The acting secretary of the Army has instructed the Army Corps of Engineers to provide the final permit needed to complete the Dakota Access pipeline, according to two Republican North Dakota lawmakers who support the project.
Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer both issued statements Tuesday night saying the acting secretary of the Army, Robert Speer, had ordered the Corps to grant an easement for the pipeline to run under Lake Oahe.
“This will enable the company to complete the project,” Hoeven said, “which can and will be built with the necessary safety features to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others downstream.”
On Wednesday, however, the Army said the process still had a ways to go. Malcolm Frost, chief of public affairs for the Army, said the Army “has initiated the steps” outlined in the Jan. 24 presidential directive which directs the acting secretary of the Army to “expeditiously review” the Dakota Access Pipeline permits.
“These initial steps do not mean the easement has been approved,” Frost said. “The assistant secretary for the Army Civil Works will make a decision on the pipeline once a full review and analysis is completed in accordance with the directive.”
A representative of the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, said Tuesday night that the company did not know anything beyond what it saw on Cramer’s and Hoeven’s websites.
The apparent move came a week after President Trump issued a presidential memorandum instructing the agency to “review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted … for approvals to construct and operate” the pipeline.
The Dakota Access pipeline has become a central battle point for environmentalists who are trying to stop pipelines in general as part of a campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground. And it became a heavily symbolic battle for Native Americans as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe sought to prevent the pipeline company from disturbing sacred burial grounds and archaeological sites.
The 1,170-mile pipeline crosses four states and would carry crude oil from the rich shale oil basins of western North Dakota to the pipeline networks and refineries in Illinois. The pipeline is virtually complete, with the 1,100-foot stretch crossing underneath Lake Oahe being one of the final pieces.
The Standing Rock Sioux have also argued that the pipeline puts their drinking water in danger. The final stretch of pipeline crosses under Lake Oahe, a reservoir created when Army Corps built dams farther south on the Missouri River. The company plans to drill horizontally below the river bottom, and it argues that the pipeline will be safer than trains and trucks that carry some of the crude oil currently being produced.
But opponents of the pipeline say it could still leak and contaminate the water.
President Barack Obama, as weeks of protests added to political pressures, instructed the Army Corps to look at different route options for the pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners had considered laying the pipeline in the Bismarck suburbs, about 25 miles north of the current site. The Standing Rock Sioux officials have accused the company of racism for shunning largely white areas of Bismarck and digging in an area close to the Native Americans.
A statement by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, provided by its policy adviser Jodi Gillette Tuesday night, said that while a final easement had not yet been granted, tribal members planned to challenge any such action in court.
“The Army Corps lacks statutory authority to simply stop the [Environmental Impact Statement] and issue the easement. The Corps must review the Presidential Memorandum, notify Congress, and actually grant the easement. We have not received formal notice that the EIS has been suspended or withdrawn.”
“To abandon the EIS would amount to a wholly unexplained and arbitrary change based on the president’s personal views and, potentially, personal investments,” the statement added. “We stand ready to fight this battle against corporate interest superseding government procedure and the health and well-being of millions of Americans.”
Jan Hasselman, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice, said the pipeline obstacles were still not settled. “The easement wasn’t issued,” he said. “We assume it’s coming soon, and are ready to litigate. But we’re still waiting for the shoe to drop.”
But Trump made it clear during the presidential campaign he backed the development of both the Dakota Access pipeline and Keystone XL, a project that spanned the U.S.-Canada border that Obama vetoed after a seven-year federal review process. Trump issued a separate directive inviting the company behind Keystone XL, TransCanada, to reapply for a presidential permit, but that process will take much longer.
Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a coalition of business, agriculture and labor groups, issued a statement praising the move.
“We appreciate that President Trump is keeping his word to move lawful, carefully sited energy projects forward,” the group said. “This is a positive development for the pipeline, construction workers across the country, and those who seek to invest in our nation’s infrastructure.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) also issued a statement welcoming the move, saying “we know construction will move forward — though we are waiting on more information in regards to a timeline for when construction can begin.”
Given the likely court challenge, it is unclear when work on the pipeline would restart. The tribal council has asked the few hundred protesters who remain on site to leave, in part because of harsh weather conditions.
Last fall, hundreds of law enforcement officers from different states and counties confronted protesters with water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray. Arrests reached a peak of more than 140 protesters. On Sunday, according to Hoeven, another 20 additional Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officers arrived at Standing Rock to help local authorities.
More from Energy and Environment: