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Environmental Justice Wins, Pipelines Lose

Three pipelines were stopped in a twenty-four-hour period after years of opposition led by Indigenous and Black environmental justice groups.

Thousands of water protectors and allies spent weeks at the Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota in 2016 to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo: Reuters)

Thousands of water protectors and allies spent weeks at the Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota in 2016 to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo: Reuters)

On July 6, a federal judge ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) be shut down and emptied by August 5 until a more extensive environmental review can be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The order marks a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, who have been organizing for years to oppose the pipeline’s construction.

In Virginia, the predominantly Black community of Union Hill, which was settled by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War, led the opposition to the pipeline.

The 1,172-mile-long underground pipeline carries oil from northwest North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to an oil terminal in Illinois. In South Dakota, it crosses the Missouri River, the Mississippi River and part of Lake Oahe. The Standing Rock Sioux are concerned that the pipeline will contaminate these water sources.

“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,” said Mike Faith, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Since 2016, the tribe has been fighting a high-profile struggle against the DAPL. “It took four long years, but today justice has been served at Standing Rock,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice who represents the Tribe. “We are undergoing a rapid economic and cultural shift nationally, where the economics of the frontline communities is pushing to the forefront of national consciousness,” Hasselman told The Progressive. 

On March 25, Judge James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia  ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “had violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it granted an easement [ . . . ] to construct and operate a segment of that crude-oil pipeline running beneath the lake [Oahe].” The court ordered the Corps to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

In response to the ruling, Energy Transfer, the company that built and now operates DAPL, said, “We intend to immediately file a motion to stay this decision and if not granted, to pursue a stay and expedited appeal with the Court of Appeals.” Energy Transfer filed that motion on Monday and, according to Hasselman, it was denied by a judge on Tuesday morning. The D.C. Circuit will now decide if it will issue a stay, while Energy Transfer asks for an appeal. On Monday, Energy Transfer’s shares fell by up to 14 percent.

The Environmental Impact Statement could take up to thirteen months to prepare, according to the judge’s ruling, a timeframe that could see a new administration and new policies in place.

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann told The Progressive, “These are important ‘supply side’ successes in the climate battle and they demonstrate that activism and continued pressure and awareness-raising DO make a difference. But we need some ‘demand side’ successes, too. That means legislation with incentives for renewables and a price on carbon. House Democrats have now put forward such a bill, but the only way it becomes law is if the Democrats win back both the Presidency and Senate (and keep the House) in the 2020 election. Elections have consequences!”

The order falls on the heels of Dominion Energy and Duke Energy’s July 5 announcement that they have canceled the 600-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would have stretched from Virginia to North Carolina and carried fracked natural gas. This pipeline, like DAPL, faced years of legal delays, which ran up their costs. Bill McKibben of 350.org called the rulings “two massive victories in two days.”

Tribes including the Lumbee, Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, and Meherrin Tribes had organized for years to shut down the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline. Large Native American populations live along the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route. Ryan Emanuel, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and Associate Professor, Center for Geospatial Analysis and Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University, told The Progressive: “Individual Native Americans were heavily involved in grassroots organizing and building partnerships with other communities and organizations. People from many different Tribes were involved in these efforts, especially Tribes in North Carolina and Virginia whose traditional territories lay along the route.”

In Virginia, the predominantly Black community of Union Hill, which was settled by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War, led the opposition to the pipeline. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents an alliance of organizations opposed to the pipeline, called this “a victory for all communities and natural areas in the path of the pipeline—countless farms, rugged national forests, thousands of rivers and streams, and historic African American and Native American communities.”

Also on July 6, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to Keystone XL by rejecting a bid to revive a key permit. The court agreed to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reinstate use of its streamlined permitting for oil and gas pipelines across the country, with the exception of Keystone XL.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has opposed the Keystone pipeline since it was first proposed in 2008.

Collectively, these three court rulings over a twenty-four-hour period are a big win for tribes and environmental groups. The rulings also highlight economic and environmental costs associated with pipelines, exacerbated by the protests, rendering pipelines less and less viable.

Tina Gerhardt

Tina Gerhardt

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist who covers climate change, international negotiations and energy policy. Her work has appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Climate Progress, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive and the Washington Monthly.

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