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Residents In Keystone XL's Path Detail Losses From Canceled Project

Community members in northeastern Montana speak about the impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline cancellation at a round table with Gov. Greg Gianforte at the Cottonwood Inn & Suites in Glasgow, Feb. 22, 2021.
Kayla Desroches
Community members in northeastern Montana speak about the impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline cancellation at a round table with Gov. Greg Gianforte at the Cottonwood Inn & Suites in Glasgow, Feb. 22, 2021.

Business owners and community members in northeastern Montana say they were looking forward to the added tax dollars and customer base the Keystone XL pipeline would have brought into the area before President Joe Biden cancelled a vital permit for the development.

Last week Montana’s governor visited Glasgow in Valley County and held a roundtable with local officials and business people there.

The walls of photographer Sean Heavey’s gallery in downtown Glasgow feature framed photos of train cars, sunlit shacks, and stormy skies. Heavey is a self-proclaimed “Jack of All Trades,” who bought and fixed up the building that houses his storefront. He’s also pretty involved in the community.

“Across the street from my studio there’s a sign for the community pool foundation. We’re trying to raise roughly $2 million to build a new pool,” Heavey said.

Valley County officials estimate the pipeline would have brought $2 million in tax revenue to the county and its roughly 7,300 residents, and the pool is the kind of project Heavey imagines would have benefited.

“That’s money that could be spent on roads, on schools, on everything,” Heavey said.

Biden’s cancellation of the permit, and effectively of the pipeline, leaves many business owners here and other communities in its path disappointed at the loss of much-anticipated tax dollars.

Other community members around town said they were looking forward to the pipeline, including school secretary Judy Waters, who’s spending her Friday afternoon shopping at a local home decor and gift shop downtown.

“The tax base obviously going through our community would be amazing. We have lots of property taxes anyways and pay a lot of money for what we have, and this would really help with that,” Waters said.

She says the Keystone XL has been a work in progress for years now.

“I mean the frustration is, what’s the hold up now?”

Politicians in Montana are trying to revive the project.

Republicans Senator Steve Daines and Representative Matt Rosendale are co-sponsoring bills to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline. Earlier in February, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to Biden asking him to reconsider his decision to cancel the pipeline permit.

On Friday, Gov. Greg Gianforte toured several sites associated with the Keystone XL. He spent about an hour in Glasgow’s Cottonwood Inn and Suites convention center listening to how the pipeline cancellation affects 20 officials, business people and community members from Valley and Phillips County his office had invited there.

“The message I’d like to ask you to help me to deliver is there’s one person who can correct this error, and that’s our president,” Gianforte said.

One of the people to speak at the roundtable was Cottonwood general manager Rob Brunelle, who said in 2016 the Cottonwood invested $1.4 million and added 23 rooms to accommodate incoming construction workers.

He says pipeline workers made up about 70 percent of the Cottonwood’s business in April, May and June when pre-construction began last year.

He recalls his disappointment and disbelief when he heard about the permit cancellation.

“It’s even a bigger slap in the face so to speak because of the last almost 12 months that we’ve gone through with the shutdowns and everything else. It really hurts,” Brunelle said.

With the pandemic in the mix, he says the Cottonwood’s profit is down 15 percent from February of last year.

Another business that feels it’s missing out is Nemont Telephone Cooperative based out of Scobey. Gregg Hunter is a PR and marketing specialist for Nemont.

“I look at the infrastructure that we actually would be building out along with the roads and everything else, we were moving fiber and stuff for those work camps. Also, the possibility of having more cellular towers and stuff like that too that would actually serve after they’re gone. They would serve the people from the community and from our area,” Hunter said.

Cell coverage in rural Montana is spotty, and Hunter says the area could use the added towers.

Also at the table was Glasgow Public Schools Superintendent Wade Sundby, who said he’s disappointed and concerned the public will be less likely to vote for a mill levy without the lowered taxes that the pipeline could provide.

“I worry that that piece goes away and now I have to look at the financial end of the school district and see if we can continue to hire teachers, if we even have that as an option,” Sundby said.

Not represented at the event with Gianforte were pipeline opponents, who say the pipeline breaks tribal treaty agreements, introduces a heightened risk of human trafficking along with man-camps and risks oil spills that could contaminate local water.

Dakota-Lakota activist Angeline Cheek, a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, has been vocal against the pipeline. She greeted news of the permit cancellation with joy when she learned about it, but that joy was tempered with expectation of next steps.

“I mean, there was some relief. I had a feeling that something else was going to come up,” Cheek said.

The pipeline has been a legal battle ground for years. Elected officials in both Canada and the United States, including Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen, have suggested they may pursue further legal action if Biden does not reinstate the permit issued by his predecessor.

Editor's note 2/23/2021: This story has been updated to include Sen. Tester's position on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.