A U.S. District Court judge on Monday denied a request from Native Americans for a restraining order that would have temporarily halted work on the hotly contested Dakota Access Pipeline.
The ruling allows Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners to continue drilling in order to complete the final stretch of the pipeline beneath the Missouri River in North Dakota as a legal challenge brought by Native American tribes plays out.
It also raises concerns about potential clashes between authorities and protesters still camped out near the Dakota Access work site. The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages federal land in the area, plans to clear the camps next week.
The Corps in December denied Energy Transfer Partners the easement it needed to complete the final stretch of the $3.8-billion project, but President Donald Trump ordered the Army secretary to move forward the process shortly after he took office.
The Corps granted the easement last week and terminated plans to conduct an environmental review to identify alternative routes for the pipeline.
Dakota Access pipeline route, source: Energy Transfer Partners
"We're disappointed with today's ruling denying a temporary restraining order against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but we are not surprised. We know this fight is far from over," Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel in the Dakotas for Lakota People's Law Project, said in a statement.
"The tribes will continue to pursue legal remedies through the courts, seek an injunction against the pipeline and push for the full Environmental Impact Statement to be completed," he said.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe filed a motion last week seeking the restraining order. The tribe, along with the Standing Rock Sioux, has opposed Energy Transfer Partners' plan to route the pipeline beneath Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River that provides drinking water and is held sacred by the Sioux.
Their protest has drawn thousands of people at times to camps on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Protesters have clashed with local authorities and private security firms.
In the motion, the tribe argued that the construction of a pipeline and flow of oil beneath Lake Oahe obstructs the free practice of the tribe's religion, Matt Vogel, a legislative associate for the Cheyenne River Sioux, told reporters on a conference call on Monday.
Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court in Washington rejected the request at a hearing on Monday afternoon, Reuters reported.
The ruling comes ahead of a Feb. 22 deadline, when the Army Corps of Engineers plans to remove structures set up by protesters near land it manages on a floodplain at the mouth of the Cannonball River. The Corps said forecasts for flooding in the coming weeks make it necessary to clear the area to prevent injury or death.
Native Americans and their allies have established three new camps south of the Cannonball River in recent days, Iron Eyes told reporters during a conference call on Monday.
But a number of campers are digging in north of the river, said Madonna Thunder Hawk, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. These protesters aim to draw attention to a long-standing treaty dispute between the Sioux and the federal government.
Just a few hundred protesters remain in the camp, but Trump's executive order has drawn some back to Standing Rock, including a network of veterans that is currently helping to clean up camps.
Anthony Diggs, communications secretary for Veterans Stand, said the group will act within its capabilities to take nonviolent measures to protect protesters if tribe members ask them to do so.
Iron Eyes said the veterans were there chiefly as observers, but raised concerns about clashes with authorities next week.
"There could be a forceable raid, so we need media and bodies to prevent anything bad from happening," he told CNBC.