Water, Oil, and Tribal Sovereignty: 

The Fight for the Dakota Access Pipeline

Denver, Colorado

On September 27, 2016, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law hosted a panel discussion about the current legal fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.  The panel addressed legal, historical, social justice, and environmental justice topics related to the dispute.  The discussion was co-sponsored by DU’s Natural Resources & Environmental Law Society, Native American Law Students Association, and the DU Water Law Review.

Professor Fred Cheever, a DU Law professor and co-director of the school’s Environmental & Natural Resources Law Program, moderated the discussion and introduced the issue. The Dakota Access Pipeline (“DAPL”) is an approximately 1,170-mile pipeline constructed to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.  The pipeline’s path is intended to span four states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois—and cross the Missouri River at a point located a half-mile from the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota.  The DAPL route would pass through tribal lands of great cultural, religious and spiritual significance to tribes.

Professor Brad Bartlett, a visiting assistant professor in the Environmental Law Clinic at DU Law, offered a timeline of events regarding the DAPL legal conflict. In July 2016, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, filed a declaratory and injunctive relief complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).  The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe intervened and joined the lawsuit in August 2016.  In the initial complaint, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) violated multiple federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, National Historic Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, when it issued permits to move forward with construction of the DAPL. First, the DAPL’s route is intended to pass under the Missouri River just a half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation boundary. A federal permit is required under the Clean Water Act for any construction project impacting federally regulated rivers —including the DAPL’s crossing of the Missouri River. In this case, the permitting process triggers requirements under the National Historic Protection Act that intend to protect areas of great cultural significance to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, such as sacred sites and burial grounds.  The Tribes argue that the Corps pre-authorized construction of DAPL without ensuring compliance of the National Historic Protection Act, allows the Corps to circumvent its statutory responsibility to ensure that the DAPL does not harm historically and culturally significant sites. The Tribe’s injunctive relief complaint seeks to stop the DAPL from proceeding and causing irreparable harm.

Professor Bartlett oversees DU law students in the environmental law clinic who worked in conjunction with Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP, a national Indian law firm, to file a complaint on behalf of the Yankton Sioux Tribe on September 8, 2016, for declaratory and injunctive relief in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Yankton Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to stop construction of the DAPL.  The Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation is located in South Dakota along the Missouri River.  The complaint seeks to prevent the Corps and other federal agencies from violating the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the Clean Water Act, the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the Administrative Procedures Act.  Specifically, NEPA requires a federal agency to complete an environmental impact statement, including public engagement and detailed comparison of alternatives.  Additionally, the complaint requests that the Corps engage in a more meaningful consultation process with the tribal communities.  Professor Bartlett noted that neither has happened as of September.

On September 9, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Immediately following this decision, the Justice Department, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement moving to stop construction of the DAPL on land near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation until the Corps could revisit and reconsider previous decisions under federal laws.  The joint statement also requested that tribes and government agencies meet to evaluate the current government-to-government consultation and to determine how to better include tribes in decision-making processes concerning pipeline construction.

Professor Bartlett also noted that the tribal response to the construction of this pipeline has resulted in the largest congregation of Native Americans in the past 100 years.  Police and private security forces have responded with arrests and violence to tribes’ peaceful acts of civil disobedience. As of September 2016 a prayer camp still remains in the area with ongoing protest demonstrations.

The second panelist, Dr. Angel M. Hinzo, is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Interdisciplinary Indigenous Studies at the University of Denver Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE) focusing on Native American history from the mid-19th century to the present.  In the panel, Dr. Hinzo recounted how the history of U.S. governmental and tribal relations is characterized by contrasting, and often conflicting, worldviews.  She said the federal government’s extraction of natural resources embodies western values of exploitation for economic gain.  For example, proponents of the DAPL have framed the project as benefiting the public good by creating jobs during the construction phase of the pipeline and contributing to federal sales and income taxes. Tribes, on the other hand, view the same natural resources, as sentient beings to be respected and revered, not exploited. The current DAPL conflict illustrates this fundamental difference in worldview because the pipeline would transport crude oil over an area rich in cultural and natural resources.  Historically, according to Dr. Hinzo, the Corps—the oldest agency dealing with natural resources in the United States—has harmed native lands and the environment.

Additionally, Dr. Hinzo raised concerns that the construction of pipeline threatens local tribal burial sites.  In September 2016, the pipeline construction company—Dakota Access LLC—destroyed burial sites near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to build the DAPL.  Dr. Hinzo emphasized that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”) provides regulations to protect culturally significant sites during infrastructure projects, which the Corps and pipeline workers did not respect. Dr. Hinzo also argued that discussions around the DAPL need to better address the NAGPRA. Lastly, Dr. Hinzo noted the social costs associated with the oil-and-gas boom in North Dakota. Communities living near fossil fuel extraction have witnessed an increase in violence and sex trafficking.  Low income tribal communities living near the proposed route of the DAPL, who already experience difficulty with these issues, are increasingly at risk.

