Dakota pipeline ruling deals blow to Trump-backed project

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The contentious Dakota Access oil pipeline is set to be shut down within the next month for more than a year after a US court scrapped a key permit, dealing a heavy blow to a project backed by President Donald Trump.

A federal district court in Washington on Monday ruled that the $3.8bn pipeline — a key artery connecting North Dakota’s Bakken shale basin to the rest of the country — must be closed within 30 days after finding a critical environmental impact statement had not been provided when permission was granted for it to run under a key waterway.

The decision is a significant win for the native American tribes and environmental groups who had campaigned against the construction of the 570,000 barrels a day pipeline and a setback for North Dakota’s shale industry, which it has allowed to grow exponentially.

The court recently found that the US Army Corps of Engineers should not have awarded an easement for the pipeline to run beneath Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River just a half-mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. On Monday, it ruled that the project could not operate until this was remedied — a process expected to take 13 months.

“The court asked the parties whether the easement should be vacated and the pipeline emptied during the remand process,” it wrote in its judgment. “Although mindful of the disruption such a shutdown will cause, the court now concludes that the answer is yes.”

The pipeline is operated by Energy Transfer Partners whose chief executive, Kelcy Warren, is a friend of Mr Trump’s who recently hosted a private fundraiser for him at his home in Dallas, Texas. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

The 1,172-mile pipeline was completed in 2017 and runs from the Bakken shale formation to an Illinois oil storage and transport hub. Its construction was described as a “game changer” for North Dakota oil production, connecting the state to markets to the south and allowing it to increase production.

But it has faced heavy opposition from environmental and native American groups concerned about the potential for oil spills into the water used by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The Obama administration had delayed the project in 2016 while a further environmental impact statement was carried out. But, within days of taking office in 2017, Mr Trump ordered that the army quickly grant the easement, endorsing what had become a national symbol of the fossil fuel industry.

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In its ruling on Monday, the court said it “readily acknowledges that, even with the currently low demand for oil, shutting down the pipeline will cause significant disruption to [the pipeline], the North Dakota oil industry, and potentially other states”.

But it said “given the seriousness” of the error by the Corps of Engineers, the “impossibility of a quick fix” and the potential harm that could be done by a spill, “the court is forced to conclude that the flow of oil must cease”.

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