Dakota pipeline protesters win temporary victory with promise for more review


Invoking the historic mistreatment of Native Americans, the Obama administration said Monday it will continue to withhold a final permit for completion of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline while it conducts further analysis of concerns that the project will damage sacred tribal sites and water supplies.

Developers of the 1,170-mile pipeline say it would provide a vital and safe means of transporting as much as 500,000 barrels of crude oil daily from the Bakken region of North Dakota to an existing pipeline in Illinois. But the pipeline has stirred national controversy and become a rallying point among Native Americans across the country because it would cross a major waterway just a half-mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation.

That waterway, the Missouri River, was dammed decades ago, flooding the tribe’s historical lands as it formed what is now called Lake Oahe. The tribe has made that history a central theme during months of protests and sometimes violent standoffs with law enforcement. More than 400 demonstrators have been arrested at the construction site near Lake Oahe since this summer.


Before the announcement Monday, protesters marched on the North Dakota Capitol grounds in Bismarck, prompting law enforcement to allow only limited entrance to the Capitol building. More protests were planned for Tuesday around the nation.

“The Army has determined that additional discussion and analysis are warranted in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossession of lands, the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe, our government-to-government relationship, and the statute governing easements through government property,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that reviews projects involving water crossings, said in a statement Monday.

The Corps said it was inviting the tribe “to engage in discussion regarding potential conditions on an easement for the pipeline crossing that would reduce the risk of a spill or rupture, hasten detection and response to any possible spill, or otherwise enhance the protection of Lake Oahe and the Tribe’s water supplies.”

Corps officials said they would also invite discussion of the risk of a spill “in light of such conditions” and whether an easement should be granted at all for the pipeline to cross Lake Oahe at the proposed location.

The announcement comes two months after the Obama administration announced it would withhold the permit, citing concerns by the tribe, and it comes just two weeks after President Obama expressed his own reservations.

“My view is that there is a way for us to accommodate sacred lands of Native Americans, and I think that right now the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline,” he said in an interview with NowThis News this month.


The Standing Rock Sioux have asked the administration to deny the easement permit outright and consider other locations to cross the river.

At one point, the developers of the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, considered crossing the river farther north, north of the city of Bismarck, but that crossing met resistance as well. Now the $3.8-billion project is more than 80% complete, with the crossing at Lake Oahe the only major obstacle remaining.

The tribe said Monday that although the decision was not a complete victory, “It is clear President Obama is listening” to its concerns.

“We are encouraged and know that the peaceful prayer and demonstration at Standing Rock have powerfully brought to light the unjust narrative suffered by tribal nations and Native Americans across the country,” said Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Supporters of the pipeline quickly attacked the decision, linking it to the election of Donald Trump, who has expressed support for expanding fossil fuel development.

“Today’s decision is yet another attempt at death by delay and is a stunning rebuke of the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal civil service, four state governments, and the rule of law,” said Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the MAIN Coalition, an industry and labor group. “This extrajudicial, political decision is exactly why hard-working Americans across the country rejected a third Obama term.


“By its own review and admission, the Army Corps of Engineers did everything right. Americans expect their government to play by the rules — and this is just another example of the Obama administration using its perceived authority to drive a political agenda.”

It was not immediately clear how long the review would take. The Corps said it will set a timeline with the tribe “that allows for robust discussion and analysis to be completed expeditiously.”

Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for Earthjustice who has represented the tribe, said he expected the Obama administration to make a final decision on the easement before the president leaves office Jan. 20.

Hasselman noted that Trump is an investor in Energy Transfer Partners and that the company’s chief executive, Kelcy Warren, contributed to the Trump campaign. If the Obama administration eventually denies the final permit, Hasselman said, the Trump administration could pursue reversing that decision but would have to do so through the permitting process in a way that stood up to legal challenges.

“The government has invited the tribe to make its case on why it should be denied and that’s what we’re going to do,” Hasselman said, referring to the easement permit to cross Lake Oahe. “It starts, as it always does, with the history, that this is land that was stolen from the tribe. One tiny thing they could do to undo some of that wrong is say no to such a harmful piece of infrastructure in this place.”




5:55 p.m.: This story was updated with additional background on the project and comments from opponents of the pipeline.

This story was originally published at 3:45 p.m.