Five things to know about the Dakota Access Pipeline fight

Five things to know about the Dakota Access Pipeline fight
© Greg Nash
 
North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux tribe took to Washington this week in its growing legal battle against a major pipeline project. 
 
The tribe says the Dakota Access Pipeline threatens its sacred sites and imperils drinking water near its North Dakota reservation. 
 
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Green and anti-fossil fuel groups have taken up the tribe’s cause, setting in motion one of the highest-profile pipeline fights since President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline last year. 
 
Here are five things to know about the fight over Dakota Access.

What is the Dakota Access Pipeline? 

Dakota Access is a 1,170-mile pipeline that would, at peak capacity, deliver up to 570,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois.
 
The pipeline is only slightly shorter than the proposed 1,179-mile Keystone XL project, but it would transport less oil than the planned 800,000-barrel Keystone. 
 
Though they’re comparable in length and capacity, the legal situations around the two are very different. Since Keystone crossed an international border, it required a stricter environmental review and, ultimately, presidential approval. 
 
Dakota Access is domestic, and developers have sought its approval under a different process that tribal leaders say didn’t give them the chance to provide their input.
 
The $3.7 billion project, from developers Energy Transfer Partners, has secured nearly all of the permits — federal and state — it needs to move forward. Workers have begun clearing and grading work along much of the pipeline’s route. 

Why are the Sioux objecting? 

The tribe’s basic argument, which it made to a federal judge Wednesday, is that regulators at the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t give it enough of a chance to assess the pipeline’s impact on cultural sites and the possible effects of a spill along the line. 
 
The tribe is seeking an injunction blocking additional construction until it can make those assessments.
 
“The [law] doesn’t give the tribes veto power over anything, it gives them the right to have a dialog around their cultural heritage,” Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice lawyer representing the tribe, said. “An injunction for us doesn’t mean no pipeline.”
 
Beyond legal issues, though, the tribe has raised cultural objections to the pipeline, calling it the latest slight from companies and governments seeking to profit off of natural resources on or near tribal lands. 
 
In that sense, Hasselman and tribal allies said, the Standing Rock Sioux are ready to wage a more thorough protest against the project and turn it into a social justice issue. 
 
“Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri [River] or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday. 
 
“We are also a resilient people who have survived unspeakable hardships in the past, so we know what is at stake now.”

How have pipeline supporters responded?  

Federal officials and Dakota Access developers say they gave Standing Rock the chance to survey the pipeline’s route, but the tribe declined. 
 
“The Corps followed procedure in this case when it actively worked to engage with the plaintiffs, the Standing Rock Sioux,” federal lawyer Matthew Marinelli told the judge Wednesday.
 
Hasselmen told the court the developers’ offer was too “narrow” for the tribe to accept.
 
Dakota Access, too, has fought back against accusations it took a cavalier approach to routing the pipeline. Its lawyer said Wednesday that it surveyed 100 percent of the pipeline’s route, and that it shared the conclusions with the tribe. It’s also allowing tribal officials on construction sites to monitor the work.
 
“This is not a cowboy process,” lawyer William Leone said. 
 
North Dakota Petroleum Council spokeswoman Tessa Sandstrom said the project is an important economic driver for the state, and she said it has broad support among other landowners there.
 
“People in North Dakota have been asking for infrastructure, and we’ve finally got a project that can help with a lot of that,” she said.

Who else is involved in the fight?

Protests against the pipeline have ballooned since the Army Corps released a major round of permits in July. Organizers see an anti-pipeline effort as wide-reaching as any since Keystone. 
 
Hundreds of people — tribal residents and fossil fuel protesters — have demonstrated against the pipeline at construction sites in North Dakota, with the state’s governor declaring a state of emergency there and a federal judge issuing a restraining order against new protests. About 20 people have been arrested as part of the demonstrations. 
 
Nationally, greens have begun mobilizing against the pipeline as well, moving beyond the basic legal questions posed by the tribe. Thirty-one groups sent a letter to the White House on Thursday, asking President Obama to block the final permits needed for Dakota Access and revoke those already issued.
 
“The president and his administration can weigh in and take action, and they have the legal authority to call for a full environmental review of this pipeline, or to halt construction by not granting permits,” said Catherine Collentine, ‎a senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club.
 
A stringent environmental review helped tie up Keystone, anti-pipeline activists’ biggest victory during Obama’s presidency. But they acknowledge they have a tougher task ahead in taking on Dakota Access: Most permits have been issued, and early work on the project is almost done, even in North Dakota.
 
But a political fight could be brewing, too: Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP touts FBI probe into Sanders’s wife New Alexandra Pelosi documentary brings together GOP, Dem members Sanders: FBI inquiry of wife is 'pathetic' attack MORE (I-Vt.) spoke out against the project on Thursday because of the pipeline’s impact on climate change.
 
And the anti-Dakota Access push has attracted star power as well. Actresses Susan Sarandon and Shailene Woodley — both diehard Sanders backers during the Democratic presidential primary — headlined a rally against the pipeline in Washington this week.
 
Citing the lawsuit, the White House directed questions on the pipeline to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment. 

What comes next? 

Developers hope to get Dakota Access up and running by Jan 1. It has halted construction work amid protests and while it waits for final permitting to come through. 
 
Federal District Judge James Boasberg has said he’ll rule on an injunction against the pipeline’s construction by Sept. 9, and, anticipating appeals, he set another hearing on the matter for the following week. 
 
Tribal allies said the injunction request is just the beginning of the legal battle. They could pose environmental questions next, and Hasselman said other tribes along the pipeline route could look to challenge it as well. 
 
And as opposition firms up, a public campaign against Dakota Access is looming, too. 
 
“The thing that’s happening out there is so much bigger than the lawsuit,” Hasselman said. “I think it’s potentially big in ways we don’t understand yet.”