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Today’s blog is my layman’s summary of my reading of the recent decision by Judge Boasberg denying the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes’ joint request for injunction to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline. It’s a complicated and interesting read and I’ve done my best to summarize what his Order says.

And it’s not exactly bad news!! Just, sadly, more evidence of how our Courts are not geared to make decisions that common sense would dictate. Boasberg seems to give damning testimony to the irresponsible actions of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which I found to salve the wounds of his lawful refusal for relief to the Tribes.

I start with his Opinion, which I recommend reading in full. This guy writes with a concise beauty that I enjoyed reading. [Note that the page numbers all reference the 5-21-21 Order, unless otherwise noted.]

Just like the Dakota Access Pipeline, which meanders over hill and dale before carrying its crude oil underneath Lake Oahe — a large reservoir on the Missouri River between North and South Dakota — the current litigation has wound its way through myriad twists and turns. Last year, in a hard-earned victory for the American Indian Tribe Plaintiffs whose reservations lie nearby, this Court found that Defendant U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [USACE] had violated federal law by failing to produce an Environmental Impact Statement before granting Defendant-Intervenor Dakota Access, LLP an easement to run the pipeline under Lake Oahe. The Court subsequently vacated that easement and ordered the pipeline emptied of oil until the Corps could complete the federally mandated EIS.

Wasting no time, both Dakota Access and the Government promptly appealed to the D.C. Circuit. In a partial win for the Tribes, the Court of Appeals affirmed the two central elements of this Court’s rulings — specifically, that the Corps should have prepared an EIS and that the easement was properly vacated in the interim. The Circuit thus confirmed that the pipeline was, in legal speak, an unlawful encroachment on federal land.

It was there, however, that the Tribes ran out of luck. Prior to the cessation of any oil flow, the Circuit stayed and eventually reversed the aspect of this Court’s order shutting down the pipeline, reasoning that it had not made the necessary findings for what was essentially injunctive relief. In other words, although vacatur of the easement rendered the pipeline an encroachment on federal property, vacatur could not itself bring about the stoppage of oil. For that to occur, the Court of Appeals clarified, this Court needed to conduct an additional, distinct inquiry, a component of which requires the Tribes to demonstrate that — among other things — they will likely suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an order closing the pipeline.

As a result, for all of the headlines and controversy that this litigation has spawned, its tangible consequences for the pipeline itself have been few. Even though this Court vacated the easement for DAPL to cross beneath Lake Oahe, and even though the D.C. Circuit affirmed such vacatur, the pipeline has maintained operations as if none of these developments had occurred. Those seeking an explanation for the persistence of this surprising state of affairs over the past ten-odd months need look no further than the Defendant in this case: the Corps.

Ever since this Court’s vacatur order in July 2020, and across two presidential administrations, the Corps has conspicuously declined to adopt a conclusive position regarding the pipeline’s continued operation, despite repeated prodding from this Court and the Court of Appeals to do so. On the one hand, the agency has refrained from exercising its enforcement powers to halt Dakota Access’s use of the pipeline, notwithstanding its status as an unlawful encroachment. At the same time, however, neither has the Corps affirmatively authorized the pipeline’s occupation of the area underneath Lake Oahe per the process contemplated in its internal procedures. Its chosen course has instead been — and continues to be — one of inaction. Such indecision, it is important to note, does not stem from a lack of time. Nor from a lack of attention. Whatever the reason, the practical consequences of the Corps’ stasis on this question of heightened political controversy are manifest: the continued flow of oil through a pipeline that lacks the necessary federal authorization to cross a key waterway of agricultural, industrial, and religious importance to several Indian Tribes.

Those Tribes thus find themselves forced to return to this Court to seek what they have so far been unable to obtain from the Government: an order halting pipeline operations until the Corps completes its new EIS. Before the Court may grant them such relief, however, binding caselaw requires that the Tribes make an evidentiary showing far beyond anything the Corps needs to itself shut down DAPL. As previously mentioned, they must demonstrate a likelihood of irreparable injury from the action they seek to enjoin — to wit, the pipeline’s operation. For the reasons articulated in this Opinion, Plaintiffs have not cleared that daunting hurdle.

