Earlier this month, Judge James E. Boasberg of the US District Court for the District of Columbia ordered for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to be shut down. This shutdown was ordered to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The DAPL is an oil route stretching from North Dakota to Illinois, notably coming within a mile of the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Water protectors have been fighting for the removal of this pipeline since 2016. The pipeline threatens their water resources, surrounding wildlife, in addition to religious and spiritual ties to the land. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmentalists have fought to block the building of this pipeline since its inception and have been met with serious challenges from the government as well as from Energy Transfer, the Texas-based company that owns the pipeline.
This year has finally brought some substantial legal wins for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. According to Earthjustice’s timeline, in March of 2020, the federal court moved to strike down federal permits for the DAPL and ordered a full Environmental Impact Statement to be completed. In April, the US Army Corps of Engineers, as well as DAPL, asked the court to permit the pipeline to continue operations while the EIS was underway, which was countered by Standing Rock in May. As of July 6, 2020, the pipeline has been ordered to be shut down while the EIS takes place. Judge Boasberg has announced that the pipeline must be completely shut down as of August 5, 2020.
Before this victory could be celebrated, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued an administrative stay to block the shutdown and buy the court more time to make its final decision. The order states, “The purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the emergency motion for stay and should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion.” Standing Rock has until July 20 to reply to Energy Transfer and must be met with a response from the company by July 23.
Even though this shutdown is a major victory for the community of Standing Rock, the fight is not over. Luckily, by the time the EIS will be complete, the ruling will be under a new administration. In 2016, the Obama administration halted the plans of the pipeline in search of an alternative route. However, just a few days into Trump’s presidency in 2017, he reversed the decision by the previous administration and continued with the pipeline, speeding up the required processes without allowing for a proper review of the environmental effects.
One of the most troubling aspects of this long and complicated story is that while the fight against this pipeline is largely based on the risk of environmental damage, such as the inevitable leaks, it is also for the religious and spiritual protection of this sacred land. Even if the Army Corps of Engineers is able to in some way convince people that this pipeline is not an environmental hazard, the fact remains that for the Sioux Tribe, this pipeline is invasive not only from a utilitarian standpoint, but also from a spiritual one.
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Jon Eagle Sr. wrote in a testimony on November 1, 2019: “Imagine the most sacred place in your life, whether it is a church or other house of worship, or a cemetery where your parents are buried, or something else. Then imagine that it is desecrated and destroyed, solely because someone was trying to make money.”
The Sioux Tribe has had to seek the guidance of increasingly sophisticated environmental lawyers to gain traction in this fight for their land in the eyes of the Government. The actions against the tribe have already violated and disrupted substantial agreements and ways of life known to the community. Jon Eagle Sr. continues, “In my humble opinion the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing Mni Sosi, also known as the Missouri River, is another act in a long list of treaty violations against the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota People.”
The water source in question is central to the wellbeing of Standing Rock and is being threatened on multiple levels by the DAPL. In Dakota Access LLC’s Emergency Stay Motion, they claim, “No crude oil pipeline in this country is safer than DAPL, which has transported more than half a billion barrels of oil nearly 1,200 miles with zero mainline releases.” The key word here being “mainline,” as the pipeline has already had a series of spills and releases along the route with hundreds of gallons of crude oil being leaked since 2017. Considering the fact that pipeline leaks are often inevitable, claims of safety ring false.
Jon Eagle Sr. stated, “My generation drank water from creeks and streams. We were told as long as it was moving it was safe to drink. My children and grandchildren drink water from plastic bottles. That is how fast our environment is deteriorating.”
While this latest ruling is a long awaited victory, the work is not over. Protestors are still being faced with criminal charges from their actions against the DAPL back in 2017. Across the country, many remain in favor of expanding the industry with projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, despite major concern from environmentalist groups pushing for more renewable energy sources.
An article from The New York Times earlier this month titled, “Is This the End of New Pipelines?” pinpoints these exact concerns. The article quotes Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, “The era of multibillion dollar investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is over. Again and again, we see these projects failing to pass muster legally and economically in light of local opposition.”
Initiatives such as the The Democratic Climate Plan, which is pushing for clean energy and will make it harder for states to access permits for such projects, are positive steps towards a greener future.
Even still, Trump is actively working to loosen requirements for future permits that would allow for pipelines and power plants to be built. Just earlier this month, Trump weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, which dilutes environmental review requirements for federal infrastructure projects.
The National Environmental Policy Act requires that environmental implications are taken into the considerations by federal agencies when making decisions or approving projects. NEPA ensures that Environmental Impact Statements take place and that detailed statements of safety are made available before permitting occurs. By rolling back the reach of NEPA, future projects will be completed hastily and without assessing risk to the fullest extent, negatively contributing to pollution and ultimately the climate crisis.
This November’s election will hold serious weight with the future of environmental policy and the possibility of additional pipeline projects. If we continue to expand in oil and gas without acknowledgement of the consequences it will soon be too late. The concerns of Standing Rock should be felt throughout the country even in light of the recent ruling in their favor. This is just the beginning in the larger battle towards a greener and safer future.