A federal judge said Wednesday he won’t keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from launching a full environmental study of the $3.8-billion Dakota Access pipeline’s disputed crossing under a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg denied Texas−based Energy Transfer Partners’ request to stop the Corps from proceeding until he rules on whether the company already has the necessary permission to lay pipe under Lake Oahe, the water source for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
The Army published a notice Wednesday of its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement on the Lake Oahe crossing. ETP won’t be able to lay pipe under the reservoir while the study is ongoing; it is currently blocked from doing so anyway.
A study could take up to two years, but the study notice can be withdrawn if Boasberg were to eventually rule that ETP has permission for the crossing, Army attorneys said. The notice says public comments will be accepted until Feb. 20 on "potential issues, concerns and reasonable alternatives" that should be considered in a study.
The stretch under Lake Oahe is the last big chunk of construction for the 1,200−mile pipeline. ETP has said in court documents there is already oil in a portion of the pipeline leading up to the lake in anticipation of finishing the project. But the Corps wants to look at alternate routes, the potential for a pipeline leak and tribal treaty rights in the wake of opposition by Standing Rock.
The Standing Rock Sioux and its supporters believe the four−state pipeline threatens drinking water and cultural sites. The tribe issued a statement Wednesday saying the study is "yet another small victory on the path to justice."
ETP disputes the tribe’s arguments and says the pipeline will be safe. It said the Corps gave it permission in July to proceed with the Lake Oahe stretch, but the Corps says all of the necessary steps have not yet been completed — including an easement to work on federal land and the notification of Congress.
An environmental assessment conducted last year determined the crossing would not have a significant impact on the environment. However, Assistant Army Secretary for Civil Works Jo−Ellen Darcy said in December that a broader environmental impact statement was warranted.
The Standing Rock Sioux had urged people to lobby the Corps to start the study before President−elect Donald Trump takes office Friday. Trump, whose transition team said in a memo that he supports the pipeline’s completion, could seek to reverse the Army’s decision last month to not allow the river crossing.
North Dakota’s U.S. senators, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican John Hoeven, said they think the federal government is changing the rules in the middle of the process and that the study shouldn’t be approved.
Opponents have camped near the pipeline route in North Dakota since the summer. The number of arrests surpassed 600 this week, as 16 were arrested Monday and Tuesday in confrontations near the camp.
The North Dakota Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to allow lawyers who aren’t licensed in North Dakota to handle protest cases on a temporary basis. The justices said there’s no evidence that defendants have been denied counsel because they couldn’t find a lawyer in North Dakota, but recognize the potential for "delay or inconvenience" due to the large number of arrests.