The Court acknowledges the Tribes’ plight, as well as their understandable frustration with a political process in which they all too often seem to come up just short. If they are to win their desired relief, however, it must come from that process, as judges may travel only as far as the law takes them and no further. Here, the law is clear, and it instructs that the Court deny Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction.

Judge Boasberg Order 5-21-21

The decision by the USACE, that an EIS was not necessary for this project, all the Courts agree was a violation of NEPA. The Courts also agree that the Dakota Access pipeline is currently operating upon an illegal easement. So what went wrong? The historical review of the case is laid out clearly.

Judge Boasberg ordered the pipeline to be vacated within 30 days while the issue was remanded:

“Although it acknowledged that “at least some immediate harm to the North Dakota oil industry should be expected from a DAPL shutdown,” the Court determined that the “seriousness of the Corps’ NEPA error, the impossibility of a simple fix, the fact that Dakota Access did assume much of its economic risk knowingly, and the potential harm each day the pipeline operates” collectively outweighed such negative economic effects.”

Pg 6 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

Acknowledging that the pipeline now constituted an encroachment, the agency (USACE) explained that its “general policy is to require removal of encroachments and restoration of the premises.” … That outcome was not inevitable, though, as another option available to the Corps — called an “outgrant” — would authorize Dakota Access to use the government-controlled property as it did prior to vacatur, thus effectively issuing it another easement. As the agency admitted, however, that process was subject to the strictures of NEPA, the very statute under which this Court had ordered the preparation of an EIS before any such easement could be granted.

The Corps additionally maintained — without citing any authority — that it was under no obligation “to take any particular action to cure an encroachment within a specified time period” or even “to ultimately cure the encroachment at all.” … It estimated that it would make an “initial decision” as to a potential enforcement action against the pipeline by early October 2020, though it emphasized that it retained the “enforcement discretion to adapt its enforcement recommendations based on new information” at any time.”

Pg 7 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

The judge goes on to discuss the absurdity of the USACE response to these concerns. His utter frustration and disbelief with this USACE situation seems to rage from the page. He cries out against the audacity of the USACE in their dereliction of duty. He notes, “October, meanwhile, came and went without any word from the Corps regarding its promised “initial decision” as to a potential enforcement action.” (Page 8)

On January 26, 2021, the DC Circuit Court “affirmed this Court’s top-line conclusions that: 1) the Corps’ decision not to prepare an EIS violated NEPA, and 2) the easement should be vacated pending such statement’s completion.” (Page 9)

The DC Circuit held that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act (EPA) by issuing an easement allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to transport crude oil through federally owned land at the Lake Oahe crossing site without preparing an environmental impact statement despite substantial criticisms from the Tribes.

The court rejected the Corps’ and Dakota Access’ contention that the district court applied the wrong standard by relying on National Parks Conservation Association v. Semonite, 916 F.3d at 1083, which emphasized the important role played by entities other than the federal government. The court explained that the Tribes’ unique role and their government-to-government relationship with the United States demand that their criticisms be treated with appropriate solicitude. The court concluded that several serious scientific disputes in this case means that the effects of the Corps’ easement decision are likely to be “highly controversial.” The court also noted that, although the risk of a pipeline leak may be low, that risk is sufficient that a person of ordinary prudence would take it into account in reaching a decision to approve the pipeline’s placement, and its potential consequences are therefore properly considered. The court affirmed the district court’s order vacating the easement while the Corps prepares an environmental impact statement. However, the court reversed the district court’s order to the extent it directed that the pipeline be shut down and emptied of oil.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, No. 20-5197 (D.C. Cir. 2021)

Wow. I was with them until that last line… which I cannot seem to make sense. Their rationalization?

