His perspective is grounded by history, and that gives him some concern about Keystone XL. He recalls the 2011 Exxon Mobil Corp. spill into the Yellowstone River. “Long term, I have some environmental concerns,” he says. But on balance, “I have kind of neutral feelings on it. I believe that economically, it could be a boost to the area.”
A RANCHER PONDERS MORAL OBLIGATION
John and Carmen Heidler have a deal with TransCanada. If a pump station on the Keystone XL pipeline, whose route runs near their quiet South Dakota ranch house, is too loud, TransCanada will plant trees to block the sound. If it’s still a problem, as a last resort the company has agreed to erect a building to enclose the massive pumps planned to pump Canadian crude through this part of South Dakota.
The deal is in writing. But “I don’t know what it’s worth. I didn’t hire a lawyer,” John says. “I’m maybe too trusting.”
Several years ago, TransCanada approached the Heidlers about 4.5 hectares of their land. The company wanted to buy it to build Keystone XL’s pump station number 17. John had his worries. When leaks happen, they tend to be at pump stations. And TransCanada’s presence had done ugly things to a community so tight-knit that John built a small rodeo corral on his property in part so he could relax and rope with neighbours on branding days. The pipeline had aroused conflicting emotions between people who depend on each other.
The Heidlers didn’t like TransCanada’s conduct, either. The company told them not to worry about the pump station noise. But when they asked how many decibels it would produce, TransCanada had no answer. “They’re not very good about answering questions,” Carmen says.
John would not shed a tear if Keystone XL was never built.
“I would be very happy if it went away,” he says. “I really wish the pipeline was 500 miles somewhere else.”
But when it came to TransCanada, “I didn’t deal them a lot of opposition, either.”
Like elsewhere on the route, Keystone XL thrust difficult decisions on the Heidlers, who were suddenly forced to contemplate how to weigh neighbours, their land and the public systems designed to keep pipelines safe. Many opted not to fight.
On Oct. 19, 2010, the Heidlers sold TransCanada the 4.5 hectares it wanted. John hadn’t been a tough negotiator. In part, he was busy running his ranch. In part, he figured if he didn’t sign, someone else nearby would. In part, the offer looked just fine.
“I didn’t haggle much over money. It was more than I could make ranching. It wasn’t like they were trying to steal it,” he says.
There were other reasons not to worry, too. The Heidlers had some faith in safety regulations born of their own experience with oil products.
“They’ve got a regulation right now that I know quite a bit about: If you have 1,320 gallons of fuel” – 5,000 litres, not a huge amount for farmers running tractors and combines – “you need a berm around it or a containment wall,” John says. “So if every rancher around is going to have a containment wall for 1,300 gallons of fuel, I would imagine they have some kind of a safety precaution in a pipeline that comes through.”
He thought about something else, too. He thought about moral obligation. He buys fuel, and it travels through a pipeline on someone else’s property. How, then, could he say no?
“I thought, ‘I guess it’s our turn.’ That was the attitude I took.”
On Oct. 7, 2011, Debra White Plume stood before a crowd of people at a Keystone XL pipeline hearing in Washington, D.C. It was a long way from her home in South Dakota with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and she had come prepared to stoke some fires.