Keystone XL: A nightmare before Christmas, or a spark to light a fire for homegrown prosperity?

December 15, 2017

Categories: Oil & Gas, Plains Speaking, Uncategorized

It’s been almost a year since the Trump Administration revived TransCanada’s permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands oil, the dirtiest of the dirtiest of oils, right through Montana, endangering two of our most iconic and critical waterways—the Missouri and the Yellowstone Rivers—along with dozens of smaller rivers and streams that would be crossed along its path.

Northern Plains, with our commitment to protecting Montana’s water now and forever, and our members who have been working to protect the land and water threatened by Keystone since the pipeline’s initial inception in 2009, sprang into action immediately upon Keystone XL’s approval and fought back by filing a lawsuit against the pipeline.



Dena Hoff’s farm was impacted by the 2015 Bridger Pipeline oil spill and lies downstream of where Keystone XL would cross the Yellowstone River

When TransCanada took the Trump Administration invitation to re-apply for a permit to build Keystone XL in January of this year, the State Department didn’t request any updates or revisions to the project that would limit the damages that the 2014 EIS had found would result from the project. Instead, undertaking a huge misadventure in both logical thought and due process, the Trump Administration took the same data from the 2014 EIS and used it to come to exactly the opposite conclusion of the Obama Administration: that building Keystone XL would not have a deleterious impact on Montana or any of the other states crossed by the project.

Two recent pipeline spills in the Yellowstone River are enough to inform us that the risk of pipeline failures and oil spills into our water are far greater than the EIS assumes. To this knowledge, we need to add the fact that tar sands oil is far more difficult to clean up than regular crude oil.

A year of major drought and devastating fires give us a glimpse into the threat to our working landscapes and the people who depend on them if the escalating risk to our safety from climate change is not put under control. That’s why Northern Plains, along with a coalition of other organizations, challenged the permit in federal court.
Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has staked out a position that the President of the United States is not required to follow our nation’s bedrock environmental laws—the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The State Department and TransCanada actually sought to get our lawsuit thrown out, arguing that presidential authority is above judicial review.

The court heard oral arguments on that disturbing concept on October 11th in Great Falls. Before the hearing began, more than 50 Montanans gathered, along with friends from South Dakota and Nebraska, in front of the Great Falls Civic Center to speak out against the Keystone XL pipeline’s threat to communities, land, and drinking and irrigation water.

Among them was Bill Whitehead, Chairman of the Assiniboine and Sioux Rural Water Supply System (ASRWSS) on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Whitehead (a past member of Northern Plains’ Board) has been on the water commission for the past 11 years, is a former member of the Fort Peck executive board, and a former state legislator. The ASRWSS supplies water to 30,000 people on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and surrounding areas in Montana. The system’s water intake is downstream of Keystone XL’s proposed Missouri River crossing. Based on the experience of oil pipeline spills that have contaminated waters for significant distances downstream, including spills in the Yellowstone River in Montana, a spill from the Keystone XL could contaminate the ASRWSS.

Bill Whitehead

“We have to protect this land,” Whitehead, said at the rally. “Right now we are trying to protect in northeastern Montana, 3,200 miles of [ASRWSS] pipeline, using our treaty rights and our water compact of the Assiniboine and Sioux nation.” Whitehead continued, “There’s a lot of things that we can look at in terms of commonality. And water affects us all. We all need water in order to survive.”

In a win for our environmental laws, federal District Judge Brian Morris rejected the State Department and TransCanada’s argument that the President does not have to comply with NEPA and ESA. This means our lawsuit will continue and we will have our day in court.

So, what’s the deal with Nebraska?

Despite receiving a federal permit to construct Keystone XL at the beginning of the year, TransCanada still hadn’t secured a legal route to build through the state of Nebraska. After a lengthy review, that state’s Public Service Commission did give TransCanada a route for the pipeline—just not the route TransCanada had wanted.

In addition to lengthening the pipeline, the route Nebraska approved would move the pipeline onto landowners who were never involved in the permitting deliberation and decision. The approved permit also moved the route away from the path approved by the Trump Administration.

The resulting uproar has been universal: TransCanada had not wanted the approved route due to its crossing the habitat of four additional protected species, landowners on the new route have been blindsided by this sudden and unexpected threat to their homes, and – pertaining to our lawsuit – this new route was never even considered in the January 2014 EIS and further erodes the validity of that document as acceptable environmental review for Keystone XL.

How the Nebraska Public Service Commission will respond to the outcry against its decision from both TransCanada and pipeline opponents is unclear. What is clear is that the fight in Nebraska is far from over, and how it moves forward will have national implications.


Many Americans are working to move the money of banks, institutions, and individuals out of projects that threaten the future of communities and the health of our people. This “divestment” opens up a whole new pathway to growing an economy that also promotes sustainability and builds homegrown prosperity. When money stops going toward new fossil fuel infrastructure, it it will be free to go somewhere else, such as the cleaner, more sustainable projects of the future.

Join in telling JP Morgan Chase to stop funding Keystone XL—the dirty infrastructure of the past. Sign the petition today.

This is only the beginning of Northern Plains’ work to build homegrown prosperity by promoting divestment from unnecessary fossil fuel infrastructure and spurring reinvestment in the endeavors of the future.

Make sure to follow Northern Plains social media for Keystone XL updates.

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