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Native Sun News: Indian Country cheers delay on Keystone XL

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

Oglalas and guests staged a rally on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation against the Keystone XL Pipeline the day before the Oglala Sioux Tribal President sent a letter to the U.S. State Department urging reject of TransCanada’s permit application.

Native American and other land-based constituencies lauded President Barack Obama’s Nov. 10 announcement that his administration will delay permission for building TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL Pipeline to carry tar-sands crude-oil from Alberta Province across America’s heartland to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Today’s decision by the Obama Administration is a step in the right direction – an ethical decision,” the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) said in a written statement.

The non-profit organization called the announcement “a clear message that the tar sands are a toxic energy source, a major emitter of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, a polluter of precious water and an unsustainable type of development that violates the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

Early this year, the U.S. State Department had pledged a decision by the end of 2011 on the 4-year-old corporate application for a Presidential Permit on the $7-billion private enterprise. However, opposition from Indian country, farmers, ranchers, and boosters of renewable energy alternatives escalated into an immense torrent of political pressure against the project throughout 2011.

“The State Department’s decision to delay the Presidential Permit is an opportunity to take a step back and evaluate all aspects of this project,” said Dakota Rural Action (DRA) board of directors’ member Paul Seamans, whose land is on the proposed pipeline route through South Dakota.

By presidential decree, the State Department is in charge of steering the private Canadian proposal through the U.S. public regulatory process, including the contracting of environmental impact statement preparation for approval by the EPA.

“DRA has been trying to hold TransCanada accountable since they first announced the pipeline route citing water quality concerns. It’s nice to know the Administration is listening,” Seamans said.

Members of the South Dakota grassroots organization control one-third of the proposed pipeline route in the state.

Following charges of impartiality in the State Department’s handling of the application and the announcement of an internal investigation, Obama agreed to postpone the Keystone XL decision for a new review considering alternative routes and environmental impacts, including those of the Ogallala Aquifer and climate change security.

“Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood,” Obama said in a White House news release.

“At the same time, my administration will build on the unprecedented progress we’ve made towards strengthening our nation’s energy security, from responsibly expanding domestic oil and gas production to nearly doubling the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks, to continued progress in the development of a clean energy economy,” he said.

During a State Department Western Hemisphere, Economic, Energy, Agricultural and Trade briefing earlier in the day, Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones said the consideration of alternative routes will be limited to finding a yet-unstudied way through the state of Nebraska that doesn’t affect the Sand Hills.

The Keystone XL would cross Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. TransCanada built another tar-sands crude-oil pipeline from Alberta through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois a year ago when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton succeeded in winning a motion to dismiss four Northern Plains tribal governments’ federal lawsuit to stop it for violating historic preservation, trust and treaty laws.

Jones said the now extended “national interest” review process would depend on the applicant negotiating with Nebraska officials on an appropriate route for a new supplemental environmental impact statement. She had hinted at a possible delay in decision-making last month and now estimates an early 2013 resolution, following the stipulated second supplemental environmental impact statement – and following the next presidential election.

After the announcement of the rescheduling, TransCanada’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange were not affected much, remaining in the mid-range of its 52-week, high-low cycle. However, the price of shares is down $4 from their October’s-end cost, representing a 10-percent slide in stock value over the past two weeks.

A Nov. 6 “Circle Around the White House” action attracted some 12,000 people to protest the pipeline. Among them, IEN Canadian indigenous tar-sands campaigner Clayton Thomas-Muller, Oglala Sioux Tribal Vice President Tom Poor Bear, and grassroots Oglala Lakota non-profit Owe Aku founder Debra White Plume helped coordinate Native Nation voices against the pipeline and the tar sands.

Other tribal government leaders, as well as elders and youth, from the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud tribes also have been active in protests against TransCanada’s crude-oil extraction, refining, and pipelines. They have filed lawsuits, signed tribal resolutions and helped draft the Mother Earth Accord to impede the development, while supporting wind and solar energy alternatives.

Canadian First Nations leaders have taken a similar stand, claiming the tar-sands crude-oil extraction damages their communities’ health and the fossil fuel aggravates attempts to slow global warming. They blocked an earlier proposal that would have piped the raw material across their territories to Pacific Coast ports.

