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Federal judge orders Dakota Access Pipeline shut down

Federal judge orders Dakota Access Pipeline shut down

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Pipeline construction stopped

Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline took place near St. Anthony at this site in 2016.

A federal judge has ordered the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline while a lengthy environmental review is conducted of the project opposed by environmentalists and American Indian tribes.

The move was requested earlier by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and three other Sioux tribes in the Dakotas who fear environmental harm from the pipeline and sued over the project four years ago. North Dakota officials have said such a move would have “significant disruptive consequences” for the state, whose oil patch has been hit hard in recent months by falling demand for crude amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The $3.8 billion pipeline built by developer Energy Transfer has been moving North Dakota oil to a shipping point in Illinois for three years. But U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, who is overseeing the lawsuit, in March ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement. The question of whether the pipeline would be shut down in the meantime has lingered since.

An EIS is a much more stringent review than the Environmental Assessment the Corps completed earlier. Such a study is expected to take 13 months, Boasberg wrote in the ruling he issued Monday.

After arguments by both sides and other interested parties, Boasberg revoked a key Corps permit for the pipeline and ordered that "Dakota Access shall shut down the pipeline and empty it of oil by August 5, 2020."

The pipeline has been carrying as much as 570,000 barrels of oil out of the Bakken each day — about 40% of the state's daily production before the pandemic hit. Boasberg acknowledged that his order "will cause significant disruption to DAPL, the North Dakota oil industry, and potentially other states." But he also said "the Corps has not been able to substantiate its decision to publish only an EA and not an EIS."

"Given the seriousness of the Corps' ... error, the impossibility of a simple fix, the fact that Dakota Access did assume much of its economic risk knowingly, and the potential harm each day the pipeline operates, the Court is forced to conclude that the flow of oil must cease," Boasberg wrote.

The judge in 2017 ordered the Corps to revisit several issues pertaining to the easement it granted the pipeline, but he allowed the pipeline to continue operating. The Corps completed the work in August 2018, leading to more legal wrangling when the tribes maintained the additional study was flawed. The company over the years has maintained that the pipeline is safe, a contention backed by the Corps. 

The lawsuit has lingered since July 2016. The tribes fear a pipeline spill into the Missouri River — which the line crosses beneath just to the north of the Standing Rock Reservation —  would contaminate water they rely on for drinking, fishing and religious practices.

Thousands of pipeline opponents from around the world who took up their cause flocked to southern North Dakota in 2016 and 2017 to protest the project. Some clashed with police, resulting in more than 760 arrests.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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