THE OBAMA administration announced Sunday that it is denying an easement needed to build the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would run crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The project is mostly built on private land but requires approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to cross federally regulated waters, including Lake Oahe, a section of the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe , which governs a reservation near the lake, objects that the project threatens its water and violates sacred land. The protest camp the tribe created has swelled with activists from across the country, who have clashed with local authorities. So, with the harsh Dakota winter descending on the camp, the Army Corps said Sunday it would examine new routes in consultation with tribal leaders.
It is hard not to have sympathy for the tribe. Driven off their territory and cordoned into a small reservation, the Standing Rock and other Native American communities were victims of grave injustice as white Americans moved relentlessly west in pursuit of land and fortune. The area outside the reservation still holds historical and cultural significance, which deserves careful consideration.
Yet that is exactly what the Standing Rock Sioux already received, to the degree the federal government could provide it. A September court ruling denied its request for an injunction against the project, in part because, according to U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, the federal government exceeded legal requirements that it consider potential archeological damage and seek input from Native American leaders when considering permits for pipeline water crossings. In fact, the court documented the great lengths to which the Army Corps went to engage with the Standing Rock Sioux and adjust the routing when concerns were aired.
The tribe demanded more, including that the Army Corps scrutinize the pipeline route from beginning to end — even though the agency does not have jurisdiction over the private land on which most of it will run. Mr. Boasberg noted that the tribe made this request for administrative overreach based on little serious evidence of impending harm. “Standing Rock needs to offer more than vague assertions that some places in the Midwest around some bodies of water may contain some sacred sites that could be affected,” the judge wrote.
For its part, the Army Corps insists it faithfully followed the law but that it made a “policy decision” to seek “a more robust consideration of alternatives and additional public information,” according to a spokeswoman. Yet it is not as though the originally proposed route, which at places carefully snaked around sensitive sites, was arbitrary. In fact, it would parallel an existing gas pipeline tunneling below Lake Oahe. If this new process uncovers a Goldilocks route that everyone can support, great. But, as with any infrastructure project, it is unlikely there is a magic solution that satisfies every preference. Politicizing the permitting process, moreover, is unlikely to make it fairer.
The Dakota Access affair is the second major instance of pipeline activism in recent years. It and Keystone XL became highly visible symbols of much larger fights about the environment and tribal rights. But no matter how big the issues activists attached to them, these pipelines, at their core, are nothing more than routine infrastructure projects, thousands of which underpin the U.S. economy. The approval or denial of one or two will do little to cure global oil addiction or right generations of harm to tribal groups.
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