Battle Lines Being Drawn Over Keystone XL Again
Pending Nebraska permit could prove a deal-breaker; Environmentalists and Indigenous groups promise direct action, legal resistance
On March 23, ironically almost 27 years to the day following the historic Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Donald Trump issued a presidential permit to Canadian company TransCanada for its controversial Keystone XL pipeline, formally restarting a fight over the pipeline that first kicked off when it was first proposed in 2008.
Photo by Jow Brusky
Those opposing the pipeline had scored a major victory in November 2015 when President Obama rejected the project saying it wouldn’t help the economy or increase the United States’ energy security. A change in leadership, however, has fueled a move away from clean energy and fighting climate change and to the embrace of a fossil fuel-driven economic agenda.
After campaigning on the issue and subsequently loading his government with climate change deniers and a former oil company executive, it was little surprise that President Trump turned back the climate clock to revisit Keystone XL. Just four days after taking office, he signed an executive order fast tracking Keystone XL, giving secretary of state and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson 60 days to make a decision on the pipeline.
The 1,179-mile long pipeline is expected to transport 830,000 barrels of bitumen per day from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to an existing pipeline in Steele City, Nebraska, from where the crude will be moved to it refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
However, it’s unlikely that work on the pipeline will begin anytime soon. The project faces further battles on a number of different fronts, including opposition from environmentalists and Indigenous groups based on their treaty rights, court challenges to the secretary of state review, as well as at the grassroots resistance in the state of Nebraska.
“The President approved it this morning and turned to the CEO of the Canadian company supposed to build it and asked, ‘When does construction start?’” Bill McKibben, co-founder of the environmental group 350.org, said during a March 23 teleconference. “And the answer to that is never. This is going to be fought at every turn.”
The argument against the pipeline can be broken down to a few simple words: too much risk for too little reward. (The argument seems all the more relevant given TransCanada’s Keystone mainline leaked in South Dakota just last year spilling, more than 16,000 gallons of oil.)
Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environment Network, and one of the most recognizable faces from the Standing Rock protests against Dakota Access Pipeline, spoke of the inspiration and knowledge that came from the struggle in North Dakota that would be carried forward should the need arise in Nebraska and other areas along the Keystone XL route.
“Donald Trump should expect far greater resistance than ever before,” Goldtooth says. “We do expect resistance spirit camps to be erected along the route of the KXL pipeline. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have both sent statements that they are willing to hold physical space in resistance to the construction of this pipeline and will adhere to the clear principles of nonviolent direct action as well.”
Although much of the talk about how the project will be opposed going forward has revolved around the potential for another encampment facilitating nonviolent, direct action along the construction route, the project faces regulatory challenges as well. For starters, Keystone XL does not even have a state permit from Nebraska or an official route yet. The Nebraska permit requires the approval of the five-member Nebraska Public Service Commission. And that permit it might not be as easy to come by as President Trump expects.
Many of the environmental concerns in Nebraska relate to the pipeline’s route near the Sandhills region and across the Ogallala Aquifer — one of the world’s largest aquifers, and the potential for catastrophic damage to these unique and important ecosystems. The aquifer provides 30 percent of the groundwater for the entire United States and is vital to agriculture. It also provides drinking water for about 2.3 million Americans.
“You can stick a pipe for the cattle right through the oil and water comes gushing out, that’s how close the water is to the surface,” says Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a grassroots group designed to serve as a progressive voice independent of the state’s Democratic Party, and president of Bold Alliance a network of grassroots groups protecting land and water.
“Nebraska is the only state now that has not given a state permit, and that process has not even formally started,” Kleeb says.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission (NSPC) has been tasked with approving the route for Keystone XL. TransCanada has submitted three route options. The commission regulates such things as telecommunications carriers, grain warehouses and deals, railroad safety and major oil pipelines.
Over the next 8 to12 months, the commission will gather information from a variety of sources, including local residents who have signed on as intervenors. It will also hold public meetings and hearings leading to an expected final decision to on September 14, 2017.
“There are more than 100 formal intervenors,” Kleeb says. “Tribes, landowners, farmers, ranchers, citizens, environmentalists, tree huggers, anybody and everybody. We will never allow an inch of this foreign steel pipeline carrying tar sands crude that can pollute our water and take away property rights and threaten treaty rights of the tribes here in Nebraska. We will not allow that to happen.”
The NPSC, one of few partisan agencies in the state, is made up of five elected commissioners who serve six-year terms. It’s currently composed of four Republicans and one Democrat and two of the positions will be up for election in 2018. Kleeb says she expects Keystone XL to be a major election issue.
“This is a very new process for the public service commission,” she explains. “There will be active letter writing and public pressure campaigns. We in Nebraska will treat this as a political campaign just like healthcare reform. And we will be pressuring to reject the pipeline permit as well.”
The NPSC does not have to choose a route, Kleeb says. It has the authority to reject the pipeline outright, or force the company to look at existing corridors it may already use in the state and build alongside the existing infrastructure.
In addition, Kleeb explains, there are 85 landowners along the Keystone XL route that have refused to give up their land, and if TransCanada attempts to expropriate the property via eminent domain, that process could land in court and result in an additional 2 to 3 year delay.
However, to say Nebraska is ready to reject the pipeline is quite a stretch.
Although he doesn’t factor in this particular decision, Keystone XL has an ally in Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, who said in January that the pipeline would “create good-paying jobs for Nebraska workers and bring property tax relief to counties along the route.” And, while a February Pew Research Center’s poll revealed that 48 percent of Americans oppose the pipeline while just 42 percent were in favor of it, the latest poll in Nebraska found that most in the state are in favor of the project. The Nebraska Rural Poll showed that 66 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that environmental risks outweighed economic benefits.
One of the intervenors at the NPSC hearings will be Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, who says his tribe has not been involved in the Keystone XL process so far, and he is concerned about the safety and environmental impact not only in Nebraska, but along the entire route of the pipeline. “Our tribe has had no consultation in this process and what it would mean for our people and our sites that we hold dear and sacred,” he says. “We want to make sure they aren’t disturbed as well as protecting land and water, and continue to do so today and into tomorrow.”
If the NPSC does sign off on the Keystone XL permit, construction crews won’t be far behind. At that point, the most likely scenario will be some form of direct action protest along the route to try to stop or slow down that work.
Although it looks as though there is no end to the bad news coming from the White House (Trump signed yet another series of executive orders yesterday undoing several federal policies that tackle climate change, McKibben believes there are options and there is hope. And, that hope comes from the people. “Americans have finally figured out, despite all the advertising and all the political boosting, what a scam this thing is,” he said. “So, game on. The fight will be very real and very intense.”