Citizens of the Omaha Tribe join opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline at the Nebraska State Capitol building in Lincoln on November 20, 2017, after state regulators approved the pipeline's route in the state. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Indian Country vows battle after final Keystone XL Pipeline route is approved

Pipeline championed by President Trump clears critical hurdle

Treaty tribes criticize decision in Nebraska
By Kevin Abourezk

LINCOLN – The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline – championed earlier this year by President Donald Trump – found new life Monday after a Nebraska regulatory agency approved a route for it through the state.

It wasn’t pipeline owner TransCanada’s preferred route, but the 3-2 vote by the Nebraska Public Service Commission signaled a path forward for the company. Commissioners Frank E. Landis Jr., Tim Schram and Rod Johnson -- all Republicans -- voted for the pipeline route. Democrat Crystal Rhoades and Mary Ridder, a Republican, voted against it.

Rhoades was the only commissioner who spoke before the vote Monday morning. She faulted TransCanada for failing to reach out to tribes.

"The applicant admitted that it had not spoken with the Nebraska Native American tribes,” she said of the Canadian corporation behind the project. “The applicant reported, according to the DOS (Department of State), that they had worked with the southern Ponca Tribe, who reside in Oklahoma, not in Nebraska.”

Indian Country thought Keystone XL was dead after former president Barack Obama rejected a necessary permit back in November 2015. The crude oil pipeline, whose 1,200-mile route runs through tribal treaty territory, crosses sacred and historic sites and impacts tribal water resources, was considered a detriment to the environment.

But everything changed once Trump came into power. Four days after taking office, he invited TransCanada to resubmit its application. Barely two months later, the U.S. Department of State announced the approval of the permit.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Keystone XL Pipeline Decision

The Nebraska commission's approval represented one of the final hurdles for the project. Reaction from Indian Country was swift and strong.

“This decision will allow yet another treaty transgression once the construction begins to cross our treaty territory at the Yellowstone River in Montana,” Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said.

“The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe will fight this treaty violation with any means necessary," Frazier added. "We have not asked for this danger to our way of life, yet today it is being forced upon us again.”

Larry Wright Jr., the chairman of the Ponca Tribe, said the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota inspired others to get involved in the fight against oil development. His tribe is considered an "intervenor" in the Nebraska proceeding.

“We’re going to be strengthened by that and carry the spirit of Standing Rock with us,” Wright said after the vote. “We’re going to continue to fight. We’re obviously disappointed.”

The commission’s decision comes less than a week after a leak in the original Keystone I Pipeline spilled nearly 210,000 gallons of crude just 28 miles from the home of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in northeast South Dakota.

Orville Cayou, the vice chairman of the Omaha Tribe, said he fears the pipeline could impact water resources for his people.

“I’ll oppose any kind of pipelines that come through,” he said.

Jayden Sheridan, a 19-year-old Omaha citizen, said it is important to stand up when corporate greed threatens water resources.

“We need water to live,” he said. “Water really is our life.”

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Nebraska Public Utilities Commission Approves Keystone XL Pipeline

Because the commission did not approve TransCanada’s preferred route – the route previously reviewed the Department of State – that federal agency must now review the route again, said Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. That alone is a win for activists, she said.

“Anything other than TransCanada getting their preferred route was a huge victory for pipeline fighters today,” said Kleeb, who led the fight against the pipeline as founder of Bold Nebraska. “This decision today throws the entire project into a huge legal question mark because the Public Service Commission did not review that alternative route.”

‘It also opens up a huge victory for us in order to fight this now at the federal level,” she said.

Despite being moved out of the Sandhills region and away from many landowners who opposed the project, she said the pipeline still enters the state in the same location in Keya Paha County in north-central Nebraska. It also crosses the Ponca Trail of Tears – the route taken by the Poncas in 1877 as they were forced to march south to Oklahoma – and a number of other protesting landowners’ properties.

Kleeb said the commission likely will have to review the pipeline again and she called on opponents to elect Democrats to replace Republican commissioners Landis and Schram, who are up for re-election in 2018.

“We have to do everything we can to make sure this pipeline never gets built,” she said.

The commission approved the so-called "Alternative Mainline Route" for the pipeline. It was easternmost of the three routes submitted by TransCanada.

“After careful evaluation and consideration of all the evidence adduced, and the careful weighing of all the issues, factors, and aspects of the proposed routes of the Keystone XL Pipeline, we find that the Alternative Mainline Route is in the public interest and shall be approved,” the commission wrote in its decision.

The commission wrote that the alternative route would have the least impact on threatened and endangered species, such as the whooping crane and interior least tern, and would cross one fewer river and fewer state highways and natural gas facilities. The route is 5 miles longer than TransCanada’s preferred route and will require one additional pumping station to be built.

The route would follow the original Keystone I Pipeline for nearly 100 miles for a total of 281 miles along its path through Nebraska.

“We see many benefits to maximizing the co-location of the Keystone XL Pipeline with Keystone I,” the commission wrote. “It is in the public interest for the pipelines to be in closer proximity to each other, so as to maximize monitoring resources and increase the efficiency of response times.”

In a written opinion supporting the pipeline route, commissioner Johnson said TransCanada must fulfill its promises to protect natural resources and restore the land upon which it will build the pipeline once construction is completed. He also warned the company to do its best to ensure public safety as it builds and operates the pipeline.

“There should be no doubt that this commission and the citizens of this state expect TransCanada to keep those promises, and we will be watching to make sure that they do so,” he wrote.

The pipeline would carry oil extracted from Canada through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. From there it would connect with existing infrastructure in Kansas and in Oklahoma.

"As a result of today's decision, we will conduct a careful review of the Public Service Commission's ruling while assessing how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project," said Russ Girling, TransCanada's president and chief executive officer, in a statement.

After the decision was announced Monday morning, an audible gasp could be heard among people waiting outside the commission’s hearing room at the Nebraska State Capitol.

Among those waiting anxiously was Renee Sans Souci, a 55-year-old poet and citizen of the Omaha Tribe. She said it was telling that all of the female commissioners voted against the pipeline’s route, while all of the male commissioners voted for it.

Women have always been the protectors of the water and the land, she said.

“Today’s decision was going to mark what our work will be in the days to come,” she said. “It just means that we’re going to have to work harder.”

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