Federal Judge Rules Dakota Access Pipeline Must Be Shut Down And Emptied For Now

The decision provides a major, if-temporary, victory to those who have continually protested against the oil pipeline over the years, including members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

Getty Images/ 2016/12/04: Hundreds of New York activists participate on a march organized by The Climate Mobilization

A federal judge ruled on Monday that the long-contested Dakota Access Pipeline must shut down within 30 days while a lengthy environmental review of the project is conducted. The ruling provides a major, if temporary, victory to those who have continually protested against the oil pipeline over the years, including members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The shutdown could last for 13 months.

Permits for the last leg of the pipeline project were originally rejected by the Obama administration, who in December 2016 said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would conduct a full environmental review and look for alternate routes for the pipeline in order to avoid construction under the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe reservation is less than one mile from that dammed area of the river, downstream, and members of the tribe argued that a leak in the pipeline could contaminate their drinking water and damage sacred lands. The Indigenous community was joined by environmental activists in protests for years before the Obama admin. made that decision.

But shortly after President Trump took office, the Corps scrapped the review at his direction and granted permits for the project. The underground pipeline extends nearly 1,200 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, with a small portion running under the Missouri River.

In March of this year, nearly three years after the pipeline began carrying oil, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg determined that the Corps easement of the review and approval for the pipeline remains “highly controversial” under federal environmental law, and ordered the agency to prepare a more in-depth environmental impact analysis of the project than what was previously submitted. However, Boasberg hadn’t yet decided whether oil could continue to flow through the pipeline while the environmental review was conducted.

On Monday, he determined that the pipeline must be shut down and emptied while the environmental impact report is completed – which the Corps says could take up to 13 months.

"Fearing severe environmental consequences, American Indian Tribes on nearby reservations have sought for several years to invalidate federal permits allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to carry oil under the lake," Boasberg wrote. "Today they finally achieve that goal — at least for the time being."

The pipeline has caused tension for years, as protests from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, environmentalists, and their supporters were often met with “extraordinary police violence,” according to The Guardian, causing a national public outcry. In 2016, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, arguing that the pipeline “threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being, and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious, and cultural significance to the Tribe.”

In a statement Monday after the court’s latest decision, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe chairman Mike Faith said, "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. This pipeline should have never been built here. We told them that from the beginning."

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, will reportedly seek to freeze or appeal the ruling. If this temporary victory for the tribe and environmentalists can last without further legal interference for the rest of the year, though, “there is a strong possibility that [a] new Biden Administration could decide to not reissue the authorizations now that the permits have been vacated,” as energy analyst Christine Tezak told Bloomberg Law.

The ruling follows another victory for environmentalists on Sunday, when Dominion Energy and Duke Energy canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project after many years of legal delays, a natural gas pipeline that was slated to run 600 miles from West Virginia, through Virginia, to eastern North Carolina.