Judge Sides With Native Tribes Over Trump, Orders Review of Dakota Access Pipeline

A judge granted two Native American tribes a victory Monday in a ruling that said the Dakota Access Pipeline must be temporarily emptied while its environmental impact is under review.

Construction on the controversial pipeline began in 2016 and was completed in early 2017. According to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, an environmental impact report was not completed as required before the pipeline's construction.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must provide an Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline to determine how much it will affect its surrounding areas. Monday's decision added that all crude oil must be emptied from the pipeline while the statement is prepared, which is estimated to take about 13 months.

"Given the seriousness of the Corps' [National Environmental Policy Act] error, the impossibility of a simple fix, the fact that Dakota Access did assume much of its economic risk knowingly, and the potential harm each day the pipeline operates, the Court is forced to conclude that the flow of oil must cease," Boasberg's decision read. The pipeline must be shut down within 30 days, it added.

"Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline," Mike Faith, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, told The New York Times. "This pipeline should have never been built here."

Newsweek reached out to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for further comment but did not hear back before publication.

Dakota Access Pipeline
Activists participate in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline March 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe held the event with a march to the White House to urge for halting the construction of the project. Alex Wong/Getty

Protests opposing the pipeline's construction began in early 2016 after the company Energy Transfer announced plans for the underground project, which stretches 1,172 miles across four states between North Dakota and Illinois. The pipeline runs beneath the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and it also snakes beneath Lake Oahe, a reservoir near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota and South Dakota. In addition to potentially risking contamination of the area's drinking water supply, protesters said the pipeline threatened lands considered sacred by tribes in the area.

Weeks after President Donald Trump was elected, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests reached a breaking point as protesters clashed with law enforcement. At least 17 protesters suffered injuries that necessitated hospital visits during a heated exchange with officers on November 20, 2016.

Four days after Trump's inauguration, his office told officials to hasten their review of the pipeline so construction could continue. Oil began flowing through the pipeline a few months later, but the project has been entangled in legal disputes ever since.

Though Monday's decision marks a temporary victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, those who support the pipeline have said halting its work during the time it will take to determine its environmental impact will result in serious economic difficulties for the area's oil industry workers. But according to Boasberg's decision, tribe officials said estimates that the shutdown could cost the local oil industry $643 million by the end of 2020 are "wildly exaggerated," partly because of the decrease in oil demand that has already resulted from the coronavirus pandemic.

The court's decision said that while "at least some harm" to the oil industry in North Dakota will result from the pipeline shutdown, "these effects do not tip the scales decisively" to support keeping the pipeline running while it is under review.

"When it comes to NEPA, it is better to ask for permission than forgiveness: if you can build first and consider environmental consequences later, NEPA's action-forcing purpose loses its bite," the decision read, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act.

In a statement shared with Newsweek, Energy Transfer said it intended to pursue all legal options to prevent the pipeline from shutting down as the environmental review proceeds. The company said it followed all necessary procedures while constructing the pipeline, adding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have final say over what happens during the review process.

"We believe that the ruling issued this morning from Judge Boasberg is not
supported by the law or the facts of the case," the statement read.

"Furthermore, we believe that Judge Boasberg has exceeded his authority in ordering the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been safely operating for more than three years," the statement continued. "We will be immediately pursuing all available legal and administrative processes and are confident that once the law and full record are fully considered Dakota Access Pipeline will not be shut down and that oil will continue to flow."