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keystone xl: the journey of a pipeline

John Heidler checks in on new calves born on his ranch near Faith, South Dakota on April 25, 2013. The Heidlers sold TransCanada land for a pump station on the Keystone XL pipeline, but wish the pipe would be built somewhere else.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

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.


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.

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."


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.

"I'm here to tell President Obama, the great white father, the government of the United States of America, that we do not want this pipeline," she said. Keystone XL, she said, "is against mother earth. It is against our sacred waters." It needed to be stopped, she added, in part because it "is killing the people where the oil comes from, with the First Nations in Canada. This is genocide for First Nations people."

She was building to a finale that arrived with a fist slammed on the podium and arms pumping in the air. "Rise up and say no – no to this pipeline! No to death! No no no no!"

Applause broke out. Nearly two years later, the rising up has begun, as large numbers of First Nations heed the call and prepare to stand in the way of pipeline construction.

The historic extermination of aboriginal people from the prairie landscape in Canada and U.S. was so brutally effective that for much of its path south, Keystone XL passes little First Nations territory. Even in South Dakota, the route stays outside reservation boundaries.

It does, however, pass through traditional Sioux territory, where an uprising is in the making around the Missouri River, which Keystone XL will cross twice. Fort Thompson is a small town perched on the Missouri, next to the Big Bend Dam, an important South Dakota source of hydroelectricity. It is home to the Crow Creek Sioux, a place with all the trappings of meagre circumstance: rundown houses, potholed roads, people drinking mid-afternoon beer on a rickety picnic table.

The tribe gets no revenue from the dam, and every winter faces the ugly irony of having people cut off from the power generated in their backyard.

"Prices are sky high, so a lot of our members can't afford to pay their electricity bills," says Roland Hawk, a councilman and treasurer for the Crow Creek. "If it's in the middle of the winter and they get shut off, we usually try to get them housed somewhere, or in a hotel."

It happens, he says, routinely. Keystone XL is unlikely to change that: the Crow Creek expect no benefits from the pipeline.

"Nothing," Mr. Hawk says. "Not here."

On the downside, "if that pipeline leaks, it could have a pretty good impact – especially if it got into our water system."

With those worries circulating, a resolution by the Oglala Sioux Tribe ordered President Barack Obama to prohibit "the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and any future projects from entering and destroying our land without our consent."

Now, many South Dakota Sioux are moving beyond angry words. They are making ready to actively block its construction. They offered a taste of looming action last year, when five Sioux people – including Ms. White Plume – were arrested after taking over a road to stop the passage of two pieces of oil sands equipment moving from Texas to Alberta.

Many more seem set to do the same. In March, hundreds gathered for Moccasins of the Ground Frontline Activist Training, a three-day course in "non-violent direct action."

Helped by the environmental groups Great Plains Tarsands Resistance and Tarsands Blockade, they learned "how to take a stand" against construction equipment, says Paula Antoine, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

It was, she says, "blockade training."

Read more from Nathan VanderKlippe on our Keystone XL pipeline page.