Episcopal leaders hail judge’s order to drain Dakota Access Pipeline of oil during environmental review

By David Paulsen
Posted Jul 6, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] A federal judge on July 6 ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to be emptied of oil while the government conducts a more extensive environmental review, handing a temporary but significant victory to the Standing Rock Sioux, who for years have been supported in their advocacy against the pipeline by The Episcopal Church.

“Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline,” tribal Chairman Mike Faith said in a statement quoted by Bloomberg Law. “This pipeline should have never been built here.”

The Sioux Tribe’s arguments against the pipeline included concern that it is a threat to tribal drinking water. Opposition grew into large demonstrations in 2016 as crews attempted to complete a segment crossing under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, a site on the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation. Episcopalians were among the participants and supporters of those demonstrations and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry visited them in September 2016.

“The Episcopal Church has long supported the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their efforts to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatens their source of clean drinking water and infringes upon sacred tribal burial grounds,” Rebecca Blachly, director of the church’s Washington-based Office of Government Relations, said in an email to ENS. “Given the importance of protecting clean water and ensuring tribal treaty obligations are met, we are pleased with the court ruling to immediately halt oil flow through the pipeline while further environmental review is conducted.”

Since 2016, Episcopalians sent hundreds of messages to Congress and federal departments responding to the issue through the Episcopal Public Policy Network, according to Blachly.

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council also took up the issue, through its Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility. Working with the committee’s ecumenical partners, church leaders in 2017 signed letters to banks financing the pipeline, asking them to respond to environmental concerns about the project.

The church should rightly celebrate this week’s court victory, said the Rev. Melanie Mullen, the church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care.

Rallying behind the Standing Rock Sioux “really taught The Episcopal Church a lot about what it means to affirm the voices of black and brown community and be in solidarity with indigenous people,” Mullen said, and that work won’t end with a court decision. “This is a long-term commitment.”

The tribe and other pipeline opponents sued the Army Corps of Engineers, saying the federal agency had not fully assessed the project’s environmental impact. Those legal efforts failed to derail the pipeline, which was completed and began pumping oil in June 2017 from North Dakota to Illinois.

Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., however, found flaws in the Corps’ environmental review of the project, and in March 2020, he ordered a new review. After initially allowing the pipeline to continue pumping oil, Boasberg said in his July 6 ruling that the company, Energy Transfer Partners, must empty the pipeline by Aug. 5 while the Corps completes its review, expected by mid-2021.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.