US federal judge sided with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and ordered the Dakota Access pipeline to shut down until more environmental review is done.
Ruling marks major victory for Standing Rock Sioux tribe that has vigorously opposed the pipeline.
The ruling is a significant blow to the United States oil industry and the administration of President Donald Trump, which has sought to expedite pipeline construction by cutting red tape and environmental and community review processes that typically slow down projects.
In a 24-page order, US District Judge James Boasberg wrote that he was “mindful of the disruption” that shutting down a pipeline that has been in operation for three years would cause, but that it must be done within 30 days.
His order comes after he said in April that the pipeline remained “highly controversial” under federal environmental law, and a more extensive review was necessary than the assessment that was done.
“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,” said Chairman Mike Faith of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “This pipeline should have never been built here. We told them that from the beginning.”
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The court said in its ruling that the US Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it granted an easement to Energy Transfer to construct and operate a segment of the pipeline running beneath Lake Oahe, because they failed to produce an adequate Environmental Impact Statement despite a requirement for it.
“Given the seriousness of the Corps’ NEPA 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,” the court said.
The pipeline was the subject of months of protests, sometimes violent, during its construction near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border.
The Standing Rock tribe has continued to press litigation against the pipeline even after it began carrying oil from North Dakota across South Dakota and Iowa and to a shipping point in Illinois in June 2017.
Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for the Standing Rock tribe, tweeted news of Boasberg’s ruling and said: “Stunning.”
Texas-based Energy Transfer, the pipeline owner, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
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The $3.8bn, 1,172-mile (1,886-kilometre) underground pipeline crosses beneath the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock reservation. The tribe draws its water from the river and fears pollution. Energy Transfer insisted the pipeline would be safe.
The company last year proposed doubling the capacity from 600,000 barrels per day to as much as 1.1 million barrels to meet the growing demand for oil shipments from North Dakota, without the need for additional pipelines or rail shipments.
Before the coronavirus pandemic devastated the US oil industry, daily oil production in North Dakota the nation’s number 2 oil producer behind Texas was at a near-record 1.45 million barrels daily. The state’s output has slipped to below one million barrels daily thanks to low energy prices and sparse demand.
The US Army Corps of Engineers in 2018 completed more than a year of additional study of the pipeline, saying the work substantiated its earlier determination that the pipeline poses no significant environmental threats.
Boasberg in June 2017 ruled that the Corps “largely complied” with environmental law when permitting the pipeline but ordered more review because he said the agency did not adequately consider how an oil spill under the Missouri River might affect the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fishing and hunting rights, or whether it might disproportionately affect the tribal community.
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Permits for the project were originally rejected by the Obama administration, and the Corps prepared to conduct a full environmental review. In February 2017, shortly after President Donald Trump took office, the Corps scrapped the review and granted permits for the project, concluding that running the pipeline under the Missouri River posed no significant environmental issues. The Corps said opinion was validated after an additional year of review, as ordered by the court.