Dakota Pipeline Project Halted as Obama Administration Denies Permit for Last Leg
Bismarck. The Obama administration said Sunday that it had denied a permit needed to complete the last leg of an oil pipeline across the Midwest. It is prompting cheers from opponents but warnings that the move could be short-lived since President-elect Donald Trumpsupports the project.
The nearly 1,200-mile Dakota Access pipeline, extending from North Dakota across parts of South Dakota and Iowa and ending in Illinois, is nearly complete, except for a 1,100-foot crossing of a Missouri River reservoir.
Protesters led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have been gathering for months near Cannon Ball, N.D., close to the site of the crossing at Lake Oahe, and have argued that the pipeline endangers the tribe’s water supply and sacred sites. The pipeline’s builder, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, has said it completed all necessary permitting requirements for the project and worked to minimize any damage to traditional sites and the risk of an oil spill.
On Sunday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would deny the company an easement it needs for the $3.8 billion project. The agency also called for a full environmental review and re-evaluation of whether the pipeline’s route should be altered, informs The Wall Street Journal
“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” said Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s assistant secretary for civil works. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
Sunday’s announcement comes nearly three months after the Army Corps said that it would review the project and engage in further talks with the Standing Rock Sioux to hear the tribe’s concerns. Energy Transfer has argued in federal court that the Army Corps had granted approval for the reservoir crossing in July.
Pipeline experts said it was extremely rare for an administration to intervene in a permitting process typically handled by career civil servants. The advanced stage of the project’s construction made the Obama administration’s move even more unusual, and experts said they believed it could be easily overturned.
“Clearly this is being directed politically from the administration,” said Brigham McCown, a former top pipeline administrator for the Transportation Department during the George W. Bush administration. “What it says is that even if you have your permits in hand, the government might change the rules on you once construction is almost done.”
Mr. McCown said Mr. Trump would have several options once he got in office, including directing the Secretary of the Army to reinstate a previously approved permit, or issuing an executive order stating that prior environmental assessments were adequate and approving the pipeline.
Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, thanked the Obama administration for what he called a historic decision. At the same time, he asked the chief executive of Energy Transfer, the governor of North Dakota and the incoming Trump administration, all of whom have supported the project, to respect it. “We are not opposed to energy independence, economic development, or national security concerns but we must ensure that these decisions are made with the considerations of our indigenous peoples,” Mr. Archambault said.
In a statement, Energy Transfer called the Army Corps’ decision “just the latest in a series of overt and transparent political actions by an administration which has abandoned the rule of law in favor of currying favor with a narrow and extreme political constituency.” The company said it expects to complete construction of the pipeline “without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe.”
Backers argue the pipeline will be safer than the railcars that have played a big role in bringing North Dakota’s oil to market and have suffered a number of fiery accidents.
The Trump transition team couldn’t immediately be reached to comment.
The Army Corps’ decision won praise from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Sierra Club. But it was decried as “purely political” by the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a coalition of business and labor groups that backs the pipeline.
“With President-elect Trump set to take office in just a few weeks, we are hopeful that this is not the final word on the Dakota Access pipeline,” said Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the infrastructure group.
Near Cannon Ball, about 40 miles south of Bismarck, the decision was a major victory for the demonstrators, whose numbers swelled to more than 5,000 over the weekend with the arrival of hundreds of U.S. military veterans.
People have gathered for months to protest the pipeline. While most of the protests have been peaceful, there have been violent clashes in which police used tear gas and water cannons during freezing temperatures. More than 500 protesters have been arrested, mostly for trespassing.
Last week, the stakes for the protesters rose when the Army Corps of Engineers issued a Dec. 5 deadline for protesters to leave. But authorities have said they would not forcibly remove protesters, despite the deadline. Most of the protesters are camped on Army Corps land.
On Sunday, the main campsite where thousands of protesters have gathered erupted into cheers and whoops as word spread of the Army Corps’ decision. “Today is a moment in time we’ll all remember,” Mr. Archambault told a crowd gathered at the campsite. “This is something that we’ve been asking the federal government of this country. For once, look at us, for once, remember and think about all the wrongs you have done.”
As other tribe leaders got up to speak, demonstrators hugged, shed tears and raised their arms in the air.
Teri Gary, 53, an Army veteran and member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Parker, Ariz., said she thought the Obama administration decision was a vindication for people who had been protesting for months.
“This means that it’s not OK for them to do that to the ancestors’ graves, it’s not OK to use heavy-handed tactics or to trample on peoples’ First Amendment rights,” she said. “This is vindication for people to work together.”