“The State Department and the Obama administration’s decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline sends a clear signal to Canadian decision makers,” said Nikki Skuce, senior energy campaigner with ForestEthics. “In the context of the climate change threat, credible pipeline review includes climate impacts.”

ForestEthics is a cross-border non-profit responding, among other things, to the July 2010 Enbridge tar-sands pipeline rupture near Kalamazoo, Michigan, which caused the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history, according to the EPA. Government efforts narrowly prevented the toxic crude-oil slurry from reaching Lake Michigan. As of this autumn, the U.S. government had spent $36.7 million on cleanup.

At the height of the response activities in September, more than 2,500 EPA, state, local and Enbridge personnel and contractors were working along 35 miles of impacted river and shoreline. EPA expects Enbridge to repay the government for all response costs.

A federal joint review panel is scheduled to begin hearing citizen testimony on Enbridge’s proposed Gateway Pipeline in January of 2012. Some 4,000 citizens have signed up to speak there.

Enbridge argues the need for the pipeline based on tar-sands expansion, according to Skuce. “Obama’s decision sets a new North American standard for credible pipeline review. We hope the federal government does the right thing for Canadians and the planet, by including climate and tar sands impacts in their review process,” she said in reference to Canada’s upcoming Enbridge decision.

The State Department’s Jones made it abundantly clear that the Nebraska state government’s role in questioning the pipeline carried more weight than any other constituency, in the determination to consider the TransCanada matter further.

“The state officials, the governor and the legislators, are very concerned to the point where they have gone into a special session to see what they can do to try to put some kind of regulatory framework in place,” she said.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman says he supports the pipeline but not the route. The Nebraska Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee submitted pipeline route legislation to the full Legislature for debate, also on Nov. 10.

On Nov. 12, Nebraskans biked and marched to the Capitol dome in Lincoln, to demand state and federal action to oppose TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. They called on the State Legislature to regulate pipeline routes, and on Obama to reject Keystone XL without delay.

South Dakota’s state legislative committees, this year and in years past, have rejected DRA bills to establish a state-run clean-up fund by levying a per-barrel tax on pipeline shipping. Unless landholders negotiate specific leasing agreements to the contrary, they are responsible for cleanup costs from spills on their own and neighbors’ lands in the state.

The TransCanada Keystone I Pipeline spilled at least 14 times in its first year of operations, compared to a one-in-seven-year spill-average expected by analysts.

On Oct. 28, the Oglala Sioux Tribe served notice that it will not allow Keystone XL to negotiate for right-of-way easements on TransCanada’s proposed route across the Mni Wiconi tribal water supply route, nor will it accept pipeline construction there. The Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council is likewise opposed.

On that same date, Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Steele sent a letter to the State Department’s Jones, referring to the tribe’s meeting with her in Washington, D.C., in the last days of the public hearings process on the Presidential Permit and saying: “In the meeting at the State Department on October 6, we expressed particular concern regarding the possibility that oil spills involving the Keystone XL Pipeline could cause contamination of drinking water delivered to members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and to many others, though the Mni Wiconi Project.”

For his part, DRA’s Seamans notes: “Many issues have not been addressed through the rush by TransCanada to get this pipeline built.” He accepted an Oct. 27 invitation from the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council to partner in efforts to protect natural resources against pipeline dangers.

“Keystone I was rushed,” Seamans said. “Now there have been more than a dozen leaks and the pipeline has been shut down twice for safety and mechanical concerns. We don’t need the same mistake again.” According to DRA, one of many issues that remain to be addressed for Keystone XL to proceed is an Emergency Response Plan for use by local residents and first responders in the case of a spill.

The ERP “should be made available for public and local emergency personnel review,” the organization said in a written statement­­. “Currently, TransCanada must only provide a finalized ERP to emergency workers when construction has started, without any expert or third-party input. The public should be able to review and comment on the plans prior to construction because they have intimate knowledge of the land and will likely be the first people to respond if something goes wrong.”

(Talli Nauman is Health and Environment Editor for the Native Sun News. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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