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With more than 1,000 water crossings, new fight possible over Keystone XL pipeline

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The small town of Bridger is several miles from the crossing of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline under the Cheyenne River. 

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.

The Keystone XL pipeline route runs through the northeastern corner of Butte County north of Newell where a pipe yard already was established, along with an initial agreement with county commissioners for road maintenance in areas affected by pipeline construction traffic.

Although no man camps had been proposed in Butte County for the project, one had been proposed at Union Center in Meade County.

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.

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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).

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.

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.

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