The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Just Won a Major Court Victory Over the Dakota Access Pipeline

This sign from the height of the protests in 2016 says what we’re all hoping for.
This sign from the height of the protests in 2016 says what we’re all hoping for.
Photo: Getty

A federal court ruled Wednesday that the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline was built in violation of key environmental laws. To that effect, the Army Corps of Engineers will have to conduct a full environmental impact statement for the 1,172-mile-long crude oil pipeline. That’s what the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wanted all along. And finally, the tribe has secured it.


This court ruling is years in the making. The tribe first filed the lawsuit back in 2016 at the height of its fight against the pipeline and developer Energy Transfer. There was a bit of hope when President Barack Obama was in the White House when the Corps had planned to do a full environmental impact statement, which would delay the project at the very least. Then the 2016 election happened, ushering Donald Trump into power. He almost immediately steamrolled environmental regulations to expedite Dakota Access Pipeline construction. But all the while, the case remained ongoing in the courts.

With the pipeline officially up and running—and even seeking expansion—some might’ve assumed the battle was long over. But it wasn’t, and the tribe won a big victory with the latest ruling. U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg stripped the project of its federal permits, citing expert criticism of the pipeline’s leak-detection systems, the poor safety record of Energy Transfer, and worst-case spill scenarios. Per his 42-page ruling, the approval for the project was “highly controversial” under the National Environmental Policy Act (which the Trump administration is, incidentally, trying to weaken).

“This validates everything the Tribe has been saying all along about the risk of oil spills to the people of Standing Rock,” Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said in a statement.

As for the pipeline itself, both parties will now have to supply briefs to the court making their respective cases. That means there’s a chance that the Dakota Access Pipeline will actually stop pumping oil. And an environmental impact statement can take years. The Corps had previously only offered an environmental assessment for the project. The environmental impact statement will be much more in-depth. It should help address some of the concerns Boasberg laid out in his opinion:

The Court acknowledges that in projects of this scope, it is not difficult for an opponent to find fault with many conclusions made by an operator and relied on by the agency. But here, there is considerably more than a few isolated comments raising insubstantial concerns. The many commenters in this case pointed to serious gaps in crucial parts of the Corps’ analysis—to name a few, that the pipeline’s leak-detection system was unlikely to work, that it was not designed to catch slow spills, that the operator’s serious history of incidents had not been taken into account, and that the worst-case scenario used by the Corps was potentially only a fraction of what a realistic figure would be—and the Corps was not able to fill any of them.


The case isn’t over, but this is a major win for the indigenous groups that have been seeking acknowledgment of their environmental concerns, as well as sovereignty over their lands. During these dark times, this is something to celebrate.

“After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Mike Faith said in a statement. “It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet. Perhaps in the wake of this court ruling, the federal government will begin to catch on, too, starting by actually listening to us when we voice our concerns.”


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


C.M. Allen

It’s too bad they won’t have to do an ‘what’s the point of this?’ impact study, too. Because the point of it is a giant cash grab without any thought (or money) paid to damages or long-term consequences. In other words, we don’t need it, we never needed it, and the only reason for it is because it engorges the bank accounts of bunch executive assholes with more money than they’ll spend in twenty lifetimes.