Energy/Environment First Look

Army Corps ordered to issue final permit for Dakota Access Pipeline

In the latest development in a months-long legal battle over the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline project, the acting secretary of the Army has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit for the pipeline's construction under a Missouri River reservoir.

Opponents of the Dakota Access oil pipeline rally outside the Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck, N.D., on Tuesday.
Terray Sylvester/Reuters
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After months of protests and review, is the battle over the Dakota Access pipeline coming to an end?

Robert Speer, acting Secretary of the Army, has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to “proceed” with issuing an easement needed to complete the final section of the pipeline, Sen. John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota announced on Tuesday evening. The permit for that part of the pipeline, which crosses the territory of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, had been delayed for environmental review by the Obama administration following protests that drew thousands of supporters to North Dakota.

President Donald Trump expressed support for the pipeline in an executive order last week – but restarting construction may not be straightforward. An Army spokesman indicated that the easement had not been approved, and if it is, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has vowed to continue fighting the pipeline in court.

"If it does become a done deal in the next few days, we'll take it to the judicial system," Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault said on Tuesday night.

Dakota Access is a 1,170-mile pipeline stretching from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to a shipping facility in Patoka, Ill. Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners is developing the $3.8 billion project. Supporters say the new pipeline offers a much-needed alternative to existing transit routes: pipelines in the Rocky Mountains that run toward Oklahoma are already crowded, and rail transport is expensive. 

It’s also a question of employment. The oil boom has created thousands of jobs in North Dakota since 2006. To maintain that economic growth, producers need to be able to ship the oil they’re extracting to other parts of the country.

But pipelines raise a host of environmental concerns, both because of the risk of leaks and the more systemic problem of building this infrastructure rather than moving toward a clean-energy future. Standing Rock Sioux tribe members raised concerns about routing the pipeline under Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River that is a sacred site for the tribe, saying the decision would jeopardize their water supply and the sanctity of their lands.

Concerns about pollution of the water supply had already prompted pipeline constructors to reroute the pipeline away from Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital city, and the new pipeline plan brought the pipeline within half a mile of Standing Rock Sioux lands. When constructors declined to accommodate the tribe's concerns by finding an alternative route, thousands of people from across the country – including celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Shailene Woodley – joined the tribe in protesting the pipeline.

In September, likely in response to the protests, a joint statement by the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior and the Army called for a halt in construction, and directed the Army Corps of Engineers to look at the pipeline route. In December, then-Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works chose not to issue an easement, calling for a broader environmental assessment.

That assessment, which the Associated Press reported could take up to two years to complete, was begun in January, two days before President Obama left office. 

Last week, however, Mr. Trump issued an executive order that called for the Corps to expedite the review, with a view to reviving construction.

Don Canton, a spokesman for Senator Hoeven, said that Tuesday’s directive from acting Secretary Speer means the easement “isn’t quite issued yet, but they plan to approve it” within days.

But on Wednesday, an Army spokesman cautioned against assuming that construction would resume. The Army has begun its review, but "[t]hese initial steps do not mean the easement has been approved," said Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, AP reported.

Oil is already flowing through parts of the pipeline leading up to Lake Oahe, Energy Transfer Partners said in court documents earlier this month - presumably an indication that the company expects the remaining section of the pipeline to be approved soon.

For their part, the Standing Rock Sioux hope to speak with Trump about the future of the project, Mr. Archambault said last week, though he has yet to receive a response, Reuters reported. 

Archambault also signaled the tribe’s willingness to go back to court to fight an easement if it is approved, framing the tribe’s struggle as part of a broader battle for the direction of America.

"This is a good indicator of what this country is going to be up against in the next four years,” he said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.