As its name implies, everything about the Keystone XL crude-oil pipeline could be “extra large,” including the level of outrage aimed at the 1,073 waterways it would cross in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.
A separate project, the Dakota Access pipeline, has attracted more attention in recent months while it has been blocked by protesters who call themselves water protectors. Most of the Dakota Access pipeline is already built, except for a planned crossing under the Missouri River in southern North Dakota where protesters inspired by Native American activists are encamped.
Both pipeline projects vaulted into the news last week when newly sworn-in President Donald Trump issued memorandums supporting their completion. The Dakota Access pipeline, by virtue of being nearly finished, might continue to be the more controversial of the two in the short term.
But in the long run, if water crossings remain the focus of anti-pipeline activism, any controversy over the proposed $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline holds the potential to make the Dakota Access fight seem like a warm-up exercise. And it could bring protests to western South Dakota, where the Keystone XL route includes 333 water crossings.
Keystone XL opponent Elizabeth Lone Eagle lives in the tiny Cheyenne River Indian Reservation community of Bridger, near a spot where the Keystone XL would cross the Cheyenne River. Lone Eagle said the Dakota Access protest camp has emboldened and unified anti-pipeline activists.
“In South Dakota, in certain areas, it’s not going to be a protest,” she said. “It’s going to be a shutdown.”
Anti-pipeline groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, which has been active in the Dakota Access protest, are also promising a bigger fight.
“If Trump does not pull back from implementing these orders,” said a release from the network, “it will only result in more massive mobilization and civil disobedience on a scale never seen of a newly seated President of the United States.”
Earlier start for protests
Part of what makes the Keystone XL (the “XL” actually stands for “export limited”) so ripe for large-scale protests is the head start that activists have on it. Large-scale opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline arose late in the regulatory process as construction was beginning, and now the only segment left to oppose along the 1,172-mile route from the North Dakota oilfields to an Illinois distribution center is the crossing under the Missouri River, next to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
In other words, the Dakota Access fight, while symbolizing a broader opposition to society’s dependence on oil, essentially hinges on one crossing under one waterway near one Native American reservation.
Conversely, Keystone XL presents activists with an opportunity to organize before the pipeline is built. The 1,179-mile route would stretch from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta, through eastern Montana and western South Dakota, to an existing pipeline connection at Steele City, Neb., for transport to Gulf Coast refineries (an existing Keystone pipeline already stretches through eastern South Dakota to Steele City and on to Illinois).
Along the way, the 36-inch wide Keystone XL pipeline would cross more than 1,000 bodies of water in the United States (after crossing an untold number of waterbodies in Canada) and weave between about a dozen U.S. Native American reservations within 100 miles of the route. None of the reservations would actually be crossed by the pipeline, but two of them — the Fort Peck reservation in Montana and the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota — would be skirted by just a few miles while several other reservations would be within 50 miles.
A possible epicenter for Keystone XL protests is the proposed crossing under the Missouri River in Montana, a spot that is similar to the contested Dakota Access crossing. Both sites involve the mighty and symbolic Missouri, the lifeblood of the Great Plains, and both are next door to Native American reservations that draw water from the river — the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, and the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. The Fort Peck reservation’s Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, which draw water downstream from the proposed crossing, adopted a resolution opposing the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015.
Besides the Missouri River crossing in Montana, there are hundreds of places where protesters could try to block a Keystone XL water crossing. The pipeline would make a total of 1,073 water crossings in three states, including dry stream beds that fill only during periods of heavy precipitation, irrigation ditches, small tributary creeks and well-known rivers used for drinking water, irrigation and recreation.
The Keystone XL would cross 333 waterways in South Dakota, including notables such as the Little Missouri, Cheyenne, Bad and White rivers; 459 waterways in Montana, including the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers; and 281 waterways in Nebraska, including the Niobrara and Platte rivers.
Additionally, the Keystone XL would cross some water pipelines, including a pipeline managed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. The Keystone XL would also pass above some underground water resources including the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which is said to supply water for more than 2 million people in the Great Plains.
