A District of Columbia federal judge on Monday turned down a request to temporarily block construction on the Dakota Access pipeline, saying there would not be any risk of immediate harm until oil starts flowing.
But U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, while denying a request by two Native American Lakota tribes for a temporary restraining order, ordered the pipeline company to provide weekly updates about when it expected oil to begin flowing, leaving open the possibility of further court intervention. He set a date of Feb. 27 for a hearing on whether to issue a preliminary injunction at that time.
“Because there is no immediate harm because oil is not going to flow immediately, I deny the” temporary restraining order, Boasberg said from the bench after an hour-long hearing.
David Debold, an attorney for Dakota Access, said that oil could start flowing in 30 days or even earlier, a much faster schedule than other company representatives have given. Debold said “the company is moving as quickly as it can to complete the pipeline, to make up for lost time over the last few months.”
The case is an early test of the power of President Trump’s executive orders. The president has been trying to speed up the pipeline’s completion, while the tribes and environmental groups have argued that the administration’s actions violate administrative procedure and treaty obligations.
Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice and lawyer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said the tribes expect to file a new, broader motion in the next couple of day seeking partial summary judgment under the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act and Administrative Process Act.
The motion Boasberg rejected Monday was based solely on religious freedom grounds, with the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux arguing that the Missouri River and Lake Oahe are integral parts of their sacred rights and beliefs. The pipeline, they said, would “desecrate the Tribe’s sacred waters” and pose “plain irreparable harm.”
The tribes, part of the Lakota people, said in their filing that the Lakota people believe that “the pipeline correlates with a terrible Black Snake prophesied to come into the Lakota homeland and cause destruction.”
A new filing would probably raise very different legal questions, Boasberg said.
The Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry crude oil about 1,170 miles from western North Dakota across four states to the refineries and pipeline networks in Illinois, has been the focus of legal maneuvering and protests for months. In an area near Cannonball, N.D., the company would drill underneath Lake Oahe, a measure designed to prevent any leak into the lake and the Missouri River. The company’s defenders assert that there are four other oil pipelines that cross the Missouri River north of the Dakota Access site.
The Standing Rock Sioux say the pipeline disturbs sacred burial grounds and archaeological sites and still endangers water supplies.
In late 2016, then-President Barack Obama ordered the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the river and lake, to ask the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, to submit environmental impact statements on alternative routes. But then Trump on Jan. 24 ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to speedily issue the final easement the company needed to finish construction in the national interest. On Feb. 8, the Army said it no longer needed an environmental impact statement and issued the easement.
“We will ask the judge to declare that the Trump administration’s actions in approving this project were illegal, arbitrary and capricious,” Hasselman told reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing on Monday.
“We’re disappointed with today’s ruling denying a temporary restraining order against the Dakota Access pipeline, but we are not surprised. We know this fight is far from over,” said Chase Iron Eyes, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and lead counsel in a group defending Lakota rights.
Iron Eyes said the tribes would continue to pursue legal remedies and push for the completion of a full environmental impact statement.
“It tells you they’re overlooking our role as a tribal government, as a sovereign nation,” said Frank White Bull, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council. “Of course it’s disappointing, but it is not the end of the fight. Our fight is perpetual as long as the Lakota people are in existence.”
Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River tribe, headquartered at Eagle Butte, S.D., said he was disappointed in the ruling, saying “time is of the essence,” but adding “we’ll just have to regroup and try to fight harder and hope his honor reaches a different conclusion” later.
Iron Eyes said that the Standing Rock Sioux would continue to urge protesters to “resist this pipeline on the ground, peacefully and prayerfully.”
Joe Heim and Brady Dennis contributed to this article.