“With or without oil flowing,”accordingly, “the pipeline will remain an encroachment, leaving the precise consequences of vacatur uncertain.” (Page 9)

And, rather than making the simple and agreeable decision to shut down the flow of oil – you know, the stuff that risks a spill… as an empty pipeline does not risk a spill – the DC Circuit Court said, “(Judge Boasberg’s) Court “could not order the pipeline to be shut down without . . . required making the findings necessary for injunctive relief” under the traditional four-factor test.” (Page 9)

While the DC Circuit Court tossed this back to the USACE, they would soon submit a 60-day request for continuance, with the change, in January 2021, to a new administration…

When the long-awaited hearing finally arrived on April 9, 2021, however, the Corps — despite the instruction from both the Court of Appeals and this Court, as well as its own continuance request — had surprisingly little to say about the pipeline’s encroachment status. Indeed, far from issuing the contemplated “prompt[]” determination as to how it would “enforce its property rights,”… the Corps’ decision appeared to be that it would make no decision at all. According to Government counsel, “[T]he Corps is in a [sic] essentially continuous process of evaluating the status of the encroachment and what steps are best to take.” … While the agency would “continue[] monitor[ing]” the pipeline and could “take an enforcement action at any time,” it had “no . . . enforcement action to announce” at present nor any “timeline” for such potential action moving forward. … At one point, the Corps seemed to acknowledge the possibility that it might not even decide how to enforce its property rights prior to completion of the judicially mandated EIS (currently estimated for March 2022).”

Pg 10-11 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

Well, imagine that. The Army Corps can just lazily do nothing and it doesn’t seem a damn thing we can do?

Judge Boasberg notes that while he “ordered the Corps to clarify its position on whether an injunction should issue. … The agency’s response was less than decisive.” He closes the background section with what I felt was a telling statement: “With this long procedural history in tow, the Court is finally prepared to rule on the Tribes’ request for an injunction.” (Page 11)

Boasberg goes on to explain some of the legal details on a threshold argument and on what is required to prove an irreparable harm. In order to pass that test, a plaintiff must convince the Court:

  1. that it has suffered an irreparable injury;
  2. that remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury;
  3. that, considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted;
  4. that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.

Boasberg further clarifies:

  1. The Supreme Court “has repeatedly held that the basis for injunctive relief in the federal courts has always been irreparable injury and the inadequacy of legal remedies.” (Page 13)
  2. “Because [plaintiff] has made no showing of irreparable injury here, that alone is sufficient for us to conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion by rejecting [plaintiff’s] request.” (Id.)
  3. “[T]he injury must be both certain and great; it must be actual and not theoretical.” (Id.)
  4. A mere “possibility” of future harm is insufficient. (Page 14)
  5. …a court, rather, requires affirmative “proof” of likelihood and imminence. (Id.)
  6. Additionally, “the movant must show that the alleged harm will directly result from the action which [it] seeks to enjoin.” (Id.)

Three “kinds of injuries, each of which they claim independently qualifies as imminent irreparable harm and entitles them to permanent injunctive relief” were submitted by the Tribes. The Judge deals with the first at length and the others with greater “dispatch”. (Page 15)

Threat of Damaging Oil Spill

Plaintiffs’ principal claim of irreparable injury derives from the threat of an oil spill underneath Lake Oahe. … That reservoir, as previously mentioned, provides the Tribes with water for drinking, industry, and sacred practices. In order
for them to realize any harm from a pipeline leak, however, a series of contingent events must occur: 1) a spill under Lake Oahe; 2) of sufficiently large size; 3) the oil from which rises 92 feet from the pipeline to the bottom of the lake; and 4) which cannot be sufficiently mitigated or contained either before or upon entering the lake. See DA Opp. at 11. Simply itemizing that causal chain suggests the fundamental problem with Plaintiffs’ irreparable-harm argument: they have not established, as they must, that any of the chain’s individual components — let alone the feared end result — is “likely,” as opposed to merely “possibl[e].” …Without such showing, of course, they cannot demonstrate the probability of a damaging DAPL spill at Lake Oahe sufficient to warrant injunctive relief.”

