The Keystone XL pipeline has brought into sharp relief some of the most pressing economic, political and social issues facing the continent. As a U.S. review on a presidential permit for the project nears its conclusion, reporter Nathan VanderKlippe hopped in a car and drove the pipeline’s route to sketch the people and places that stand in its way. This is the fourth part of a week-long series.
Part one: What I found on my trip along the Keystone route
Part two: Skeptical artists, multiplying bison and American believers
Part three: 'Praise God! Let the oil flow'
Part five: Nebraska pipeline fighter: 'I wouldn't take $5-million'
Part six: Keystone builder's view: 'We take great pride in our work'
Explore more on our Keystone XL pipeline page.
STRIVING TO BE IN THE PIPELINE’S PATH
In 2004, the fire marshal condemned the school in tiny Faith, S.D. The Faith school district is not a wealthy one; it ranks in the bottom 15 of 55 in the state. At the time, it raised just $60,000 a year for capital spending, nowhere near enough to make repairs or erect a new building. Students were stuck in trailers.
Then Keystone XL came along, a project that was set to pass not far from the school. In many places, the spectre of Canadian heavy oil passing through has stirred deep worry. In the Faith school district, it stirred incredible hope.
It was 2008 when Mel Dutton first heard whispers about a coming pipeline. He was told it would bring a pump station that would spin off a lot of money: some $450,000 a year for the school district, generated by a convoluted mechanism tied to the facility’s electricity use. It was a giant opportunity for Faith, whose annual operating budget stood at just $2.2-million.
There was just one problem: The pump station lay just outside the Faith district boundary. Mr. Dutton, then the superintendent, set out to change that, unknowingly launching a five-year odyssey that would take Faith all the way to the South Dakota Supreme Court.
Mr. Dutton started by making calls. He eventually reached someone at TransCanada Corp., and quietly begged them to move the pump station. After all, the pipeline route passed through Faith lands – it would only need to shift location by 1.5 kilometres. Could the company not help a poor district without a proper building?
TransCanada said no.
So Mr. Dutton tried political pressure, calling one of South Dakota’s U.S. Senators. No luck.
“The only other alternative was to have a minor boundary change in the school district,” he said. In other words: if TransCanada wouldn’t move it, he needed to move the boundaries. This required a big effort, since only landowners living in the other district could force the change.
But they started a petition, and brought it to that school board. It was rejected, in part because it was an imperfect petition. Not everyone had signed on – and allowing the petition would have resulted in a kind of checker-board boundary change, rather than a mere movement of a line on a map surrounding contiguous properties.
Still, those rooting for Faith persisted. They went to court, the ranchers themselves footing a bill that hit tens of thousands of dollars. Earlier this year, the South Dakota Supreme Court released its opinion. It decided against Faith.
The five-year saga was over. They had lost.
By then, federal stimulus funding, $1-million in donations and a $3-million bond had helped pay for a new Faith school – and Mr. Dutton had retired as superintendent. He now spends part of the spring calving season on a ranch not far where his great-grandfather came more than a century ago, living his first winter in a cave dug into a riverbank. Five family brands are stamped into the front of a wooden counter inside the ranch house. Mr. Dutton speaks with great knowledge about the forces and people that shaped the area – Custer and Crazy Horse, gold miners and homesteaders – over the past 150 years.