Days after his inauguration, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order that will pave the way for the Dakota Access Pipeline to resume construction along a course contested by Native Americans.
During his last weeks in office, President Barack Obama issued a temporary reprieve for the self-professed “water protectors” of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, who see the 1,200-mile oil pipeline as a threat to the reservations’ water supply.
Not only would potential water pollution pose an environmental and health risk to the tribe, but since they consider water a sacred element, they believe polluting it would infringe on their religious liberty. They also fear the project would disturb ancient burial grounds. (See “Standing Firm,” February 2017 Church & State.)
Pipeline proponents say the project will spur economic growth and create a safe way to transport heavy crude oil from North Dakota to refineries in Illinois.
Under Obama, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in December announced it would seek to reroute the pipeline so it doesn’t cross under Lake Oahe next to the reservations.
Trump’s Jan. 24 memorandum ordered the Army Corps to review and expedite approval of the pipeline. On Feb. 8, the Corps issued the easement that would allow Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to proceed; the company said the full pipeline could be operational within three months, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
A day later, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, whose reservation borders Standing Rock, asked a federal judge to stop pipeline construction while a pending lawsuit filed last summer proceeds. (At Church & State’s press time, no decision had been rendered.)
The Cheyenne River Sioux said they also want to make a religious freedom argument in the case. “The sanctity of these waters is a central tenet of their religion, and the placement of the pipeline itself, apart from any rupture and oil spill, is a desecration of these waters,” the tribe’s attorney wrote in a court filing.
Standing Rock Sioux attorney Jan Hasselman has said the tribe will also try to block construction in court, with a likely argument that more study is needed to preserve tribal treaty rights, according to the AP.
Dave Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux chairman, released a statement that the tribe would remain in court “to fight against an administration that seeks to dismiss not only our treaty rights and status as sovereign nations, but the safe drinking water of millions of Americans.”
While the reservation had been the site of months of demonstrations and protests by indigenous rights activists, Archambault asked demonstrators to leave the area due to concerns over health and welfare.
“We’re asking that the camp be cleared. We’re asking that people don’t come,” Archambault said in late January. “The fight is now in D.C.”