Pg 15 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

Boasberg goes on to review that previous court findings concur that the risk of a spill at this site is low and that, due to the age of the pipeline, the “Plaintiffs’ own experts” agree that the chances for spill were higher at start-up. He also notes that the suggestion of concern at the DAPL proposed expansion to double its throughput is not an imminent concern. (Page 17) Boasberg mentions a prior ruling on a case of similar circumstance: “Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, however, found such assertions insufficient to establish irreparable harm because the plaintiffs ‘have not shown that a damaging oil spill is likely to occur.'” (Page 19) He concludes that, while the filing did “win the Tribes a remand for preparation of an EIS under NEPA on the ground that such issues made the easement approval “highly controversial,” … it does little to establish a likelihood that the Tribes will suffer imminent, irremediable harm at Lake Oahe from the pipeline’s continued operation.” (Page 20) As well, he notes the “Court of Appeals has since made clear that this Court may only order an oil stoppage upon finding that (among other things) the Tribes will likely experience irreparable harm absent such relief. The prior vacatur holding has little relevance to that question.” (Page 21) He notes also:

Although the potential injury may be significant, the Tribe must show that it is probable to occur in the absence of the preliminary injunction it now seeks. . . . This is the burden the law imposes for this form of relief. The Court must faithfully and fairly apply that standard in all cases, regardless of how high the stakes or how worthy the cause.”

Page 22 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

Over the next few pages of the Order, Boasberg goes on to make clear that the Court is not able on the submitted evidence to determine or calculate the likelihood of an imminent or irreparable spill and that “the law requires the Tribes to make a “clear showing” that such harm is at least “likely” in the absence of an injunction. … All they have shown, rather, is a mere “possibility” of injury — and a fairly minimal one at that. This cannot get them over the hump. No matter the stakes and no matter the cause, courts may not grant the “extraordinary remedy” of an injunction “based only on a possibility of irreparable harm.” (Page 24)

Other Claimed Harms

Apart from the risk of a damaging oil spill, the Tribes assert two other harms that require somewhat less discussion. They maintain that they are irreparably injured by “the ongoing trauma of the government’s refusal to comply with the law,” as well as the “undermining [of] the Tribes’ sovereign governmental role to protect their members and respond to potential disasters.”

Pg 24 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

While Boasberg finds “Neither tack finds the wind,” it seems to me there could be ample argument for these harms. His case is based on the fact that “The problem with both is simple: they depend on the same remote threat of a pipeline spill that the Court has just found insufficient to constitute irreparable injury.” (Page 24)

While the Tribes arguments focused on arguments based on emotional distress that results from a fear of a spill – which, having a low probability of occurring, cannot justify a reasonable concern in this case. Even when the Tribe “claim that “allowing the pipeline to continue operating despite a serious NEPA violation is part of a pattern” of “‘historic trauma’” experienced by “‘every Tribal member,’” one deriving from the government’s “continued refusal to respect the rights of the Tribes throughout the nation’s history” and its “prioritizing non-Indians” at the expense of Tribal members,” Boasburg argues that this “does not qualify as irreparable harm within the context of this case. … [as it] cannot be meaningfully disentangled from the remote threat of an oil spill at Lake Oahe.” (Page 26-27)

The Court does not deny that shameful past. On the contrary, it fully acknowledges and appreciates the “tragic history of the Great Sioux Nation’s repeated dispossessions at the hands of a hungry and expanding early America,” along with the persistent “threat that new injury will compound old.”

Pg 26 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

Plaintiffs’ second claimed harm founders for similar reasons as the first. According to the Tribes, “[T]he Corps’ NEPA violations have undermined [their] sovereign governmental role to protect their citizens, respond to disasters, and mitigate harm.” … It soon becomes clear, however, that these governance-based harms are once again derivative of the same speculative spill-risk harms handled above.

