[Episcopal News Service] A federal judge on Sept. 9 ruled against blocking work on a section of a four-state oil pipeline project that has sparked Native American protests in North Dakota that have generated national attention and drawn support from Episcopal leaders, among others.
But within hours, three federal agencies said they would stop construction and asked the pipeline builder, Energy Transfer Partners, to “voluntary pause” work on government land, land that tribal officials say contain sacred burial sites and artifacts.
“What (U.S. District Judge James Boasberg) ruled on has become a moot point,” said the Rev. John Floberg, canon missioner for the Episcopal Church community on the Standing Rock reservation. “The Department of Justice with the Department of the Interior and the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers called for construction to stand down 20 miles to the east and 20 miles to the west of Lake Oahe until all issues have been adjudicated.”
The federal agencies in a Sept. 9 statement said they would stop construction in response to issues raised by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations specifically regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline and generally regarding the “pipeline-related decision-making process.”
“The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws. Therefore, construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time.”
“This is extremely great news. The speakers here at the rally in Bismarck have declared that a victory,” said Floberg, who was reached by phone while he participated in a clean water rally in the capital. “The judge’s ruling would have allowed for the Corps to move it ahead, but the Corps is not obligated to give the permit.”
The judge’s decision was in response to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit objecting to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Standing Rock Sioux argue the pipeline would cross treaty lands, disturb sacred sites and threaten drinking water for 8,000 members who live on the tribe’s nearly 2.3 million-acre reservation, located just south of where the pipeline crosses under the Missouri River.
The company behind the pipeline project, Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, counters that the pipeline is safe, economical and necessary to transport North Dakota oil to markets and refineries across the country. On July 26, federal regulators issued permits allowing the $3.8 billion pipeline to cross four states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois and Iowa.
It was an emotional day for people on the ground in North Dakota.
“The federal judge’s rejection of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for an injunction to halt the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, followed closely by a joint statement of the Departments of Justice, the Army, and the Interior doing just that for the time being, have provided for those of us who are standing in solidarity with Standing Rock a roller coaster day of emotions,” said North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith. “I am mindful of Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault’s words of a few days ago that ‘this is the beginning of a long legal process.’ We in the Diocese of North Dakota are grateful for the support we have received in this struggle from across the Episcopal Church and are aware it will need to continue. We will continue to work and pray for a just and peaceful resolution to this difficult situation.”
The Episcopal Church stands in solidarity with others for indigenous and racial justice and environmental justice; Standing Rock Episcopalians have been present at the protests since the beginning. On Sept. 8, Heidi J. Kim, the Episcopal Church’s missioner for racial reconciliation, and the Rev. Charles A. Wynder Jr., a deacon and the Episcopal Church’s missioner for social justice and advocacy engagement, joined in solidarity with Episcopalians, the Sioux tribe and thousands of other indigenous, justice and environmental advocates at the protest site near Standing Rock. Today, Kim and Wynder joined Floberg at the rally in Bismarck.
Floberg expressed thanks for the support of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ, all of which have supported protesters. (Click here for the Episcopal Advocacy Guide to the Dakota Access Pipeline.)
“It continues to be a legal fight. Protests of protection will continue,” said Floberg, adding that 200-plus indigenous nations also have signed on in support of the Standing Rock tribe. “Our unity will continue and our determination to protect the water and the treaty rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe remain firm.”
The federal agencies’ action on the heels of the judge’s decision shows that God works in mysterious ways, said the Rev. Brandon Mauai, an Episcopal deacon on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
“This is an ongoing fight. It [the federal agencies’ action] shows that prayers are being answered, in the most unexpected way,” he said. “We waited for the federal judge to make a ruling, and when he had, it was not in our favor. Then to have the DOJ step in, and intervene.
“It shows that God continues to answer prayers, just not how we would have expected.”
The federal agencies also said in the statement that the Standing Rock case highlights the need for serious discussion regarding reform aimed toward incorporating tribes’ views on “these types of infrastructure projects.” Including better ways to include tribes’ input regarding land protection, resources and treaty rights into decisions.
The rallies and protests go beyond North Dakota. Clean water advocates, allies of indigenous peoples and supporters of the No North Dakota Access Pipeline movement, hashtag #NoDAPL, have staged rallies nationwide. A national day of action is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 13.
In anticipation of the Sept. 9 ruling, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrympl a day earlier activated the National Guard to assist local law enforcement officials as needed near the Standing Rock protest site.
Last weekend, the situation turned violent as protestors clashed with private security guards hired by Energy Transfer Partners. The guards used dogs and pepper spray against protesters who had assembled to halt construction on a sacred tribal burial ground. Four private security guards and two guard dogs also were injured.
On Sept. 6, Boasberg granted the tribe’s request for a temporary halt to construction on the section of the pipeline crossing the Missouri River, but he allowed it to progress on the segment that includes the burial site.
Some members of nearby Episcopal congregations have joined the front lines of the protests or offered their support for the hundreds – and at times thousands – of people camped near where the pipeline company had intended to begin construction.
The cause has resonated with Episcopalians who have stood with the Dakota people since their exile from Minnesota during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. There are nine Episcopal Churches on the Standing Rock reservation. On Sept. 5, the churches issued a letter expressing their solidarity with the Sioux Nation.
“We are called to be a witness. We are called to be faithful among the people that we serve,” the letter said. “We are called to be guardians of the soul. In the midst of this trouble we pray and work for reconciliation.”
The Diocese of North Dakota issued a statement last month expressing support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry followed with a supportive statement, calling the protest action “one that joins the fight for racial justice and reconciliation with climate justice and caring for God’s creation as a matter of stewardship.”
– Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. David Paulsen a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa, contributed to this report.