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Science & Environment

U.S. Halts Construction On Oil Pipeline In North Dakota After Protests

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's an unexpected twist in the battle over a planned oil pipeline in North Dakota. A federal judge today ruled that construction could go forward despite protests by the nearby Standing Rock Sioux tribe. But then the Obama administration said it would step in. Sisk of Prairie Public Broadcasting is at the state capitol in Bismarck. There have been protests there against the pipeline. Amy, can you hear me?

AMY SISK, BYLINE: I can.

CORNISH: So tell me what's going on with the protests. Has it turned into a celebration?

SISK: Yes, it has. So there's hundreds of people gathered on the capitol lawn outside. They're singing, dancing and chanting. People are elated and a little bit done. Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault called today's to stop construction on the pipeline a win for all Indians. He's talking about the Dakota Access pipeline. It's 1,200-mile pipeline that would run from North Dakota to Illinois. It could potentially carry more than 500,000 barrels of oil per day, and that's about half of North Dakota's daily oil production.

It's slated to pass just north of Archambault's Standing Rock Reservation under the Missouri River, so the tribe is concerned about a break in the pipeline that would contaminate the reservation's water source. And they're also concerned that the pipeline route crossed a sacred site. So there's thousands of people, mostly Native Americans, who have come to North Dakota from across the country in recent weeks to protest with the Standing Rock tribe. Some of them are here outside on the lawn, and they're excited about this decision by the federal government.

CORNISH: So tell us more about the Justice Department decision. What precisely did it say?

SISK: Yeah, so, in a joint statement, the Justice Department and the Army Corps of Engineers said they're voluntarily halting all construction on the pipeline near the Missouri River, which is what the protesters were asking for. That decision was surprising because it came just minutes after a federal judge said he would not stop construction on the pipeline. So the Standing Rock tribe had filed for an injunction to halt construction. Well, they argued a legal case against the pipeline, but the judge said he didn't see any clear evidence that laws were broken. So it was a bit of a whiplash on their disappointment with the judge's decision followed by the federal government stepping in. And then, of course, there's celebration.

CORNISH: Expand on that more. What reason did the Justice Department give here?

SISK: Yeah, so the land where they're halting construction is federal. It's owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, so they're stopping construction just on federal land. The Justice Department and the Corps said that the tribe's lawsuit raises important questions about the prospects approving pipelines - not just for the Dakota Access pipeline, but all pipelines and specifically whether there's adequate consultation with tribes about infrastructure projects. So the Justice Department said it will be convening government-to-government meetings this fall with tribes to discuss those issues. So this is a decision that could have implications beyond this particular fight.

CORNISH: But does the decision impact people other than the tribes? I mean, what - how - how broad does this reach?

SISK: So beyond the potential impact on future infrastructure projects, this looks like it might also end up playing a role in the presidential election. The protests over this pipeline have gone viral on social media. There's solidarity protests planned around the country. And people are now calling for President Obama and Hillary Clinton to take a stance against the pipeline. President Obama was even asked about it during his recent trip to Laos. And today's decision might reduce some of that burr, but I don't really expect it to go away.

CORNISH: That's Amy Sisk, a reporter with Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues. Thank you for sharing your reporting.

SISK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.