A Tale of Two Pipelines

How the National Environmental Policy Act ensures science, people, & wildlife are protected.

As of July 15th, a federal appeal court has temporarily blocked the order to shutdown operation of the Dakota Access Pipeline pending the court’s decision later in July on the pipeline operator’s request to remain in operation until the case moves through the appeal process. 

Local and national climate, conservation and Tribal rights advocates earned two major wins this week: the cessation of construction on and planning for the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Repeated attempts by government agencies to shortcut legal processes—that protect communities, wildlife, and public comment—to hurry along the construction of the pipelines resulted in courts siding with a diverse coalition of environmental justice and conservation advocates. These rulings affirmed the legal need for thorough, science-based impact studies before either pipeline could move forward.

Running just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline threatened the Tribal nation’s drinking water, wildlife habitat, and introduced the existential threat of devastating oil spills. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a planned 600-mile long natural gas pipeline, would have bisected the famed Appalachian Trail, polluted a historic Black community, and threatened the recovery of imperiled wildlife species. 

Stand with Standing Rock rally. Credit: Pax Ahisma Gethen/Wikimedia Commons.

Not only would the construction and operation of these pipelines have immediately threatened healthy communities and habitats, but they would also have invested taxpayer dollars in propping up the flagging fossil fuel industry and perpetuating the production of climate-disrupting carbon emissions. Climate change is worsening the frequency and intensity of disasters like flooding and wildfires with fatal impact on our most vulnerable wildlife and low-wealth communities. 

Although thousands of miles apart, these two destructive fossil fuel projects failed to comply with the landmark National Environmental Policy Act. This legislation, enacted in 1970, requires that federal agencies conduct thorough environmental impact statements for proposed federal projects. Additionally, at the heart of the National Environmental Policy Act is the support for the public’s voice through its requirement to provide meaningful opportunities for public participation throughout the process. The law ensures that the federal government invests in well-vetted projects that protect communities and public resources, and not ill-conceived proposals that benefit a few at the expense of the many.

For over fifty years, residents of every state, territory, and Tribal nation have been able to voice their opposition to projects that would adversely affect their waters, land, and wildlife and hold government agencies accountable. A strong National Environmental Policy Act helps ensure the promise of a just and healthy future for communities and habitats. 

Dakota Access Pipeline 

Oil spills from the Dakota Access pipeline would devastate the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and harm the Missouri River watershed. In addition to these disasters, which would harm wildlife such as migrating sandhill and whooping cranes and native river otters, the continued dependence on fossil fuels—that the pipeline would enable—would worsen the regional impacts of climate change. A warming climate has already been tied to the continued degradation of the prairie potholes across the Midwest that foster healthy populations of migratory waterfowl like the majestic blue-winged teal. 

Sandhill crane with chick. Credit: Mary Lundeberg.

Although the Army Corps of Engineers declined to grant an easement for the pipeline to be built under Lake Oahe in 2016—effectively stalling the project—the Trump administration reversed course in 2017. Throughout the planning process and construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, repeated violations of environmental impact statements and Tribal rights regulations yielded a multitude of lawsuits. 

Notably, controversial permits and a rushed impact statement that failed to appropriately assess the risk of oil spills served as the basis of this week’s court decision to halt usage and progress on the construction of the pipeline until a proper environmental impact statement could be conducted. 

In addition to violating environmental laws, the original pipeline permits circumvented Tribal sovereignty and treaties. 

The position of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is that the Dakota Access Pipeline violates Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which guarantees the “undisturbed use and occupation” of reservation lands surrounding the proposed location of the pipeline. In 2015 the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, operating as a sovereign nation , passed a resolution regarding the pipeline stating that “the Dakota Access Pipeline poses a serious risk to the very survival of our Tribe and … would destroy valuable cultural resources.” 

Native Knowledge 360°, Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Indian
U.S. court orders shutdown of Dakota Access pipeline (Reuters)

Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline, if completed, would stretch from West Virginia to North Carolina, and would have threatened the health of rural communities and endangered wildlife. 

Rusty-patched bumble bee. Credit: USFWS.

Opposition to the pipeline united a diverse coalition. The historic Black community of Union Hill, Virginia, founded by Freedmen and Freedwomen, fought the construction of a compressor station, which would have polluted the community’s air and water. Some climate activists, buoyed by Virginia and North Carolina’s new commitments to clean energy, pointed to the cumulative negative impact of the natural gas pipeline, such as worsening the climate crisis that has already fueled the region’s severe flooding and rising seas. And outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife advocates pointed to the pipeline’s construction through vital wildlife habitat for the rusty-patched bumble bee and freshwater mussels and the Adirondack Trail. 

Since the National Environmental Policy Act requires environmental impact statements, each of these groups had legal standing for challenging fast-tracked permit approvals that ignored the risks posed to communities and wildlife. 

How Black & Indigenous Groups Won the Fight to Stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (Democracy Now!)

Protecting Your Voice

This current administration has repeatedly attempted to circumvent National Environmental Policy Act required procedures to cut out meaningful public engagement and science assessment. In its current form, the law has protected the public and wildlife from these improper shortcuts, but a recent executive order and the soon-to-be-released regulatory rollback seek to change this. 

Wildlife advocates continue to be a crucial part of a broad coalition to protect this landmark legislation and the role it plays in protecting our voices. Efforts to weaken the longstanding legislation would slash the availability for public comment and could usher in a wave of projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline with less accountability to the public and wildlife they could harm.

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