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 third 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 four: 'Great white father... we do not want this pipeline'
Part five: Nebraska pipeline fighter: 'I wouldn't take $5-million'
Part six: Keystone builder's view: 'We take great pride in our work'
View a map of Nathan's journey
Explore more on our Keystone XL pipeline page.
PASTOR MARK AND AN OIL-FUNDED SCHOOL DISTRICT
On a low hill overlooking a small Montana town, Baker High School has an Olympic-sized swimming pool, four tennis courts and a brand-new football complex, complete with stadium seating and an artificial turf field.
Baker High has 120 students.
But this is a school that oil has made wealthy. Baker, Mont., sits on a high prairie plain, surrounded by clay-like “gumbo” buttes, a pretty little lake and a forest of oil wells. In Montana, those wells pay a production tax, and somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of that tax goes directly to the school districts. At one point recently, those dollars had piled into a $43-million war chest at Baker High, some of which is now being poured into facilities that would make most big-city high schools jealous. The entire annual budget of the Baker municipality, by comparison, is about $3-million.
“Our school district is rich. Literally, rich from the oil revenues,” says Mark Arnold, the man who leads Baker Community Church and goes by Pastor Mark.
Baker is an important spot for TransCanada. It is a crossroads for the Keystone XL project, where oil flowing from the roaring oil fields of North Dakota’s Bakken play will join crude travelling down from Canada. This junction was not in TransCanada’s initial plans, but lobbying by former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer successfully pushed the company to add plans for a line to take some U.S. energy south.
The surge of U.S. energy production is creating obvious change. Roads in these parts of North Dakota and Montana are swollen with trucks. Fields and backyards sprout RVs, home for workers unable to find better – or more affordable – housing.
It’s also provided opportunity for Pastor Mark. He recently added a contemporary Tuesday service and a Thursday community dinner to cater to newly-arrived workers and those stuck on weekend shifts. His church is small, but changing fast. “I bet the average age of my adult congregation is down 30 years since I came here,” he says. That was just seven years ago. And while not everyone likes the idea of a big new oil pipeline passing their town, most are supportive.
“We have pipelines all over the place. One of my leading families owns a pipeline company,” Pastor Mark says. He once asked for a show of hands to see how many parishioners would turn down an oil well on their property. No arms were raised. In 2012, he points out, 80.3 per cent of people in surrounding Fallon County voted for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate.
Pastor Mark wouldn’t say no to some oil money himself.
“I’ll let them drill behind the parsonage,” he says, laughing. “Praise God! Let the oil flow!”
THE CHALLENGES OF A ‘MAN-CAMP’
It’s a small project, but Baker, Mont., is a small town. And the heavy equipment digging in a new water line to a field on the outskirts is a sign that something big is coming.
Baker is where TransCanada plans to build one of the Keystone XL worker camps, or “man-camps” as they’re known in the United States. To prepare, the company is spending heavily here. Between the water line, a sewer line, a new 2.9-million-litre water tank and other upgrades to the municipality’s services, it is pouring nearly $3.5-million into the area. If Keystone XL goes ahead, the man-camp will hold 800 to 1,000 workers. In 2011, Baker was home to 1,780.
Clayton Hornung, a 43-year school teacher who is retiring this year but intends to stay on as mayor, calls it a “win-win” for the community.
“We don’t have the revenue to improve our infrastructure. So if TransCanada is willing to help us out, I think that will be great, and we can help them,” he says.
But dealing with TransCanada hasn’t been all easy for Baker, which is spending its own money to support a camp that will likely provide benefits for just a couple of years – and opens numerous avenues for problems. Worried about the public security implications of so many workers descending on the area, Baker has already hired two new cops, beefing up its police force from three to five. Those officers have already been hired, though it’s not clear when or if the pipeline will be built.