At a court hearing Friday, the Biden administration will decide whether to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline for several months while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts a more thorough environmental impact review.
The Justice Department, Energy Transfer LP—one of the owners of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL)—and Indigenous tribes are set to appear virtually at 2 pm EDT in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where federal government lawyers are expected to announce the fate of the fossil fuel project.
Since 2017, DAPL has transported up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota's shale basins to a distribution terminal in southern Illinois; after that nearly 1,200-mile journey, the barrels are sent south through existing pipelines to oil refineries and petrochemical plants near the Gulf of Mexico. There have been more than 1,500 spills nationwide from crude oil pipelines like DAPL since 2010. DAPL, for its part, has leaked repeatedly since it began operating four years ago.
In January, a federal appeals court upheld District Court Judge James E. Boasberg's order for a more extensive environmental assessment of the project—but reversed the part of the judge's ruling that would have required a pause in pipeline operations during the Army Corps' review.
The Army Corps "is in charge of issuing permits for pipelines to travel under waterways," Reuters noted. However, "since its permit to cross under Lake Oahe was thrown out," when Boasberg withdrew DAPL's federal easement last July, the pipeline "has been legally trespassing on federal land."
As Bloomberg Law reported: "The Army Corps could exercise enforcement authority to order Dakota Access to alter or halt operations while additional environmental review is underway. It could also follow the Trump administration's example and allow oil to continue to flow despite the invalid easement."
Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) told Bloomberg Law that Stacey Jensen, an Army Corps official, informed pipeline opponents that it doesn't plan to shut down DAPL.
Although "the Biden administration has kept mum about its plans," Boasberg ordered the White House to appear in court Friday "to say what it intends to do," the news outlet noted.
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Opponents of the pipeline argue that allowing the ecologically destructive DAPL to continue operating while its owners engage in a yearslong permitting battle is unlawful.
"This pipeline is now operating illegally. It doesn't have any permits," Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney who is representing the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes in their fight against the pipeline, said in January. "The appeals court put the ball squarely in the court of the Biden administration to take action. And I mean shutting the pipeline down until this environmental review is completed."
Following the January ruling, a group of five Democratic lawmakers led by Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) sent a letter imploring President Joe Biden to step in and immediately shut down the pipeline, whose ownership group includes Energy Transfer, Phillips 66, and Enbridge.
Last week, 28 lawmakers from the House and Senate joined the pressure campaign as Indigenous youth rallied near the White House and delivered 400,000 petition signatures in support of shutting down DAPL as well as Enbridge's Line 3.
A coalition of Indigenous activists—led by Standing Rock Youth and including Fort Berthold Descendants Alliance, Fort Berthold P.O.W.E.R., Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective, and IEN—on Thursday held a rally outside of the oil-producing Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation's council meeting to ask Tribal Chairman Mark Fox to uphold his campaign promise to support the shutdown of DAPL.
"You need to understand that you are destroying our water," said 10-year-old Love Hopkins, who is Arikara and Lakota. "What are you going to do when that oil is in our water? How will you feed your youth? How will you give a drink of water to your children or your grandchildren?"
"The government and its pliers the Army Corps have been playing with First Nations people and we are tired of it," Hopkins added.
Kandi White, an MHA citizen, put the stakes of the decision about the future of DAPL into sharp relief: "It's hard because it's controversial but so is the pollution of water and the killing of the planet and our future generations."