Dakota Access Pipeline takes on oil while legal battle continues

By Patrick C. Miller | March 29, 2017

The section of the Dakota Access Pipeline that passes under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in south central North Dakota took on oil this week.

According to a status report filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, oil was placed in the pipeline beneath Lake Oahe, the reservoir formed by the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River near Pierre, South Dakota. The court previously rejected the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribe’s request for injunction on religious grounds to halt work on the crossing.

Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners is building the 1,172-mile-long, $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline which will transport about a half million barrels of crude from western North Dakota to a terminal in Patoka, Illinois. Attorneys for the companies said in their report, “Dakota Access is currently commissioning the full pipeline and is preparing to place the pipeline into service.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe—represented by the environmental organization Earthjustice—has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requesting a summary judgement aimed at shutting down the pipeline.

In its response to the lawsuit, attorneys for Dakota Access said, “For nearly two years the Corps and Dakota Access gave the Tribe and others multiple opportunities to comment, consult, and otherwise be heard on concerns about the project, including discussion of ways to mitigate or avoid potential risks. On the few occasions when the Tribe decided to participate in the process, it got results, including safer pipeline features.”

The Dakota Access response also noted that the lengthy environmental assessment issued by the Corp of Engineers concluded that the project “would have no significant effect on the environment.” The assessment was released for public comment a half year before the Corps decided to issue the permits needed for the Missouri River crossing on federal land.

During an Earthjustice podcast last weekend, attorney Jan Hasselman discussed the organization’s legal position on the Dakota Access Pipeline and its strategy on opposing energy infrastructure projects. He said the three main positions are that the Corps of Engineers should have required a full environmental impact statement, that the Corps didn’t properly consider tribal treaty rights and that the Trump administration was wrong to reverse the decisions made by the Corps under the Obama administration.

“When the president takes all that thoughtful work and says, ‘I like pipelines; go build a pipeline,” that’s not good enough,” Hasselman said. “We’re going to tell the judge that the flip-flop of reversing itself and issuing the permits was illegal.”

Hasselman also said that working with tribal governments, Earthjustice planned to oppose all U.S. energy infrastructure projects such as LNG terminals, natural gas pipelines, crude oil pipelines and coal export terminals.

“The reason that these are so critical is that when you make an investment of $500 million—in the case of a coal export terminal or $4 billion in the case of a crude oil pipeline—it’s more or less guaranteeing that that piece of infrastructure will be in place for the next 50 years,” he explained. “We can’t afford that. We need to be doing everything we can to be getting off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. When you talk about mining or drilling, those things can stop, but when someone’s invested $4 billion in a crude oil pipeline, it’s going to be pretty hard to turn it off.”

Last week, Vicki Granado, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, confirmed two cases of vandalism to the Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota and Iowa.

“If there had been crude in the line, there may have been a very different outcome—one that involved serious injury or worse,” she said. “Additionally, this person or persons was intentionally doing something that could cause harm to the environment—something they say they are trying to protect.”

Granado said investigations of the incidents are underway and that the company intends to prosecute the perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.