’t give you details on this particular case,” Obama said, “I’d have to go back to my staff and find out how are we doing on this one. But what I can tell you is that we have actually restored more rights among Native Americans to their ancestral lands, sacred sites, waters, hunting rounds. We have done a lot more work on that over the last eight years than we have in the previous 20, 30 years, and this is something I hope we continue as we go forward.”