Pipeline Victories: How Long Will They Last?

by Caroline Griffith

Oil pipeline opponents celebrated two victories in early July when the embattled Atlantic Coast pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline were shut down within 24 hours of each other. But, as conservation lawyers and environmental activists know, victories like these are often fleeting and the fossil fuel industry doesn’t give up that easily. The final fate of these projects, and others like them, remains to be seen.

On July 5, Duke Energy Corp. and Dominion Energy, Inc., announced they would be abandoning the Atlantic Coast pipeline (which would have carried natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, traveling under the Appalachian Trail) due to ongoing delays, legal challenges, and concerns about the project’s financial feasibility. 

Then, on July 6, a federal judge ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline, which transports “light, sweet crude oil”  from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, underneath the Missouri River, to Potoka, Illinois, be shut down and emptied of oil by August 5. Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the pipeline be shut down until a more extensive environmental review of the pipeline’s passage beneath Lake Oahe could be performed. Pipeline opponents celebrated. Advocates, including the American Petroleum Institute, the Association of Oil Pipe Lines and other trade groups, screamed that this would ruin the economy of North Dakota. And then, July 14, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a temporary freeze of that shutdown, setting the stage for further litigation. 

This back-and-forth battle over the black snake, as opponents from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe call it, started almost exactly four years ago; the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe took its first legal action to stop the pipeline on July 27, 2016. 

The fate of these pipeline projects, and fossil fuel projects in general, hinges on the courts, the 2020 election, and investor portfolios. The bottom line is that these projects need to make money, and as long as the consumer demand and profitability remain high, they will continue. Many pipeline and energy project advocates have complained that the environmental review process laid out in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a burdensome and costly obstacle to major construction projects. 

Pipeline proponents received a boost on July 15 when the Trump administration finalized its rollback of NEPA in an attempt to fast-track development projects, from highway construction to pipelines. The NEPA process, with its requirement to weigh environmental and community concerns, including considerations of the project’s impacts on climate change, is often used by communities and conservationists to slow down or stop approval of pipelines, highways, drilling permits, new factories or any major action on federal lands. “With today’s Trump administration rule, fossil fuel corporations will be able to ram harmful projects through without considering the pollution dangers to people in nearby neighborhoods. NEPA gives our very vulnerable communities across the country an opportunity to make our voices heard and stop pollution in our own backyards,” said Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.). “President Trump is trying to rob us of our voice. We will not be silenced.”

Environmental groups have already pledged to file lawsuits challenging the legality of the rollback. It could also be overturned legislatively, depending on the outcome of the 2020 election.