The Army Corps Decision on Dakota has serious ramifications

Dakota pipeline protest

The Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday it would approve development of the last section of the Dakota pipeline. In a cryptic letter, the Corps announced it was terminating the Environmental Impact Statement process in the Federal Register. The reason? Trump told them to do so.

As former State Department lawyer Keith Benes said to the Washington Post, the Corps can’t just drop the EIS process for arbitrary reasons. And Trump demanding they do is an arbitrary reason.

Keith Benes, a former State Department lawyer who helped oversee pipeline permitting decisions under the Obama administration and now works as an environmental consultant, said in an interview that opponents could mount a strong legal challenge because the only justification the Army gave for terminating its environmental review was the president’s Jan. 24 directive. The agency had been seeking public input on whether to consider an alternate pipeline route, and the comment period was due to close Feb. 20.

“Supreme Court precedent is really clear that agencies can change their minds about policies, but they need to provide a reason,” Benes said, noting that the justices most recently upheld this position in the 2009 case FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. “The president telling you to change your mind is not enough of a justification for changing your factual finding.”

The Corps decision was sudden and unexpected. The Corps had already filed a notice to the Federal Register asking for comments about the EIS scope, the first step in the process. Until this week, there was absolutely no indication that the Corps was planning on terminating the EIS.

Trump’s administration has completely disregarded environmental law, not to mention tribal rights and treaty in this decision. Yes, the decision can and will be successfully challenged in court. But there’s more at risk than our water with this decision.

All Federal Agencies are bound to follow laws in their actions. One of the laws is the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. Though agencies can follow different routes within the NEPA framework, they can’t work outside of it. Not unless expressly given permission to with other laws. There is no other law at play with the Corps Dakota Pipeline decision.

The Army Corps not only dropkicked NEPA to the curb, they pissed on it in passing. And they did so specifically because of a demand from the Trump administration. The Trump administration action demonstrates either a profound ignorance of a law that has been in existence for decades, or that the administration considers itself not bound by the law. I suspect the latter.

The Executive Branch of the government’s primary duty is to uphold the laws of the United States. Trump cannot just ignore the laws because they don’t suit him. To do so is to introduce a level of chaos we have never seen before in our history.

Photo courtesy Fibonacci Blue CC BY 2.0