The fight over the Dakota Access pipeline isn’t over. The Army Corps of Engineers gave protesters much to cheer about yesterday when it announced it would seek ways to route the last portion of the pipe around a reservoir the Standing Rock Sioux depend on for drinking water. But the decision doesn’t guarantee permanent protection for the tribe.
The incoming Trump administration could try to undo the Army’s decision once it takes office in January. Even if it doesn’t, the company could complete the pipeline anyway without the appropriate permits, deciding that the legal consequences are less costly than failing to finish the project. If the Army fails to find viable alternate routes, it could wind up granting the easement to go under the Sioux’s drinking water anyway.
Still, protesters appear to have at least one unlikely ally on their side: bureaucracy. Historically, confrontations with the US government have not ended well for native people. But in this uniquely 21st century conflict, which pits the logistics of energy delivery in a fossil fuel-dependent economy against movements for racial and environmental justice, the system this time may be on the Sioux’s side. When it comes to protecting land from development, gumming up the process through lengthy studies, meetings, and public commenting periods often favors the status quo. Thanks to the formidable bureaucratic obstacles erected by the Army’s environmental review process, a completed Dakota Access pipeline will likely remain a pipe dream at least through the winter.