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Federal Judge Makes Rare Ruling to Drain Operating Oil Pipeline and Require Further Environmental Reviews

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, nominated to the court by former President Barack Obama, vacated a permit issued in 2017 under the administration of President Donald Trump, which allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP) to be completed and begin operating.

The $3.8 billion pipeline, spanning more than 1,100 miles, from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota where oil is produced, to distribution and refining infrastructure in Illinois, has transported millions of barrels of oil, at 570,000 barrels per day, since it first began operating in 2017.

Order: Drain the Pipeline

In addition, to vacating the Army Corp of Engineers permit, which is rare in itself for existing infrastructure, Boasberg ordered the pipeline to be emptied by August 5, 30 days from his July 6 ruling. Boasberg estimated the required review would take 18 approximately 18 months to complete.

The Standing Rock Sioux Indian tribe sued to block the portion of the pipeline that crosses under the Missouri River, claiming if a spill from the pipeline occurred it could wreak havoc on the reservation’s drinking water. The pipeline does not cross tribal lands.

While acknowledging his decision would cause a significant disruption, Boasberg agreed with the tribe’s claim that the potential environmental consequences of allowing the pipeline to continue operating were so great as to justify his close-and-drain demand.

“The Corps had failed to produce an Environmental Impact Statement despite conditions that triggered such a requirement,” wrote Boasberg in his ruling. “Although mindful of the disruption such a shutdown will cause, … given the seriousness of the Corps’ NEPA error, the impossibility of a simple fix, the fact that Dakota Access did assume much of its economic risk knowingly, and the potential harm each day the pipeline operates, the Court is forced to conclude that the flow of oil must cease.”


Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), operators of the pipeline, immediately requested Boasberg to stay and reconsider his ruling, a motion he denied within a day. ETP is appealing Boasberg’s decision to the full U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on which he serves.

“Shutting down this critical piece of infrastructure would throw our country’s crude supply system out of balance, negatively impact several significant industries, inflict more damage on an already struggling economy, and jeopardize our national security,” said a company spokesperson in a statement. “This was an ill-thought-out decision by the Court that should be quickly remedied.

“We believe that the ruling issued this morning from Judge Boasberg is not supported by the law or the facts of the case,” the company said in a statement. “We will be immediately pursuing all available legal and administrative processes and are confident that once the law and full record are fully considered Dakota Access Pipeline will not be shut down and that oil will continue to flow. The economic implications of the Judge’s order are too big to ignore and we will do all we can to ensure its continued operation”

Decision Threatens Economy and Environment

The company’s statement says Boasberg’s decision threatens the nation’s economic recovery.

“The Dakota Access Pipeline is the only direct pipeline from North Dakota to the distribution hub in Patoka, Illinois, from where this domestically produced Bakken-produced crude oil is transported to refineries throughout the Midwest and the Gulf Coast,” said the statement. “Billions of dollars in tax and royalty revenue will be lost by state, local and tribal governments in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois.

“Farmers will suffer as crude transportation will move to rail, displacing corn, wheat and soy crops that would normally be moved to market,” the statement reads.

The company also argued Boasberg’s decision heightens the danger to the environment because research consistently shows pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and gas, being the least likely transportation method to result in accidents, leaks, and spills.

“Ironically, the counties along these rail lines will face increased environmental risks due to the increased amount of crude oil travelling by rail,” said ETP’s statement.

Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hsburnett@heartland.org) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.


IT'S BACK: The Heartland Institute's Next CAN'T MISS Climate Conference spot_img
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is the director of The Heartland Institute's Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.


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