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Environment & Science

Keystone Commenters Clash At Public Meeting

 

The public had its first and only chance to meet with State Department officials about a new environmental analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline Tuesday. 

Attendees traveled hundreds of miles to Billings to submit their comments on the controversial oil pipeline.

On a brisk Montana night, Patricia Iron Cloud was one of roughly 60 people who turned out for a Northern Plains Resource Council protest against the pipeline ahead of a public meeting. 

"No tar sands, no way," the crowd chanted. 

"I think it’s at least nineteen degrees right now. Who does that?" Iron Cloud said. 

She’s a tribal council member for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, and says she drove over six hours in the snow to deliver this message:

"The government needs to speak with us as people. We have our children. I have 46 grandchildren."

Later, Iron Cloud went inside to declare her opposition to the pipeline at a comment station with a stenographer.

The stenographer asks her, “Are you ready?”

She intoduced herself, "I’m Patricia Iron Cloud. I’m a council member for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes."

She’s one of about 150 people who showed up to submit comments on a revised environmental impact statement for the pipeline.

The event was put on by the State Department. They’re involved because the pipeline would cross an international border. If built, the controversial project would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Nebraska.

The Obama administration killed the pipeline but President Trump revived it by presidential permit.

The State Department event wasn’t a hearing, more like an open house with poster boards, maps of the pipeline’s proposed path and occasional arguments between people who came to offer comment.

At times, commenters addressed eachother. 

"If you don’t sign the contract, your land will be taken through eminent domain. How is that a fair process?" a woman asked across the room. 

"Excuse me, Keystone has treated me more than fair," said alfalfa farmer Todd Tibbetts, who owns a one-mile stretch of land in Prairie County, Montana that the pipeline would cross. After things cool down, he tells me the pipeline’s owner, TC Energy, would give him a stipend worth two-percent of his annual income.

"But the big winners I think, locally, is going to be the county. For the schools, roads and hospitals," Tibbetts said. 

That’s because the pipeline could more than double property tax receipts in some counties, according to a recent court filing by the Montana Attorney General’s office.

Todd Devlin is a county commissioner for Prairie County, a horizontal slice of northeast Montana. He says his tax base is limited because his county has about 1,100 residents and is 43 percent federal land. So to him, supporting the pipeline is a no-brainer.

"You really have to look at it and say, is this going to be a detriment to the environment? No. Is it going to be a detriment to the safety? No. Is it going to increase my tax base? Yes," Devlin said. 

The environmental draft marks possible repercussions on a scale from “beneficial” impacts that would improve resources, to “significant”, impacts that would have adverse affects. Six areas got a minor or moderate rating. That’s soil, air quality, water resources, biological resources and cultural resources.

A seventh category, “greenhouse gases and climate change,” breaks that format. Instead of a rating, it says there would be direct and indirect emissions from the project.

Jane Kleeb, who came all the way from Nebraska, asks Prairie County Commissioner Devlin across the room if he really thought the environmental risks were worth the money.

"When in America was it OK for a foreign oil pipeline, a pipeline that’s going to carry foreign tar sands through our land, through tribal lands, down to the export terminal for a refinery that’s owned by Saudi Arabia. How is that in the America’s interests?" Kleeb asked. 

In his newsboy cap and blue jeans, Devlin stands up. He says he and other Montana county commissioners helped negotiate deals between landowners and TC Energy.

The pipeline got his support once his landowners called him and said, "'Mr. Devlin, they have treated us more than fair.' And we said we were satisfied with that. We wanted to make sure our landowners supported it, and when they were, we left it be and supported it."

This dialogue is what James Dewey, a spokesperson for the State Department, says was the point of Tuesday’s event.

"Gathering those comments is really important. We think it’s really important that people write those comments down so they can be part of the record," Dewey said. 

When asked how many comments were part of that record, he checked his phone to see.

"Currently we have 67 comments received. I know there’s a lot more people out there that have comments to give," Dewey said. 

On Instagram alone there are more than 5,000 posts with the hashtag “Keystone XL.” So why aren’t there more than 67 comments on the draft? Dewey says it’s not his job to answer that question, only to encourage more comments.

The comment period for the State Department’s environmental draft ends November 18, but the pipeline continues to be challenged by three lawsuits, all being heard by the same federal judge in Great Falls.

Earlier this month, TC Energy informed the court it intends to spray weeds, haul pipe and knock out other pre-construction activities ahead of the pipeline’s tentative construction date next year.

Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America corps member.