The panel’s third speaker, Mr. David Neslin, is of counsel at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP in Denver, Colorado.  He previously managed the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission within the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which regulates all oil and gas development in Colorado.  During his career, Mr. Neslin has also represented multiple tribes in natural resource–extraction issues.

First, Mr. Neslin noted that the sole issue of the preliminary injunction action was whether the Corps violated federal laws when it issued permits allowing construction of the DAPL to move forward.  In general, preliminary injunctive relief actions seek to halt a project and maintain the status quo until the court has a chance to go through the full litigation process and resolve the issue.  Consequently, the court’s denial of the injunction in this case was a narrow decision because it did not go to trial or produce a full development of record.  Next, Mr. Neslin spoke about the importance of the administrative record to the court’s decision and how this case represents a good example of why it is vital for parties to develop and convey a cohesive narrative to the court.  While people can disagree about the substance of such records, he said that the Corps adequately documented its compliance and “checked all the boxes” needed to comply with federal regulations as to tribal consultations and environmental impacts of the DAPL.  As noted earlier, the federal government is required to provide permits under the Clean Water Act to allow the DAPL to move forward, triggering requirements under the National Historic Protection Act to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  Because the Corp followed and completed steps outlined in the permitting process, Judge Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Mr. Neslin argued that it was the Department of Justice’s multiple affidavits, for example, that illustrated the ways in which the Corps took the proper steps in allowing the DAPL to move forward.  The tribes, he said, could have done a better job of illustrating and citing examples to the court of the DAPL’s impacts on tribal cultural resources.  Finally, Mr. Neslin noted that the district court opinion serves as a reminder of the potency of judicial deference toward agency decision making in cases like this.  Traditionally, courts defer to agencies—such as the Environmental Protection Agency—to determine whether infrastructure projects have followed proper procedure when considering environmental and cultural impacts.  When not one overarching agency exists to ensure proper compliance, as in the case of the DAPL, multiple federal agencies follow their own processes when dealing with a discrete aspect of the overall project.  Mr. Neslin said that federal segmentation of this kind results in piecemealed environmental and cultural impact assessments, overlooking the potential for studying the impacts of the project as a whole.

The final panelist, Ms. Heather Whiteman Runs Him, is a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund (“NARF”) in Boulder, Colorado, where she works on tribal water and natural resource rights issues.  She provided an overview of tribal water rights and upcoming meetings between tribes and the U.S. government to evaluate current administrative consultation requirements.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that NARF’s role in the current DAPL actions is to coordinate multiple amicus briefs in support of tribes’ ongoing defense. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that the foundation of tribal water rights under federal law rests on the Winters Decision, which says that the establishment of an Indian reservation includes an implied reservation of water for future use in an amount necessary to fulfill the needs of the reservation.

While Winters recognized tribal rights to water, Ms. Whiteman Runs Him noted, some tribes are working with state and federal governments to quantify their water rights and build water infrastructure in order to put their water to use.  Currently twenty-nine tribes have settled their water rights, while many more have not.  Settlement negotiations are generally expensive, lengthy, and multi-step processes that involve analyzing the land base of the reservation, hydrology, soil science, economics, etc. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him emphasized that neither the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe nor the Yankton Sioux Tribe have either quantified or settled their reservation water rights, but that does not diminish the Tribes’ rights to a reliable and safe water supply for their citizens.  These tribes have concerns about the DAPL’s affect on their water supply because the pipeline’s proposed route traverses the Missouri River, a major municipal water source to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation, and the point of diversion for its drinking water.

Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that federal agencies are required to establish policies and procedures to meet the consultation standards of the National Historic Protection Act.  Most federal agencies have established such policies; the Corps, however, has a history of failing to comply with federal standards in regard to tribal sovereignty.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him believes that federal agencies need to “make the letter of the law match the spirit of the law” by not only requiring the Corps meet requirements of the administrative process, but also implementing requirements in a way that is meaningful to the intent of the regulations.

One major point illuminated throughout the panel discussion and the question and answer period is the adequacy of a permitting process that allowed the DAPL to move forward in the face of federal trust obligations to tribes.  As previously mentioned, the permitting process for the DAPL requires certain mitigation activities under federal regulations to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  While federal agencies may have completed the required steps to receive permits, the tribes argue that such steps lack substance and do not adequately and meaningfully consider tribal input.  While the permitting process may be administratively sufficient, many question whether the process actually fulfills spirit of the federal trust obligations to substantively consult and include tribal input.

