A Light Shines in the Dakotas

Regardless of what happens next, the Dakota Access pipeline protest has already made history. More than 200 tribes and thousands of Native American activists have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in a remarkable and virtually unprecedented show of unity. Yesterday, thousands of people protested in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux in more than 100 cities across the country. The source of the outrage is simple: The U.S. government attempted to fast-track a dangerous pipeline without properly and respectfully consulting the sovereign tribal nation whose ancestral lands and water it threatens.

But the government agent in this case -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- overlooked two things. First, for the Standing Rock Sioux, this is a life and death issue: "Mni Wiconi" (meaning "Water is life," in Lakota). Second, for the greater Native American community, the Dakota Access fast-tracking has resonated as yet another injustice by those who, having seized the land, would then despoil it with equal measures of greed and indifference.

The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies exposed this injustice in the bright prairie sunlight for the entire world to see, until -- finally -- the government blinked. Last Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, and Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint statement that, in effect, will temporarily halt 20 miles of pipeline construction bordering Lake Oahe on the Missouri River pending further study and possible reform of the consultation process with Native tribes.

This is a tremendous victory and sets a powerful legal precedent for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and for all of Indian Country, and I'm proud the Sierra Club has stood beside the tribe and been able to help in a small way. But what does this decision mean for the future of this pipeline, not to mention other dirty fuel projects?

Despite President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline last year, the system for approving such major projects remains rigged for disaster. A key problem highlighted by what's happened in the Dakotas is the fast-track permitting process where the Army Corps of Engineers treats one huge pipeline as if it were a series of much smaller pipelines. By using what are called "nationwide permits," which are supposed to cover small projects like residential developments and road crossings, the Corps has been able to circumvent both the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Rather than conduct a fair assessment of the risks posed by an entire pipeline to ancestral homelands, sacred sites, climate, air, and water, the Corps divides it into hundreds of individual segments and then concludes that each of them (surprise, surprise) is too insignificant to worry about.

This creative and dishonest use of nationwide permits sure sounds like something that would have been cooked up during the Bush/Cheney years, but that's not the case. It happened on President Obama's watch, beginning in 2012, and the Sierra Club, along with many other environmental groups, is demanding that it be stopped. Maybe, just maybe, the administration's partial retreat on the Dakota Access pipeline approvals signals a change of direction.

At a minimum, though, the entire Dakota Access pipeline should be reevaluated based on the laws that were circumvented the first time it was approved. Had that been done, then complying with the Clean Water Act might have nixed the idea of routing it under the Missouri River, where a spill would have catastrophic effects on the sole drinking water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux. It's inconceivable that the project was approved without a thorough and meaningful consultation with the first inhabitants of this land.

Likewise, under NEPA, the Army Corps of Engineers would need to do a proper environmental impact statement for the entire pipeline. In fact, that's not a lot to ask. It's how exactly how things worked prior to 2012 -- often for pipelines that were much smaller and less controversial than this one.

Finally, any environmental assessment of a major pipeline such as this one should absolutely consider how it will affect climate change. That's not just my opinion. President Obama's own Council on Environmental Quality said as much in the guidance for federal agencies that it issued earlier this month: "Climate change is a fundamental environmental issue, and its effects fall squarely within NEPA's purview."

A 1,168-mile fracked oil pipeline has no honest chance of passing that test. The administration should go back and do this the right way. Once that happens, the Dakota Access pipeline should be canceled in its entirety.

Most important of all, the same rigorous standard needs to be applied every proposed fossil fuel infrastructure project (and there are many of them, with more on the way) so that we can leave dirty fuels in the ground and complete the transition to clean, renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.

Take action: Tell the Obama administration to resume its prior practice of fully evaluating the environmental impacts of individual fossil fuel pipelines.