The Obama administration punted Monday on the Dakota Access pipeline, delaying a decision on the hotly contested project and increasing the likelihood that the final call will be left to the next president, Donald Trump.
In a statement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that “additional discussion and analysis are warranted” on the $3.8 billion, four-state pipeline that has drawn thousands of protesters to rural North Dakota, triggering multiple clashes with local law enforcement and nearly 500 arrests.
The corps withdrew its permit for construction at the Missouri River and Lake Oahe in September in response to objections from the Standing Rock Sioux, which has raised alarm over the pipeline’s impact on water quality and tribal relics.
“The Army has determined that additional discussion and analysis are warranted in light of the history of the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossessions of lands, the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe, our government-to-government relationship, and the statute governing easements through government property,” the corps said.
The agency also warned that Dakota Access LLC cannot complete construction on the 1,100-foot stretch bordering Lake Oahe, the final segment of the project in North Dakota, “because the Army has not made a final decision on whether to grant an easement.”
“The Army will work with the tribe on a timeline that allows for robust discussion and analysis to be completed expeditiously,” said the statement.
Supporters of the pipeline were outraged, pointing out that the project already had undergone a two-year state and federal permitting process and accusing the Obama administration of attempting to kill the pipeline in order to appease its political allies.
“Today’s decision is yet another attempt at death by delay and is a stunning rebuke of the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal civil service, four state governments and the rule of law,” said Cliff Stevens, a spokesman for the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now.
“This extrajudicial, political decision is exactly why hard-working Americans across the country rejected a third Obama term,” he said in a statement. “By its own review and admission, the Army Corps of Engineers did everything right. Americans expect their government to play by the rules — and this is just another example of the Obama administration using its perceived authority to drive a political agenda.”
Former U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration head Brigham McCown called on the administration to abide by the rule of law, saying, “Today’s political decision undermines the regulatory review process and places future infrastructure projects in jeopardy.”
Meanwhile, foes of the pipeline cheered the decision to engage in more consultation with the tribe, an announcement that came the day before the #NoDAPL National Day of Action.
“This is fantastic and welcome news. We aren’t out of the woods yet. Don’t forget tomorrow’s day of action,” actor Mark Ruffalo, a prominent pipeline critic, said on Twitter.
The 1,172-mile pipeline, which begins at North Dakota’s Bakken Formation and ends in Illinois, is about 84 percent complete. Construction recently finished in North Dakota except for the final 1,100 feet, where the oil pipeline would run adjacent to a 30-year-old natural gas pipeline at Lake Oahe.
The pipeline is located almost entirely on private land, with just 3 percent under federal jurisdiction, and comes within about a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman David Archambault II praised the administration’s decision to take more time on the review.
“We are encouraged and know that the peaceful prayer and demonstration at Standing Rock have powerfully brought to light the unjust narrative suffered by tribal nations and Native Americans across the country,” he said in a statement.