Lindsey Ratcliff

Image: The Dakota Access Pipeline being installed between farms, as seen from 50th Avenue in New Salem, North Dakota. Flickr user Tony Webster, Creative Commons.


Askins v. Ohio Dep’t of Agric., 809 F.3d 868 (6th Cir. 2016) (holding that i) the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision does not apply to notification requirements; ii) the Clean Water Act’s notification requirement is not a condition of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit; iii) the Clean Water Act does not permit a cause of action against non-polluting regulators for violations of procedural regulations; and iv) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to hold a hearing was not a failure to perform a non-discretionary duty, and as such was not actionable under the Clean Water Act).

This was an appeal from The United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, which dismissed all of appellants’, Larry and Vickie Askins (“Askinses”), claims.  The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (“Ohio EPA”) administers the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“U.S. EPA”) approval.  In 2001, the Ohio legislature authorized the Ohio Department of Agriculture (“ODA”) to apply to the U.S. EPA to transfer authority from Ohio EPA to ODA, so that ODA could administer part of the state-NPDES program.  The Clean Water Act (“CWA”) permits such a transfer, but requires the U.S. EPA’s permission prior to transfer.  The Askinses alleged that the transfer took place in 2001, while the Ohio EPA didn’t seek permission until some five years later.  As such, the Askinses sued under the CWA’s citizen suit provision, alleging various violations of the CWA.

The lower court held that the Askinses failed to state a claim under the CWA, the U.S. EPA did not fail to perform a non-discretionary duty under the CWA, and the U.S. EPA, the Ohio EPA, and the ODA did not violate the CWA.  The Askinses appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Court”), arguing that the CWA’s citizen suit provision permitted their cause of action.

First, the Court considered whether the Askinses could maintain a citizen suit action for a violation of the CWA’s notice requirement under Section 1314.  The Court reasoned that the notice requirement at issue is not an enumerated provision requiring compliance, and as such, the citizen suit provision does not encompass alleged violations of the requirement.

Next, the Court considered whether the notification requirement was a “condition.”  The Court concluded that the notification requirement serves as a timing mechanism, which triggers a state’s ability to apply to administer the NPDES program, as opposed to a substantive requirement.  Further, the notification requirement referred to EPA approval of a state’s permit program, not a state’s approval of individual permits.  Finally, the Court concluded that the Askinses’ reading of the notification requirement as a condition was contradictory to NPDES requirements, specifically that state and federal permit conditions be the same.  As such, the Court held that the CWA’s notification requirement is not a permit “condition.”

Third, the Court determined whether there existed a private cause of action against regulators for violations of procedural regulations.  The Court concluded that if Congress intended the citizen suit provision to permit the Askinses’ claim, it would have included language in the explicitly enumerated circumstances permitting suit.  Further, if the citizen suit provision were so expansive as to permit this claim, the provision’s remedies would give it more teeth than the U.S. EPA itself has, by way of the provision’s shorter notice period and availability of civil penalties and costs.  This is not the case because Congress intended the citizen suit provision to supplement the regulators’ authority.  Finally, cases that considered other, identical citizen suit provisions reached the same conclusion as this Court.  Therefore, the Court held, the CWA citizen suit provision did not permit a private right of action against a non-polluting regulator for procedural violations.

Finally, the Court considered whether the U.S. EPA failed to perform a non-discretionary duty.  The Court held that the CWA does not require the U.S. EPA to hold a hearing.  Should the U.S. EPA choose to hold a hearing, the CWA requires it to withdraw approval of a state-NPDES program after hearing, proper notice, and time to address the issue.  That is to say, the CWA does not require a hearing in the first place; therefore it is not a non-discretionary duty.  The U.S. EPA did not hold a hearing in the present case, so no non-discretionary duties arose.  Thus, the CWA did not permit the Askinses’ citizen suit.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Tim Berrier


The heavy rainfall and flooding that occurred in the second week of September brought devastation to many families, homes, and businesses in Colorado.  With 374 families remaining in temporary housing, recovery from the storms has been a slow process for those acutely affected.  After the rain subsided and the flood levels receded, another concern emerged for Coloradans: damage to oil and gas operations in the floodway.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”), a state agency in the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, is responsible for the regulation of oil and gas development in the state.  During the extensive rainfall and following the destructive flooding, the COGCC worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), the Colorado emergency response operations, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), and other organizations to oversee the response to spills and oil and gas operations damaged in the flood.

Alan Gilbert, an attorney with decades of experience in energy and environmental law, was appointed Special Assistant to the Executive Director for Flood Response to monitor the inspection and cleanup of oil and gas operations.  On Friday, November 8, Mr. Gilbert gave a presentation to the Natural Resources Section of the Colorado Bar Association to outline the COGCC’s ongoing response to the flood damage.

