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Dakota Access: what’s happened so far?

Published by , Assistant Editor
World Pipelines,

In July, the US Army Corps of Engineers issued a formal Finding of No Significant Impact after conducting an environmental review of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL).

For months, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been protesting against DAPL as it believes that the pipeline will threaten its water supply and cultural heritage. Their points have attracted interest across the world, with thousands of environmentalists supporting its efforts.

The tribe was also challenging the Corps' decision to grant approximately 200 permits at water crossings for the pipeline.

The US$3.8 billion, 1172 mile project would carry nearly 500 000 bpd of crude oil from North Dakota's oil fields, through South Dakota and Iowa, to an existing pipeline in Patoka (Illinois) where shippers can access Midwest and Gulf Coast markets.

On 9 September, Judge James Boasberg of the US District Court, denied the Standing Rock Sioux’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt construction of the pipeline, which led the tribe to seek an emergency injunction.

Amist protest, later in September, a federal appeals court ordered Dakota Access LLC (a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners) to halt its construction of a section of the pipeline in a radius of 20 miles of Lake Oahe. The Corps also issued a ruling that granted the tribe a temporary permit, allowing them to legally protest on federal lands that are managed by the agency.

On 9 October, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals allowed construction to resume on a small stretch of the DAPL while it considered Standing Rock’s appeal. This ruling removed the temporary injunction that had halted work on the project.

Although construction work could resume, three federal agencies – Interior, Justice and Army – ordered that construction must remain halted on land next to and underneath Lake Oahe, that is owned by the Corps while it reviews its permitting decisions.

With work on each side of Lake Oahe complete, on 8 November, Energy Transfer Partners chose the day of the US presidential election to announce that the final phase of the controversial construction project would begin.

Although federal regulators had not given a go-ahead signal that the line will be able to proceed, the company stated that it would not slow down construction.

Thomas O'Hara, an Army Corps spokesman, is reported to have told Bloomberg News that the company agreed to slow down construction, something that Energy Transfer refuted.

This timing of the announcement has raised some suspicion. Activists were frustrated with the US presidential race, with Hillary Clinton refusing to take a position on the conflict and Donald Trump having close financial ties to DAPL.

With Energy Transfer Partners beginning to prepare for tunnelling under Lake Oahe, protesters blocked a construction yard where construction equipment was kept.

Energy Transfer Partners claims that the Corps’ decision to halt construction at the lake is unjust and a reinforcement of the Administration’s lack of interest in enforcing and abiding by the law. The company said that it was confident that the previous review process conducted by the Corps was thorough and comprehensive.

The DAPL operator also made two court filings, seeking a judgment that declared that Energy Transfer Partners has the legal right to build, complete and operate the DAPL without further action from the Corps.

On 4 December, the Corps denied Energy Transfer Partners LP a permit for the construction of the final section of pipe – a decision that as celebrated was a victory for the thousands of protesters (Native Americans, environmentalists and other groups).

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it's clear that there's more work to do,” the Corps’ assistant secretary for civil works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, said in a statement.

Energy Transfer Partners responded by stating the decision is "a purely political action." It added that it is committed to bringing the project to completion.

Standing Rock Sioux’s Chairman, Dave Archambault II, spoke to NBC News, stating that he was "thankful that there were some leaders in the federal government that realised that something is not right even though it's legal."

While this was somewhat celebrated as a victory for the protesters, it may be short-lived. President-elect Donald Trump supports the project and policy experts believe that he could reverse the decision if he chose to.

While the Corps believes that more time is required to complete further studies and to consider alternative routes, Energy Transfer Partners still plans to press on with construction of the final section of DAPL along its planned route, despite the Corps' denial of a crucial permit.

Protests began in April and have continued through spring, summer, fall, and winter. While stopping the pipeline’s construction is the long-term goal of the group, the short-term goal is dealing with the winter.

The government ordered people to leave the main encampment, which is on Army Corps of Engineers' land, due to temperature concerns. However, demonstrators are prepared to stay and authorities say they will not forcibly remove them.

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