PIERRE, S.D. (CN) - South Dakota on Monday became the first state to issue a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, to carry crude oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota to pipelines in Illinois.
The Public Utilities Commission voted 2 to 1 to issue the permit, two weeks ahead of its Dec. 15 deadline.
This is a separate, smaller project than the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which President Obama vetoed. It would have carried tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada 1,179 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The Senate tried, but failed, to override the Keystone veto in March.
The smaller Dakota Access Pipeline also caused controversy.
Dakota Access LLC has filed more than 50 lawsuits seeking easements across private property in South Dakota. At public hearings in September and October, property owners claimed the pipeline would reduce their property values and the productivity of their soil.
Gary Hanson, the only commissioner who opposed granting the permit, echoed these concerns at the Nov. 30 commission meeting .
"Dakota Access's very own actions have shown a disrespect for the concerns of many landowners," Hanson said. "Bringing lawsuits against the citizens of South Dakota prior to receiving a citing permit is reprehensible. Obtaining a survey on those properties was not even necessary prior to the permit process. A multibillion-dollar corporation trampling on the property rights of South Dakota citizens is not trivial.
"I do not have the authority to order Dakota Access, and neither does this commission," Hanson continued. "However, I believe Dakota Access should apologize to each landowner that they sued prior to receiving a permit, and they should reimburse the landowners for the legal fees they incurred opposing the lawsuits."
Chairman Chris Nelson, while voting in favor of the permit, agreed. "If this motion passes, I implore you [Dakota Access] to do everything you can to make things work for those landowners," he said.
In a Tuesday email to Courthouse News, Dakota Access spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger called the pipeline "an important infrastructure project that will provide a more direct, cost-effective, safer and environmentally responsible manner to transport this crude oil."
Dakota Access claims that most landowners like the project.
"We are pleased to have successfully negotiated voluntary easement agreements for 91 percent of the 743 properties along the route in South Dakota," Dillinger said. "We will continue to work with the few remaining landowners to try to reach voluntary easement agreements as it is our intention to use any legal options only as a last resort."
Commissioner Hanson also expressed concern that the pipeline cuts through South Dakota's largest growth areas, just outside Sioux Falls.
"No one can deny that the proposed route goes through the heart of the highest populated and the highest economic growth area of South Dakota, and Dakota Access has testified that it does not need to be located there. The relative cost of rerouting this pipeline farther away from this growth area is pennies to the dollar for a multibillion-dollar pipeline," Hanson said.
Dakota Access said it chose the route after consulting with municipalities because it's the shortest distance from the Bakken oilfields to the pipeline's endpoint in Illinois.
At one point, the pipeline will overlap an easement for a high-voltage power line.
"In five to 10 years, I imagine citizens will be asking, 'What were people thinking when they allowed a high-pressure pipeline carrying flammable, hazardous liquids to be built right next to a high-voltage power line, directly in the path of the city's growth?'" Hanson said. "This is the sort of thing we complain about government bodies doing."
Hanson finished by urging Dakota Access to reapply for a permit after it had addressed some of these concerns.
"It is not my intent to keep this pipeline from being built," he said. "I just want it done right."
Acting Commissioner Rich Sattgast, appointed to fill in for Commissioner Kristie Fiegen when a conflict of interest arose, said local governments should have spoken up if they were concerned about the route.
"The local governments were silent, and I believe they had not heard from their local citizens that there was opposition to this within their communities," Sattgast said. "I think that Dakota Access has met its burden, and that in the interests of the people of South Dakota as well as this nation that Dakota Access will be good stewards. And so I will be supporting the pipeline."
Although the pipeline does not cross reservation land, the Yankton and Rosebud Sioux tribes oppose it because of concerns about environmental degradation and land with cultural and historic significance.
"The Yankton Sioux Tribe is disappointed by the commission's decision to grant the permit," Yankton Sioux attorney Thomasina Real Bird told Courthouse News.
"The tribe intervened to protect tribal interests as well as those interests shared by all citizens and to ensure the process included a meaningful review of the proposed project in light of the statutory requirements. Here, the tribe's position is that Dakota Access did not meet the statutory requirements as highlighted in the tribe's and other intervening parties' briefs. The proposed project is not in the best interest of the Yankton Sioux Tribe nor the State of South Dakota."
Rosebud Sioux attorney Matthew Rappold added: "At a time when the global community examines solutions to curb our addictions to fossil fuels, the PUC's decision to allow the construction of new pipeline infrastructure is disappointing. As the original inhabitants and protectors of this region, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe stands in solidarity with other tribal nations, landowners, and South Dakotans as stewards and protectors of this land. Despite the ruling, we maintain our position that Dakota Access has not satisfied the requirements of the law and that this pipeline is not in the best interests of South Dakota or of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe."
Both tribes said they are evaluating their legal options.
In September, the Public Utilities Commission denied a petition supported by the tribes calling for an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. The commission said there was not time to complete one before the Dec. 15 permitting deadline.
North Dakota and Iowa still need to issue permits for their portions of the pipeline. Dakota Access plans to start construction on the pipeline in spring of 2016.