Mr. Gilbert noted that Colorado has many wells that operate within floodplains of the St. Vrain and Platte Rivers in central and northeast Colorado.  Often, these well sites were chosen to keep drilling operations off of valuable agricultural land.  During the first few days of heavy rain, when it became clear that massive flooding was imminent, oil and gas companies with wells in the floodplains preemptively started to shut-in wells.  Mr. Gilbert explained that when a well is shut-in, valves are closed to stop production, which creates a seal between the well bore and the land surface.  This process contains any oil or gas underground if surface operations are damaged.  Fortunately, a majority of wells today can be shut-in remotely, but some still require employees to manually shut-in the well at the well site.  In total, oil companies shut-in 2,603 wells during the flooding.  Today, 691 of the wells remain shut-in, awaiting inspection or repairs before resuming operations.  However, with these wells closed and not in production, leaseholders, including many families that depend on the income, will not receive any royalty payments.

Fortunately, Mr. Gilbert explained, the shut-in wells withstood the flooding with almost no damage or leaks reported to the well structures themselves.  However, many storage tanks, soil and metal berms around wells, and pipelines sustained damage from water flow or debris carried by the water.  As many media pictures reported, the flooding toppled some tanks; unanchored pipelines and caused leaks; lifted some underground tanks to the surface; and caused oil, condensate, and produced water to escape in certain areas.  While the rain continued to fall, the COGCC began discussing how to address the problems.  The COGCC, with EPA assistance, took aerial surveys of affected areas and began traveling to the areas to inspect damaged wells.  The COGCC brought in and trained many additional teams of inspectors to handle the increased workload.

The COGCC, through inspections and operator reports, immediately began to compile and assess spill data.  As of November 8, the COGCC reported total spills of 1,149 barrels (48,250 gallons) of oil and condensate and 1,035 barrels (43,479 gallons) of produced water originating from storage tanks and leaking pipelines.  These totals came from forty-nine total spills, fourteen of which were in excess of twenty barrels.  Twenty spills only comprised produced water, and the single largest spill amounted to 323 barrels.  Mr. Gilbert reported that there was no single catastrophic spill and no significant buildup of spilled material in any area.

A major concern of Coloradans revolved around the effects of flooding on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).  However, the COGCC reported that no fracking operations were active in the floodplains during the flooding, and thus no fracking fluid spillage.  Mr. Gilbert explained that fracking is not a continuous operation in oil and gas production and only takes place during limited times at each well site.  While the initial staging of two fracking operations started at the beginning of the rainfall, operators moved both of them safely out of the affected areas before significant flooding occurred.  Although many media outlets speculated about discovering fracking disasters when the water receded, these fears were unnecessary as all fracking had terminated prior to the flooding.

Since the floodwaters have receded, the COGCC has taken many steps to respond to the damage, including assisting operators to inspect and repair damaged equipment, cleaning up any spilled toxic substances, and continuing evaluations of damage and response efforts.  The professional, technically trained staff of the COGCC has researched and written many reports to assist the industry in safely cleaning up, repairing, and returning affected oil and gas operations to normal production.  These reports include start-up procedures for undamaged shut-in wells, worker health and safety information for workers exposed to floodwaters containing E. coli and other hazards, recommended practices for flood impact zone reconstruction, and a notice to operators of new reporting requirements  for wells in flood impact zones.  Finally, the COGCC has requested a formal report from the oil and gas industry outlining all spills and damage.  In addition, an interim committee has been formed in the Colorado General Assembly to provide further oversight of the cleanup operations.

Mr. Gilbert reported that the COGCC has learned many lessons from the flooding that will better prepare them for future floods.  First, while both soil and metal berms should be built around wells to contain any material in case of a spill, the flooding and debris from this flood demonstrated that the metal berms stood up to the damage much better than soil.  Second, the anchoring systems for tanks and pipelines need better design and construction to keep tanks in place during violent weather.  Third, wells with remote shut-in capabilities are very beneficial to control wells inaccessible due to dangerous weather.  The COGCC is planning to hold future workshops to discuss COGCC action in response to these lessons.

In summary, no form of energy production is without risk, and it is important that oil and gas operations in Colorado are well prepared to prevent spills, even in the face of the most violent natural disasters.  While all spills of toxic materials are significant and serious, the quick action by the oil and gas industry and immediate response to the flooding by the COGCC kept Colorado lands free from any major threat to the environment or public health.

 

Additional Resources

The COGCC has documented and published all reports about the flooding and response on their website at http://cogcc.state.co.us/Announcements/Hot_Topics/Flood2013/Flood.htm. The website includes the COGCC map showing wells in the flood impact zone; COGCC start-up procedures for undamaged shut-in wells; COGCC health and safety information for workers exposed to floodwaters containing E. coli and other hazards; and COGCC recommended practices for flood impact zone well reconstruction.