WASHINGTON — The US Army Corps of Engineers doesn't know how long it will take to "expedite" its review of the Dakota Access pipeline following President Trump's executive actions last week on the topic, a lawyer from the US Department of Justice told a federal judge on Monday.
Pressed by the judge to at least provide a timeframe for when the Army Corps would know how long the review will take, the lawyer said he didn't know that either. Officials were "actively working on" responding to Trump's recent directive to speed up the review, he said.
That answer didn't satisfy the judge. US District Judge James Boasberg, who sits in the District of Columbia, ordered the government come back to court in a week, on Feb. 6, to provide an update on its schedule.
Litigation over the pipeline has been pending since July, when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers to block federal approval of the pipeline. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe later joined the court challenge.
Trump on Jan. 24 signed a presidential memorandum ordering agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, "to expedite reviews and approvals for the remaining portions" of the pipeline. It was a departure from the Obama administration, which halted construction in December amid protests and called for an environmental review of the project.
Boasberg said on Monday that he wanted a concrete timeframe from the government to avoid a situation in which he issued a ruling, only to have the government announce a decision on the pipeline that could make his decision a non-issue. That happened last year: Boasberg denied the tribes' request to halt construction, and then the White House announced that it was stopping the pipeline from going forward.
To write another opinion and then have the government change course again "would be hardly an efficient use of resources," Boasberg said.
The company building the pipeline is also eager to find out how long the new review will take. Dakota Access LLC's attorney, David Debold, told Boasberg on Monday that they supported having the court set a deadline for the government to report on its timeline. There is "nothing like an order from a judge" to spur action, he said.
Lawyers for the pipeline also will have to come back to court next week. They are to tell the judge then what would happen if the Army Corps approves the easement needed to continue construction. A lawyer for the Standing Rock tribe told Boasberg they were worried that construction would pick up immediately once the Army Corps granted the easement, before the tribe had time to seek a court order stopping it.
Boasberg told Dakota Access LLC to tell the court by Feb. 6, when the next hearing is scheduled, how long it would take from the granting to the easement until oil was flowing through the pipeline.
Boasberg told Dakota Access LLC to give a full construction timeline to the court by the hearing, laying out the process from the granting of the easement until oil wold be flowing through the pipeline. He said he thought it was in everyone's interest to be prepared once the Army Corps made a decision.
Boasberg set the hearing for Monday, as opposed to Friday, which is what the pipeline's lawyer requested.
"A lot happens over the weekend these days," Boasberg said.