Activists ready to pounce
Fear of a pipeline leak polluting water resources has motivated Paula Antoine, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in south-central South Dakota, to watch Keystone XL news closely. She has spent time at the protest camp in North Dakota and was previously involved in a smaller and lesser-known protest camp near the South Dakota town of Ideal, in the potential path of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Ideal camp formed in 2014 and swelled to as many as several hundred people, Antoine said, but it disbanded in November 2015 after then-President Barack Obama announced his rejection of a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline to cross into the United States from Canada. Antoine said the Ideal camp helped inspire the North Dakota camp, which was founded last spring and swelled to thousands of protesters over the summer before dwindling to several hundred this winter.
Antoine does not know whether or where another protest camp might arise in opposition to the Keystone XL; however, she said, “I don’t discount the fact that there probably will be a camp.”
Lone Eagle, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is convinced that large-scale protests against the Keystone XL are inevitable. Her remote community of Bridger consists of a cluster of homes in the extreme southwest corner of the Cheyenne River Reservation, built into the bluffs that rise above the Cheyenne River.
The spot where the Keystone XL pipeline would cross under the river is about five miles southwest of Bridger as the crow flies. Lone Eagle worries not only about pollution if the pipeline were to leak, but also about potential disruptions to the winding river’s path from pipeline construction. Lone Eagle said there are already erosion problems in the area from natural and human-caused changes to the river’s course, and she worries about resulting changes to the floodplain.
“They’re going to kill our community,” Lone Eagle said.
A spokesman for TransCanada, the company proposing the Keystone XL pipeline, declined an interview request. But the company issued a release Thursday when it re-applied for a presidential permit to bring the pipeline across the border into the United States.
The release said, among other things, that the pipeline would be built with “enhanced standards” and “the most advanced technology” to ensure its safe operation, and that construction of the pipeline would “support tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs” while contributing about $3.4 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.
Fourteen major waterway crossings along the Keystone XL route, including the Cheyenne River crossing, would be achieved with a technique called horizontal directional drilling. As described in the Keystone XL’s federal environmental impact statement, the technique involves drilling a pilot hole under the waterway and its banks, and then enlarging the hole with progressively larger bits until the hole is large enough to accommodate a pre-welded segment of pipe.
Regulatory documents maintained by the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission say the pipe under the Cheyenne River would arc down to 50 feet below the river bottom (as opposed to standard depths of 3 to 4 feet where no water is present, depending on soil conditions) to protect the river from a potential pipeline leak. The pipe would begin its descent well back of the river and its ascent well beyond it, so that the horizontal distance from the beginning to the end of the arc would be 2,491 feet — much wider than the river itself.
Similar techniques would be used to cross under other major rivers, with the depth of the pipe dependent on site-specific conditions. The pipe under the White River in South Dakota, for example, would be 70 feet under the river bed, according to PUC documents.
Minor waterways, including small creeks, dry stream beds and drainage ditches, would be crossed with other methods, according to the Keystone XL’s federal environmental impact statement.
For channels where no flow is present, workers could simply dig an open trench across the channel, put the pipeline in it and cover it up. If a small amount of water is present, a similar method could be used, with the trench simply excavated through the flowing water. For other streams with higher flows, dams with flumes or pumps and hoses could be installed to temporarily divert the flow around the construction area while a trench is dug and the pipeline is installed.
Whether the Keystone XL pipeline gets built, and whether the Dakota Access pipeline gets finished, remains to be seen. Trump’s memorandum on the Dakota Access pipeline ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to quickly consider approval of the contested Missouri River crossing, but that issue is tied up in litigation and the Corps said last week that it was studying Trump’s memorandum.
Trump’s memorandum on the Keystone XL pipeline invited the TransCanada Corp. to resubmit its application for a presidential border-crossing permit (which the company did Thursday), and Trump also ordered federal agencies to make a decision on the application within 60 days. But environmental groups have threatened litigation seeking a comprehensive new review of the project, rather than reliance on the review conducted by the Obama administration.
At the state level, the Keystone XL project already has approval from Montana and South Dakota but lacks approval from Nebraska. In that state, a diverse and highly organized coalition concerned in part about potential pollution of the Ogallala Aquifer has rallied the staunchest opposition to the Keystone XL so far.
Antoine, the veteran of two protest camps, said activists will anxiously await further developments.
“It’s like a suspense show,” she said, “just waiting for something to happen.”