The apparent reversal continues the saga over the project, which has become a rallying point for Native civil rights and a deepening crisis for federal rule of law. It also illustrates how inescapable Trump’s conflicts of interest are: The president may own as much as $50,000 in stock of Energy Transfer Partners. He has never offered evidence he has divested himself of it.
The Dakota Access pipeline is a proposed 1,100-mile conduit that will connect the oil fields of North Dakota to the ports and refineries of southern Illinois. The pipeline’s route passes almost entirely through private land, and it is already more than 80 percent complete.
But it also crosses Lake Oahe, a federal waterway and a major reservoir of the Missouri River. The Standing Rock Sioux reservation is west of Lake Oahe, and they depend on it as a water source. (Lake Oahe was also created by the Corps of Engineers in the 1960s, when it a botched a dam project and flooded sacred Sioux land.)
Since the spring, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has argued that neither Energy Transfer Partners nor the Army Corps of Engineers told the tribe about plans for the project, as the law requires. The Army Corps of Engineers used a national permit designed for wetland areas to approve the pipeline, meaning that the project never got a full environmental-impact review.
The tribe and the Army Corps of Engineers tussled over whether this was legal throughout the summer. Simultaneously, thousands of demonstrators—the majority of them Native people from across North America—set up huge protest camps on the Standing Rock reservation to oppose the pipeline’s construction.
In early September, a federal judge in D.C. district court released a verdict: The Corps, he said, had behaved appropriately. But minutes later, the Obama administration announced that it was independently reviewing the pipeline’s permits, and it asked Energy Transfer Partners to halt construction.
Three months later, in early December, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it had made a mistake. The Dakota Access pipeline would get a two-year environmental-impact review after all. “It’s clear that there’s more work to do,” said Jo-Ellen Darcy, then the Army secretary for civil works. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”
But then, last week, Donald Trump ordered the Corps of Engineers “to review and approve [the Dakota Access pipeline] in an expedited manner.” He also asked the agency to look into withdrawing the environmental-impact requirement “to the extent permitted by law and as warranted.”
The army now appears to be fulfilling that command. The Army Corps appears to not yet have formally issued the easement allowing the construction. Instead, two different congressmen from the state said that the acting secretary for the army informed them that he will order the easement.