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Two Years After Standing Rock, Another Oil Pipeline Faces Tribal Opposition

TransCanada said the Keystone XL pipeline will begin contruction in 2019.
Nate Hegyi
Mountain West News Bureau
TransCanada said the Keystone XL pipeline will begin contruction in 2019.

 Two Years After Standing Rock, Another Oil Pipeline Faces Tribal Opposition

Dawson County Sheriff Ross Canen sat down and ordered a coffee at a small-town diner on the edge of the eastern Montana badlands. The walls were lined with portraits of Miss Montana going back to the 1950’s — young white women with silver tiaras and perfect teeth.

“I have a saying, ‘I don’t think you find your vocation, your vocation finds you,” Canen said, sipping his coffee.His vocation is law enforcement. Since 1993, he’s dealt with small town stuff like drunk drivers, domestic violence and meth use.

But now that developers say the controversial Keystone XL pipeline will be constructed in his backyard, Canen is preparing for a potential Standing Rock-style protest. His rural county has never seen any kind of protest before.

“We’re not looking forward to it,” he said. “But we’re preparing for it. And we’re going to handle whatever comes up.”

If built, Keystone XL would carry oil over 1,000 miles from the Alberta tar sands to Nebraska. Developers of the pipeline say it’s safe and could pump billions of dollars into the U.S. economy. Though the project was killed by the Obama administration, it was recently revived under Trump.

In Montana, the pipeline would cross the Missouri River, an important source of water for the nearby Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Katie Thunderchild lives there and is worried the pipeline could leak.

“And where does that leak go? It goes into the water,” she said. “And we drink that water, and we get sick, and it just goes on down the line,” Thunderchild said.

Keystone XL developer TransCanada said the pipeline will be buried more than 50 feet below the river. Federal regulations require a pipeline is buried four feet beneath a major river crossing. TransCanada has state-of-the-art monitoring systems that can register pressure drops and can shutdown the pipeline within minutes.

But Thunderchild said she’s also worried about the kind of people pipeline construction could bring. This is an isolated place — everyone knows everyone — but Keystone’s developers are building temporary housing near the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for a surge of out-of-state workers.

“What is their background? Did they commit a crime, does it involve children, guns, all of that other stuff. Drugs?” she said.

Thunderchild has two young daughters, so the pipeline project scares her. She isn’t alone.

In at least six other states, tribes are opposing energy infrastructure projects like Keystone XL.

Since Standing Rock, there’s been a lot more scrutiny over oil pipelines. Lawsuits against them have ramped up.

Here in the northern Great Plains, the Rosebud Sioux and the Fort Belknap Indian Community have already sued in an effort to stop Keystone XL.

They say the Trump administration ignored environmental impacts and treaty rights .

Angeline Cheek lives on the Fort Peck reservation and she was at the protests at Standing rock. She opposes Keystone, even though the pipeline might bring short-term job opportunities to her reservation.“We need to start thinking ahead like our ancestors thought,” she said. “We can’t forget who we are.”

Cheek leads awareness walks and informational workshops about Keystone XL, but she doesn’t expect a Standing Rock-style protest here. She said residents are afraid of retaliation and intimidation from their tribal government and law enforcement agencies.

A recent report prepared by the Montana Department of Justice and others called some pipeline opponents “environmental rights extremists” and warned of potential violence. Rural law enforcement agencies in eastern Montana — like the one run by Dawson County Sheriff Ross Canen — have received training on protest management.

But just like some Keystone XL activists, Canen said he’s more concerned about the surge of out-of-town workers than a Standing Rock-style protest.

“I could care less whether this pipeline is built is not, it does nothing for me,” he said. “But I am the sheriff of this county and I’m responsible to the citizens of this county to keep them safe, to keep their property safe,”Canen said.

One man-camp is planned near Canen’s town. The specter of the recent Bakken oil boom — which brought more out-of towners and crime — looms large here.

Keystone’s developers say they will begin construction of the pipeline in 2019.

Correction:A previous version of this story insinuated the Montana Department of Justice was the sole author of a report. It was prepared by that agency and others. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.
Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio. He earned an M.A. in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism in 2016 and interned at NPR’s Morning Edition in 2014. In a prior life, he toured around the country in a band, lived in Texas for a spell, and once tried unsuccessfully to fly fish. You can reach Nate at nate@ypradio.org.
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