Federal officials have denied the final permits required for the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota.
The Army Corps of Engineers on Sunday announced it would instead conduct an environmental impact review of the 1,170-mile pipeline project and determine if there are other ways to route it to avoid a crossing on the Missouri River.
“The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
The announcement comes one day before the Army Corps of Engineers’ deadline for demonstrators to leave the protest site. The governor of North Dakota had also issued an emergency evacuation order.
Protestors have clashed with police, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a Sunday statement that the Department of Justice “will continue to monitor the situation in North Dakota in the days ahead” and stands “ready to provide resources to help all those who can play a constructive role in easing tensions.”
“The department remains committed to supporting local law enforcement, defending protestors’ constitutional right to free speech and fostering thoughtful dialogue on the matter,” she added.
“The safety of everyone in the area – law enforcement officers, residents and protesters alike – continues to be our foremost concern.”
Dakota Access has turned into a flashpoint in both the indigenous rights and anti-fossil fuel movement.
The tribe has said the federal government failed to consult it before approving the pipeline’s route this summer, and warned the proposed path threatens both cultural heritage sites and drinking water supplies from the Missouri River.
Sunday’s decision is a major victory for the tribe, which sued against other permitting decisions for the project, pushed the Obama administration to deny it, and rallied tribal allies and anti-pipeline activists to the cause.
"We wholeheartedly support the decision of the administration and commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing,” tribal Chairman Dave Archambault said.
Interior Secretary Sally JewellSally JewellOvernight Regulation: Trump administration lifts Obama freeze on federal coal mining Trump administration ends Obama's coal-leasing freeze Interior secretary reopens federal coal mining MORE also released a statement in support of the decision, saying it is in line with federal laws designed to assess environmental impacts of infrastructure projects.
"The thoughtful approach established by the Army today ensures that there will be an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts, as envisioned by NEPA," Jewell said.
But Dakota Access developer Energy Transfer Partners says the pipeline route is safe and notes that the company and federal regulators worked to consult the tribe before beginning construction.
The company has a strong ally in President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTexas Dem targets Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 Budowsky: Putin’s KGB super PAC Trump touts affordable childcare plans MORE, who supports the project, according to a notice sent out to supporters last week.
Energy Transfers didn't immediately respond to the announcement on Sunday, but CEO Kelcy Warren has previously said the project — a majority of which is complete — will move forward, even if it means waiting for Trump to take office next month.
Supporters blasted the Sunday decision, but noted that the ultimate fate of the project rests with Trump.
“President Obama’s decision not to issue the final easement is a rejection of the entire regulatory and judicial system, as well as the scores of Army Corps of Engineers and civil servants who toiled for more than 800 days to ensure the process was followed correctly, in accordance with the law,” said Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the group Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now.
“With President-elect Trump set to take office in just a few weeks, we are hopeful that this is not the final word on the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
The Standing Rock tribe’s opposition to the project — which it took to federal court in August — attracted the support of the anti-fossil fuel coalition of environmentalists that lined up against other projects like the Keystone Xl pipeline.
Together, an army of protesters — calling themselves “water protectors” — established a camp in North Dakota south of Bismarck protesting the project, while the tribe fought against it in the courts and within the Obama administration.
After a federal judge approved of regulators’ initial permitting process for the pipeline, the Obama administration immediately stepped in and said it would conduct a new review of the project. That review culminated in Sunday’s announcement from the Army Corps.
“Dakota Access took a reckless gamble with its investor’s money when it built its pipeline to either side of the river without the easement,” said Jan Hasselman, the Earthjustice lawyer who represented the tribe in its suit against the project.
“Despite the extraordinary public controversy and overwhelming opposition to this pipeline, Dakota Access rejected the government’s request to voluntary cease construction. Today, Dakota Access and its investors reap the consequences of this reckless gamble.”
Greens and tribal groups hailed the Sunday decision, while acknowledging that the issue is likely to ignite again after Trump’s inauguration.
“The fight to reject the Dakota Access Pipeline is not over, but the administration’s announcement today ensures Energy Transfer cannot continue its assault on the Standing Rock Sioux’s home, history, and heritage,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
Democratic lawmakers who sided with the tribe celebrated as well.
“In the year 2016, we should not continue to trample on Native American sovereignty,” said Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders'Morning Joe' co-host: We got into Trump's head Petition calls for Melania Trump to move to White House or pay NY security costs In California race, social justice wing of Democrats finally comes of age MORE (I-Vt.).
“We should not endanger the water supply of millions of people,” the former Democratic presidential candidate continued in a statement. “We should not become more dependent on fossil fuel and accelerate the planetary crisis of climate change.”
But local lawmakers and pipeline supporters appeared leery of the announcement.
“Today’s unfortunate decision sends a chilling signal to other who want to build infrastructure in this country,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said.
“I’m encouraged that we can restore law and order next month when we get a president with an adult administration who is not going to thumb his nose at the rule of law.”
Sen. John HoevenJohn HoevenCombating opioid epidemic, repealing ObamaCare will hurt the cause Senate panel considers how to fund Trump’s T infrastructure package A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (R-N.D.) said the decision “violates the rule of law and fails to resolve the issue.”
“Instead, it passes the decision off to the next administration, which has already indicated it will approve the easement, and in the meantime perpetuates a difficult situation for North Dakotans.”
The state’s Democratic senator, Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampSenate Dems to Trump: Work with us on ObamaCare Senate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight NRA launches M Supreme Court ad MORE (D-N.D.), who met with Trump on Friday for a discussion that reportedly included the project, warned that the “pipeline still remains in limbo.”
“The incoming administration already stated its support for the project and the courts have already stated twice that it appeared the Corps followed the required process in considering the permit,” she said in a statement.
“For the next month and a half, nothing about this project will change.”
Updated 5:39 p.m.