Thursday, March 26, 2020

Full Environmental Review for Dakota Access Pipeline

Protests have not come to naught – on Wednesday, a US federal court ordered the Trump administration to conduct a full environmental review of an oil pipeline expansion project, which has been a long-standing focal point of tribal and environmental activism. 

The court granted a request by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which had petitioned to nullify federal permits for Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline on grounds that the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act when they issued permits in 2016 without conducting adequate environmental reviews. 

“This court ultimately concludes that too many questions remain unanswered. Unrebutted expert critiques regarding leak-detection systems, operator safety records, adverse conditions, and worst-case discharge mean that the easement approval remains 'highly controversial' under NEPA”, the court ruling stated. 

The decision is the latest twist in a years-long legal battle about the pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe had sued the Army Corps over its approval of the pipeline in North Dakota, arguing that oil spills could contaminate their water source, the Missouri River. 

Jan Hasselman, a lawyer for Earthjustice representing the tribe, said the court decision showed that the Obama administration was "right to deny the permits in 2016". 

The pipeline has been operational since June 2017, after President Donald Trump gave them approval over the objections of tribes and environmentalists who were fearful it would pollute a waterway sacred to the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux. 

Indeed, a significant legal win. At least for now. 

But for Native Americans taking a stand for their tribal lands – the pipeline battle is really about tribal sovereignty. It is a concept that was cemented in US legal doctrine by a trio of Supreme Court cases from the 1820s and ’30s – a legal idea that Native American tribes aren’t formally part of the states they reside in, but rather semi-autonomous nations with rights to self-governance that stop states and, in some cases, even the federal government from interfering with tribal issues. 

There’s a historical case here: Tribal sovereignty has never been fully respected by the US, which often encroached on and abused tribes under federal rule. 

Today’s Dakota Access pipeline battle, then, is emblematic of the general mistreatment that Native Americans have faced over the centuries after a few strange white men landed on the eastern shores of the Americas.

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