Pg 27 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

One final aspect I find a bit confounding. On page 28, Boasberg notes: “Finally, DAPL itself does not implicate any “loss of sovereignty over Tribal land,” … as the Lake Oahe segment traverses only federal property.” Here I’d argue that ALL LANDS are Tribal lands, though I’m sure there is some legalese that refutes this as well, making my argument illegitimate. [With laws written by the colonizers, those same folks who brought to you deceptive and relentless treaty negotiations, it seems the Tribes are given no option save to declare war on a foreign nation?]

Boasberg redeems himself to me – and places the blame for this situation fully in the hands of the USACE – in this summary of his conclusion that he must deny the relief sought:

It does not reach that conclusion lightly. Fully aware of the unshakable indignities visited upon the Tribes across generations, the Court, as it has throughout this litigation, scrutinizes the record with care. It likewise acknowledges the quandary in which Plaintiffs find themselves and the undeniable frustration that comes with it — namely, having achieved (and successfully defended on appeal) the vacatur of a key pipeline easement, they must now turn around and make an even steeper showing to obtain the injunctive relief necessary to stop the flow of oil.

The Court closes this analysis where it began: with the Corps. Plaintiffs, no doubt, will wish that the Court’s Opinion today had come out differently. Simply by ruling, however, the Court has at least given them something the Corps has not: a decision. Notwithstanding repeated instruction from this Court and the D.C. Circuit to “decide promptly” and “in the first instance” how it “will enforce its property rights” vis-à-vis the pipeline’s encroaching on federal land at Lake Oahe, the Corps has not yet issued any determination on the matter at all — more than ten months since the invalidation of the underlying easement. … Much like the Circuit, this Court presently “ha[s] no occasion to consider” whether, by way of such inaction, the Corps has effectively granted “a de facto outgrant without engaging in the NEPA analysis that the Corps concedes such an action requires.” Id. For now, it suffices to note that by ducking the controversy surrounding the Oahe crossing, the Corps actively tolerates DAPL’s continued operation underneath a key federal waterway that it lacks the necessary authorization to traverse. That, of course, is a political decision outside this Court’s area of inquiry. Whether the Corps formally acknowledges such decision or not, this is the outcome it now owns.”

Pg 29 Boasberg 5-21-21 Order

So we can all cross our fingers and hope for the best!

I should include also, the Judge’s mention of the Tribes’ request for clarification on the 408 Permit “(which the Tribes now maintain “indisputably relied on the invalidated environmental assessment” and thus cannot stand.”) (Page 30) In this instance, the Tribes failed “to explain why vacatur of the Section 408 permit would yield that result, as a “Section 408 permit, rather — much like the MLA easement — simply denotes the Corps’ approval of Dakota Access’s plans to site the pipeline on federal property,” and potential vacatur of said permit also would not bring a shutdown of operations. (Page 30-31)

It’s clear to me that the Judge seems to believe the US Army Corps of Engineers has violated NEPA, however, as the DC District Court ordered against the shut down of the line and that his court had no capacity to do so without proof of imminent and irreparable harms, which he could not do with the information provided, his hands are tied.

I truly believe it broke his heart to write this Order.

There is still a possible option. President Biden could ask the USACE to uphold their Treaty responsibilities and do what is right, honor the voices of the Native Peoples asking for relief. Give them relief, if only until the Corps can complete the EIS. It’s the right thing to do.

In Early February, 33 Democrats wrote to Biden, urging him to close down the pipeline, stopping it from transporting crude oil between North Dakota and Illinois.

“By shutting down this illegal pipeline, you can continue to show your administration values the environment and the rights of Indigenous communities more than the profits of outdated fossil fuel industries,” they wrote….

In a statement, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) focused on Biden’s infrastructure proposal, claiming that it has a “major oversight: it neither acknowledges nor strengthens tribal sovereignty.”

“Congress and the Biden administration must know that recovery cannot take place until Tribal nations are the ones making the decisions about projects that impact their peoples and their lands,” IEN stated. 

The future of the Dakota Access Pipeline hangs in the balance (photo credit)