(Adds details on pipeline construction, protester reaction,
adds CANNON BALL, N.D., to dateline)
By Terray Sylvester and Liz Hampton
CANNON BALL, N.D./HOUSTON Feb 9 The company
building an oil pipeline that has fueled sustained public
protests said on Thursday it has started drilling under a North
Dakota lake despite a last-ditch legal challenge from a Native
American tribe leading the opposition.
Energy Transfer Partners LP is building the $3.8
billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to move crude from the
Northern Plains to the Midwest and then on to the Gulf of
Mexico, now saying it could be operational by early May.
The project had been put on hold under the administration of
former Democratic President Barack Obama, but new President
Donald Trump, a Republican, helped put it back on track.
The federal government this week cleared way for the project
to resume, leading the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to file a court
challenge on Thursday seeking a temporary restraining order to
halt construction and drilling for the pipeline.
The court set oral arguments on the legal challenge for
Legal experts say the tribe faces long odds in convincing
any court to halt construction,
Energy Transfer Partners needs only to cross beneath Lake
Oahe, part of the Missouri River system, to connect a final
1,100-foot (335 meter) gap in the 1,170-mile (1,885 km)
pipeline, which will move oil from the Bakken shale formation to
a terminus in Patoka, Illinois.
From there the oil would flow to another pipeline connecting
south-central Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico and that region's
numerous oil refineries.
Native American tribes and climate activists have vowed to
fight the pipeline, fearing it will desecrate sacred sites and
endanger a source of the country's largest drinking water
"This administration (Trump's) has expressed utter and
complete disregard for not only our treaty and water rights, but
the environment as a whole," the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said
on Thursday in a statement on its website.
Supporters say the pipeline will be safer than transporting
oil by rail or road, and industry leaders have praised the
project for creating high-paying jobs
With work on the final tranche now under way, Energy
Transfer Partners expects the Dakota Access Pipeline to begin
operations in approximately 83 days, according to a company
"We have started to drill to go beneath Lake Oahe and expect
to be completed in 60 days with another 23 days to fill the line
to Patoka," spokeswoman Vicki Granado said in an email.
She declined to specify when drilling began except that it
was after the company received federal permission on Wednesday.
Public opposition drew thousands of people to the North
Dakota plains last year including high-profile political and
celebrity supporters. Large protest camps popped up
near the site, leading to several violent clashes and some 700
A few hardy protesters have remained camped out near the
lake, braving sub-freezing temperatures.
Among them is Frank Archambault, 45, who has lived in the
camp since August when he left his home on the Standing Rock
"It angers me. It angers me because people are pushing other
people around, breaking laws," Archambault said. "They're trying
to kill us off by contaminating the water. We've had enough."
Ptery Light, 55, of Portland, Oregon, who has lived in the
main camp since Oct. 31, said he was not giving up hope.
"I just pray that there's no oil spill," Light said. "This
is purely about greed."
For now, their hopes are pinned on the Standing Rock Sioux
Tribe winning a legal victory.
To obtain the temporary restraining order, the tribe must
convince the judge there will be immediate harm suffered and
prove it has a strong overall case should its lawsuit to halt
the project result in a full trial.
The U.S. district judge in the case, James Boasberg,
previously rejected the tribe's request to block the project,
ruling in September that the Army Corps of Engineers likely
complied with the law in permitting the pipeline to go forward.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in New York, writing by
Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Matthew Lewis)