Native American protesters gathered in the nation’s capital in April 2014 during the lengthy battle to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. Photo by Jim Dougherty

Tribal activists remain on alert after Keystone permit resurfaces in South Dakota

The death of the Keystone XL Pipeline was one of the biggest stories in Indian Country in 2015 but tribal activists are still worried that their message isn't being heard in South Dakota.

President Barack Obama killed the controversial project in November, putting an end to a long-running debate that stretched for seven years of his administration. Despite the decision, the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday went ahead and certified the construction permit for the 315-mile portion that runs through the state.

“We are outraged that the PUC would ignore their own conditions and the president's rejection of Keystone XL," said Aldo Seoane, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a co-founder of Wica Agli, one of the many Indian activist groups that fought the pipeline. "This is perfect example of a current system that looks to protect big oil and special interest groups rather than the interests of the people."

Activist and grandmother Faith Spotted Eagle was equally upset. As the spokesperson for the Ihanktonwan Treaty Council, which represents the treaty interests of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, she said the commissioners failed to recognize the dangers posed by the pipeline to tribal and non-tribal residents of the state.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe Spirit Camp was set up to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline. Photo courtesy Gary Dorr

"This self-important commission utilized legal racism to support their narrow minded paradigm of the day, to support a dead pipeline based on a slim hope," Spotted Eagle said. "Their short sighted decision also violates the lands of our non-Native neighbors and allies. This pipeline will never be built on our lands.”

The Canadian firm behind the project, however, cheered the move. TransCanada received a construction permit in 2010 but had to seek a certification under state law after failing to start work within four years.

"While Keystone XL was a good project for South Dakotans in 2010 it remains an even bigger project today," TransCanada said in a statement. "Our certification confirms that the conditions under which the project's construction permit was granted are as strong as before."

The PUC held a public input session in July and followed up with an multi-day evidentiary hearing in late July and early August in which tribes, tribal citizens, non-Indian ranchers and other groups expressed concerns about the impacts of the pipeline on water resources, treaty lands and the environment. Although the XL route in South Dakota does not directly cross any reservations, it passes through lands protected by the 1851 and 1868 that were signed at Fort Laramie.

An anti-Keystone XL Pipeline message was sewn onto a star quilt that was presented to President Barack Obama during his visit to Watertown, South Dakota, in May 2015. Photos from Dallas Goldtooth

A portion also comes near the reservation of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, whose leaders authorized the Oyate Wahacanka Woecun / Shielding the People protest camp against the pipeline.

The three Republican state commissioners, however, insisted they had no choice but to certify. They said the opponents failed to show why TransCanada would be unable to meet the conditions set by the permit that was granted in 2010.

“This was not a question of whether the permit should have been issued in 2010; rather, it was whether TransCanada filed a valid certification stating that the company can meet the conditions attached to the original permit, PUC Chairman Chris Nelson said in a press release.

At the same time, Nelson acknowledged that Obama's decision means the pipeline can't go anywhere for now. But if TransCanada restarts the federal permit process -- one of the options on the table -- the company will have a clear path to construction in South Dakota.

With Obama heading out of office a year from now, the company could benefit from change at the White House. All of the Republican candidates for president have expressed support for the pipeline and the Republican-controlled Congress has been willing to approve the project.

On the other hand, the two top Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton, who oversaw part of the permitting process when she served as Secretary of State, and Bernie Sanders -- oppose the pipeline.

According to the Department of State, 67 tribes along the route were consulted during the environmental review of the project. The impact on cultural resources was one of the primary reasons why Secretary of State John Kerry signed a record of decision against the permit sought by TransCanada.

"The facts prove that the project is not in the best interest of any living creature on the planet," said Paula Antoine, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and an organizer of the tribe's protest camp. "We will remain steadfast beside our friends, allies and relatives to ensure our future generations have clean water and our land is protected. Unci Maka is not going anywhere and neither our we, our children’s grandchildren are depending on us.”

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