Less than a week after the Army Corps of Engineers officially kicked off the process for a full environmental review of alternate routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline, Trump issued an memorandum telling the agency to reconsider.
He also asked the agency to “review and approve in an expedited manner” permits, easements, and other requests needed to finish the 1,172-mile pipeline, which runs from oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois.
That doesn’t mean that construction is necessarily imminent for the pipeline’s proposed crossing under Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, a location that the tribe argues threatens its only water supply and violates treaty rights.
“All the memorandum says, and really all it can say and be consistent with law, is ‘reconsider this, but you have to comply with all existing laws,'” says Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School.
On December 4, after months of protests, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it wouldn’t grant an easement for the pipeline’s crossing at Lake Oahe. It also said that it would prepare an environmental impact statement for alternate routes, which will require a lengthy process and public input.
“Since the Army Corps just very recently decided–after many months of review and thinking about it–that a full EIS is necessary, and issued a letter of intent to that effect, it would be difficult to explain if all of the sudden they said, ‘Oh no, we don’t need the EIS,'” says Krakoff.
The Army Corps originally approved the crossing in July 2016, relying on an environmental assessment, a less complicated review. But after more pressure and discussions with the Standing Rock Sioux, the agency made the decision to prepare the environmental impact statement.
If the review process continues as planned, it could take months. If the agency decides to reverse course, the Standing Rock tribe and others who are already suing the Army Corps could file for an injunction. That process won’t be instantaneous either.
“That’s not a matter of days,” says Krakoff. “At a minimum, that’s a minimum of weeks, possibly months.”
Trump can’t just order the pipeline to be built; the complicated administrative process is designed to protect the public from such arbitrary decisions. “People had lots of questions when Obama was president along the same lines–why didn’t president Obama just put a halt to this,” she says. “The answer is because that’s not the president’s job.”
But Trump’s pressure through the memorandum–and another executive order that urged expedited environmental reviews for “high-priority” projects–will make a difference. When the George W. Bush administration issued similar memos about expediting permits for oil and gas leasing, it sped up the process. The Dakota Access Pipeline is already nearly completed; there’s a good chance that Trump’s push will help finish the job, even if lawsuits slow it down.