STANDING ROCK, N.D. - Federal officials will not provide a permit that would allow the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota, a government representative announced Sunday, a decision that set off celebrations among the thousands of protesters who have spent months camped out on the land in an effort to block construction efforts.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army's assistant secretary for civil works, said she based her decision on a need to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing. This comes three weeks after a November 14 announcement from her office that delayed the decision after protests from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters.
"Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it's clear that there's more work to do," Darcy said in her statement. "The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing."
Darcy said the consideration of alternative routes would be best accomplished through an environmental impact statement with full public input and analysis, delivering both an immediate reprieve and political statement that could aid in future showdowns with President-elect Donald Trump's incoming administration.
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican, said last week after a meeting with the transition team that Trump supported completing the pipeline. A spokeswoman for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday's decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted his criticism, calling the intervention "big-government decision-making at its worst. I look forward to putting this anti-energy presidency behind us."
Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice staff attorney representing the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said Sunday's decision would be useful in a court challenge because it cites a number of concerns first voiced by activists on the ground.
"It's not so simple for one government administration to simply reverse the decisions of the former one," Hasselman said. "If the incoming administration tries to undo this and jam the pipeline through despite the need for an analysis of alternatives, we will certainly be prepared to challenge that in court."
The tribe opposes the pipeline because its federal reservation lies just a half mile south of the proposed crossing point. Officials for the tribe have stated their resistance, saying they fear a rupture or spill from the pipeline could be hazardous to the tribal members and could damage their water supply.
"We wholeheartedly support the decision of the administration and commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing," Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a statement.
Thousands of protesters have taken up residence at the Standing Rock site to stand in solidarity with Native Americans to oppose the 1,172-mile long proposed pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that would transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day across four states.
"The American people have been awakened," said Sameera Khan, an activist and former Miss New Jersey US, who has been at the Oceti Sakowin camp since Thanksgiving, told CNN in an email Sunday. "If we continue to organize like this, there will be many more victories ahead. We will continue to fight. We will continue to win. This is only just the beginning."
North Dakota's sole member in the House of Representatives, Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican, also pledged to fight on, but against the White House decision. In a scathing statement, he slammed President Obama as well as the protesters.
"I hoped even a lawless President wouldn't continue to ignore the rule of law. However, it was becoming increasingly clear he was punting this issue down the road," Cramer wrote. "Today's unfortunate decision sends a very chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure in this country. Roads, bridges, transmission lines, pipelines, wind farms and water lines will be very difficult, if not impossible, to build when criminal behavior is rewarded this way."
Other politicians, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, have actively opposed the pipeline and are praising the administration's decision.
"I appreciate very much President Obama listening to the Native American people and millions of others who believe this pipeline should not be built," Sanders, a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, said in a statement. "In the year 2016, we should not continue to trample on Native American sovereignty. We should not endanger the water supply of millions of people. We should not become more dependent on fossil fuel and accelerate the planetary crisis of climate change. Our job now is to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels, not to produce more greenhouse gas emissions."
Still, many of the grassroots activists who have turned the protest site into a mini-city, prepared to withstand the freezing winter temperatures during what was expected to be an even lengthier standoff, were cautious about the scope and durability of their victory.
"We are asking our supporters to keep up the pressure, because while President Obama has granted us a victory today, that victory isn't guaranteed in the next administration," Dallas Goldtooth, lead organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network said in a statement. "More threats are likely in the year to come, and we cannot stop until this pipeline is completely and utterly defeated, and our water and climate are safe."
May Boeve, the executive director leading environmental action group 350.org, celebrated the decision but also sounded a warning against any future plans to reverse it.
"If Trump tries to go up against the leaders at Standing Rock he'll just end up looking petty and small," she said. "The fight against Dakota Access has fired up a resistance movement that is ready to take on any fossil fuel project the Trump administration tries to approve. On Dakota Access and every other pipeline: If he tries to build it, we will come."
Earlier this week, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple ordered the protesters to leave the campsite by Monday, citing the harsh winter conditions as a reason why they needed to decamp. The US Army Corps of Engineers had warned that come Monday, activists who refuse to leave the campsite could be arrested, then backtracked, saying the agency had no plans to forcibly remove those who stay.
Instead of backing away, the protesters came out in full force and showed no signs of backing down, even inviting over 2,000 veterans to join their already robust presence. Now with a victory for the Sioux tribe and their supporters, Standing Rock has become a protest symbol.
The news first broke in a Facebook video showing a man identified as Remi Baldeagle. He said the secretary of the Army had denied the Dakota Access pipeline easement.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” he said in the video clip. “Up until this point the American government has failed us, but the American people haven’t, so I feel American today.”
PREVIOUS STORY: Veterans arriving to support Dakota pipeline protesters
Throngs of veterans from the group "Veterans Stand for Standing Rock" were arriving at the freezing Dakota Access Pipeline protest site on Sunday, one day before authorities are expected to remove protesters.
On its Facebook page, the group said more than 2,000 veterans had signed up to join members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters. CNN could not independently verify that figure.
"We'll get settled on the fourth (December 4) and we'll begin actions with the morning ceremony on the fifth," one of the group leaders, Michael A. Wood Jr., said in a video posted on his verified Twitter account.
With a Monday showdown looming, the veterans will add a new dimension to the protest, which up to now has pitted members of the Sioux tribe and their supporters against local law enforcement officers.
The veterans Facebook page also said US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, will arrive to show support.
Leaders of the Sioux tribe said they won't leave their protest campsites near construction zones, despite an order to do so from North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who cited the harsh wintry conditions as the reason they need to leave.
The US Army Corps of Engineers had warned that come Monday, activists who refuse to leave the campsite could be arrested, then backtracked, saying the agency has no plans to forcibly remove those who stay.
"By sending out a letter saying you have until December 5," Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault told CNN, " ... It just escalates and causes more concern for safety for everybody."
Over the months of protest, the tribe has been joined by multiple groups and activists. They maintain that they have been peaceful, but at times violence has erupted.
The Morton County Sheriff's Office said protesters set fires while officers tried to disperse the crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets and water sprayed from hoses attached to fire engines. Just before Thanksgiving, on an evening when temperatures dropped below freezing, police sprayed protesters with a water cannon.
Archambault said the accusations against the protesters are false, and that it's police who are being violent.
The protesters want to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that would transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day across four states.
It would pass through an oil-rich area in North Dakota where there's an estimated 7.4 billion barrels of undiscovered oil.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe sued the US Army Corps of Engineers after the pipeline was granted final permits in July. The tribe says the project will not only threaten their environmental and economic well-being, but will also cut through land that is sacred.
Construction of it, they say, will "destroy our burial sites, prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts."