BISMARCK — In the last four years, the Dakota Access Pipeline has become a defining conflict, not only in North Dakota but for a national reckoning over America’s climate and energy future. But in the years since the smoke of protest clashes near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation has cleared, the pipeline dispute has carried on more quietly, with many of the biggest decisions being hashed out in courtrooms in Washington, D.C.

With a new president in the White House, DAPL backers and opponents alike have felt that the embattled project may be at another decisive moment. But after a tumultuous year for the pipeline, what has changed, and what is still undecided? If you haven’t followed every twist and turn in the federal courts, we're here to catch you up with a guide to the latest in the years-long pipeline saga.

Is there still oil flowing through DAPL?

Yes. DAPL has carried oil continuously from North Dakota's Bakken formation to market in other parts of the country since its commercial operations began in the summer of 2017.

What does a new president mean for DAPL?

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This is the question of the hour. Both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump intervened in the DAPL dispute, with Obama stepping in to cancel a key construction permit at the end of his administration and Trump quickly reversing that decision to greenlight the pipeline’s completion at the start of his term. Now, with President Joe Biden in the White House, Indigenous and environmental groups are hopeful that they may have their most potent ally yet.

Biden came into office with arguably the most ambitious climate agenda of any president before him, and in the first month of his presidency he took several aggressive steps against the oil industry. His Day One decision to cancel a permit for the unfinished Keystone XL Pipeline, which was under construction to carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, has energized activists who took it as a sign that he may be inclined to shut down DAPL as well.

But Biden has stayed mum on the DAPL dispute since his inauguration. Calls for the new president to shutter the pipeline have picked up steam among Indigenous and environmental groups — as well as prominent Democrats and celebrities — but, so far, attempts to probe the new administration's intentions have amounted to little more than reading the tea leaves.

Some people say the pipeline is running 'illegally.' Is that true?

The short answer is, it's complicated. This view, often stated by environmental and Indigenous groups opposed to the pipeline, is an interpretation of two federal court rulings in the last year that determined that the pipeline does not have a valid permit at its Missouri River crossing near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Both a U.S. district court and a federal appeals court, the highest court to rule on the DAPL dispute so far, decided that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to properly account for the pipeline's impacts on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, concluding that it's not in compliance with environmental law. But while the district court ordered last July that DAPL would have to shut down immediately because of its unlawful permit, the panel of appeals court judges ruling this January gave the pipeline legal permission to keep running despite the voided permit. Instead, they deferred to the Army Corps to decide what to do about it.

Why is this such a big moment for DAPL?

Lawsuits have followed DAPL since its construction, but the stakes of the pipeline fight have escalated with the start of the climate-focused Biden presidency. Many Indigenous and environmental activists have put pressure on the White House to take bold action against the project. Biden came out of the gates with ambitious moves targeting climate change, and the start of the new presidency coincided with a federal appeals court ruling that has left a clear legal path for Biden to shut down the pipeline, at least temporarily. The pipeline is operating on precarious legal footing after the federal appeals court confirmed that it doesn't have a valid permit, and pipeline opponents have argued that the new president could shut it down with the stroke of a pen.

But while backers and opponents were both waiting anxiously for a moment of truth last month — when the Army Corps was facing deadline pressure to disclose its plans for the voided pipeline permit in front of a federal judge — the Biden administration was granted an extension, pushing back clarity on the new presidency's pipeline stance to April.

In the long term, the pipeline's prospects are even hazier. After the completion of its environmental review, the Army Corps could come to one of several conclusions: It could clear the pipeline to keep running, it could withhold a new permit until certain conditions are met, or it could deny the permit altogether and shut down operations. Whatever happens, the losing side is likely to challenge the decision in court, a prospect that could very well land the DAPL case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court down the line.

How much would it cost North Dakota if DAPL shut down?

A DAPL shutdown would be costly. The exact figures are tough to nail down, since predictions require forecasting the future price of oil. But shutting down the pipeline would deal an immediate $3 to $5 hit to the price of a barrel of Bakken crude, in the estimate of North Dakota Pipeline Authority Director Justin Kringstad, a cut that would send waves through the state's leading industry.

Unlike the cancellation of Keystone XL, the effect of a DAPL shutdown on jobs would be indirect, since there are few people employed to work on the pipeline itself. But state and oil industry estimates for the spillover effect on jobs are substantial. A study commissioned last fall by the American Petroleum Institute estimated a total of 7,400 jobs lost across industries during a shutdown. Separately, North Dakota's top oil regulator said in court documents filed last April that a shutdown would wipe out about 9,000 jobs in a temporary shock to the system, with longer term losses settling in between about 4,500 and 7,200.

Energy Transfer, the pipeline's parent company, has said in court filings that shutting down its pipeline would deal a massive $7.5 billion loss to North Dakota companies, employees and the state budget through the end of this year. Few contest the point that the losses of a DAPL shutdown could climb into the billions, but an analysis commissioned by Standing Rock’s legal team argued that projections by pipeline operators were exaggerated by multiple billions of dollars. Pipeline opponents have argued that lower demand for oil in a recovering post-pandemic economy would alleviate the fallout of a short-term shutdown.

A trio of excavators move earth along the now-completed Dakota Access Pipeline route east of Williston, N.D., in late July 2016. Forum News Service file photo
A trio of excavators move earth along the now-completed Dakota Access Pipeline route east of Williston, N.D., in late July 2016. Forum News Service file photo

How much oil does DAPL carry?

The pipeline can carry up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Bakken. At times during the coronavirus pandemic, when the global price of oil plummeted and demand for gasoline and airplane fuel plunged, the oil flow has been substantially lower, bottoming out at just over 50% capacity last summer. Today, the pipeline is carrying about 500,000 barrels of oil a day, according to Kringstad.

In the background of the fight over DAPL’s operations, Energy Transfer is looking to nearly double the pipeline's daily capacity. That expansion was approved by North Dakota regulators in November of 2019, but state regulators have not received updates on the development since Energy Transfer reported doing initial sitework last October.

How did this all start?

DAPL has been a national flashpoint in debates over environmental stewardship and the effects of the fossil fuels industry since protests over its construction drew the global spotlight four years ago. Opponents of the pipeline camped out around the site of the pipeline's Missouri River crossing near Standing Rock for months in 2016 and 2017, and clashes between law enforcement and protesters sometimes became violent. While protests quieted with the completion of the pipeline, temperatures over its operations still run hot, and the legal battle has dragged out long beyond the confrontations at the protest encampments.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have said the construction of the pipeline destroyed important cultural and historic sites and risks the contamination of Lake Oahe, an important source of drinking water for the reservation. Members of the oil industry and much of North Dakota’s Republican leadership see the pipeline as the safest and most efficient way of transporting crude oil from the Bakken to markets, primarily along the Gulf Coast, as well as crucial infrastructure for keeping North Dakota competitive with other oil-producing states.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.