A federal judge could force the Dakota Access oil pipeline to be completed after last week's decision by the Obama administration to halt the project near an Indian reservation by refusing to grant it a key easement.
The District Court for the District of Columbia's Judge James Boasberg started the court's review Friday by setting a briefing schedule that will hear from the company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, and its claim that the Army Corps of Engineers should have granted the easement in the summer under federal rules.
Energy Transfer Partners wants the court to acknowledge that by issuing the permit in July, the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency with authority over the project, took all necessary action to grant the company the easement — and therefore conducting more assessments now is moot.
The easement would allow the pipeline to continue under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmental activists have been waging an effort to block the pipeline over concerns it would harm the tribe's water supply.
The easement includes the last 1,000 feet of a 1,200-mile pipeline built to move shale oil produced in North Dakota to a Illinois refinery.
The Army Corps halted the project on Sunday and ordered the company to find another route around the lake, which the company said is unacceptable.
The $3.8 billion project is losing $20 million per day each day it is delayed, attorney David Debold, representing Dakota Access, said in court Friday. He asserted that the "final decision on the right-of-way was made on July 25," and requested that the court expedite final approval of the project in considering the company's motion.
The court will complete its briefing on the Energy Transfer motion by February. It also will hear counter arguments by the Sioux tribe, at which time he may schedule oral arguments or make a final decision.
The pipeline dispute has quickly become a major touchstone environmental issue. Ahead of Sunday's decision by the Army Corps, the area around Lake Oahe had erupted into violence as clashes between protesters and police increased. Protests have gone on for months as the tribe has managed to gain national attention for its cause.
The Sioux have taken their claims to federal court twice in the last year, where judges decided that the pipeline had gone through all the necessary reviews to move forward.
The pipeline's developers have argued that granting the easement is more of a formality than a major step that requires its own separate review process. Nevertheless, the Obama administration told the company to halt construction and find a new route around the lake.