-- Earlier this week the Army Corps of Engineers signaled that it would grant an easement on the Dakota Access pipeline, a move that could resume construction on the stalled and controversial project. But opponents of the pipeline believe the easement cannot be granted legally at this time.
What the Army Is Saying
After completing a review of the remaining permit request, the Army announced in a statement Tuesday that it intends to grant an easement to allow the last section of the 1,172-mile pipeline to be built. Part of this section will run under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe, just upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation.
Robert Speer, acting secretary of the Army, said the decision was made based on a sufficient amount of available information. As a result, the notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement was terminated.
"Today's announcement will allow for the final step, which is granting of the easement," Speer said in a statement Tuesday. "Once that is done, we will have completed all the tasks in the Presidential Memorandum of Jan. 24, 2017."
This final phase of the four-state crude oil pipeline has been the focus of massive protests in recent months. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which sued in July to block the $3.8 billion project, claims tribe members were never meaningfully consulted before construction began. The tribe also cites an 1851 treaty that it says designates the land in question to Native American tribes. That lawsuit is still pending, and the Army Corps, as well as the pipeline company, argued in court papers that they followed a standard review process.
What North Dakota Lawmakers Are Saying
North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer said Speer informed him Wednesday of the Army’s intent to issue the Congressional notification, which he said was received by the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday afternoon. The North Dakota Republican lawmaker said the easement is expected to be issued Wednesday.
“After months of unnecessary delay, the Missouri River easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline is being issued by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Cramer said in a statement Tuesday. “North Dakota looks forward to the safe completion and operation of this modern energy infrastructure to improve America’s economy and security. Once again, I am grateful for President Trump’s commitment to taking swift action on this and other issues of concern to the American people.”
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, said the Army’s announcement “brings this issue one step closer to final resolution,” adding that it also “delivers the certainty and clarity I’ve been demanding.”
What the Tribe Is Saying
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has long vowed to fight any grant for the easement. In response to the Army’s announcement, the tribe said it was “undaunted” in its commitment to legally challenge an easement announced by the Army for the Dakota Access pipeline.
“The drinking water of millions of Americans is now at risk. We are a sovereign nation and we will fight to protect our water and sacred places from the brazen private interests trying to push this pipeline through to benefit a few wealthy Americans with financial ties to the Trump administration,” Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a statement Tuesday. “Americans have come together in support of the Tribe asking for a fair, balanced and lawful pipeline process. The Environmental Impact Statement was wrongfully terminated. This pipeline was unfairly rerouted across our treaty lands. The Trump administration – yet again – is poised to set a precedent that defies the law and the will of Americans and our allies around the world.”
Attorneys for the tribe said they believe the permit cannot be granted legally at this time.
“The Obama administration correctly found that the Tribe’s treaty rights needed to be acknowledged and protected, and that the easement should not be granted without further review and consideration of alternative crossing locations,” Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, the nonprofit group representing the tribe, said in a statement. “Trump’s reversal of that decision continues a historic pattern of broken promises to Indian Tribes and unlawful violation of Treaty rights. They will be held accountable in court.”
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said it will “challenge any easement decision” on the grounds that the Environmental Impact Statement was “wrongfully terminated.” The tribe said it will also “demand a fair, accurate and lawful Environmental Impact Statement to identify true risks to its treaty rights, including its water supply and sacred places.”
If the Dakota Access Pipeline is successfully completed and begins operating, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said it will “seek to shut the pipeline operations down.”
The tribe also announced a “Native Nations March on Washington” scheduled for March 10, inviting Native American allies in the United States and around the world to join the event.
“We ask that our allies join us in demanding that Congress demand a fair and accurate process,” Archambault II said. “Our fight is no longer at the North Dakota site itself. Our fight is with Congress and the Trump administration. Meet us in Washington on March 10.”
What Has Led to This Point
Thousands of Native Americans, environmental activists and their allies have camped out near the Standing Rock reservation for months to protest the project, making it one of the largest Native American demonstrations in decades. The protesters, who call themselves “water protectors,” argue that the pipeline will threaten the reservation’s water supply and traverse culturally sacred sites.
Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based firm that’s building the pipeline, has said that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on local water supply are unfounded” and “multiple archaeological studies conducted with state historic preservation offices found no sacred items along the route.”
Within the final days of President Obama’s administration, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, announced on Dec. 4 that an easement would not be granted for the pipeline to cross under the large reservoir on the Missouri River.
Darcy said at the time of the decision that the Army Corps “shall engage” in additional review and analysis to include a “robust consideration and discussion of alternative locations for the pipeline crossing the Missouri River."
All these steps, Darcy determined, would best be accomplished by the Army Corps preparing a full Environmental Impact Statement allowing for public input, a process that could take years. Darcy is no longer in the position after the change in administrations.
The move to deny the easement was hailed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other pipeline opponents as a major victory. But on his second weekday in office, President Trump signed a memorandum aimed at advancing the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with another one directed at the Keystone XL pipeline.
ABC News' Evan Simon and Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: An earlier version misstated the given name of Rep. Kevin Cramer. The story has since been updated.