BILLINGS, Montana — Dueling Keystone XL meetings in Billings on Tuesday, Oct. 29, drew both advocates and opponents of the pipeline from far and wide. They had at least one thing in common — strong opinions.
Those opinions bubbled to the surface during a public meeting held by the U.S. State Department in what was planned to be an open house format.
The idea, public officials explained, was for individuals to learn more about the pipeline, and then provide written or recorded statements that would be based on the expert information available during the forum.
“No decisions have been made yet,” Al Nash, Chief of Communications for the Bureau of Land Management explained. “But we need to hear more than just I don’t like it. We need to hear why they don’t like it. We need to see data that backs that up.”
Opponents of the pipeline, however, were critical of the format, and decided to take matters into their own hands.
Transcanada is not a good neighbor, one woman said loudly, to the room at large. She claimed the company had used eminent domain in Texas to take property for a pipeline.
Her comments and others, however, drew opposition from landowners living along the pipeline in Montana, who said the company had absolutely been a good neighbor to them.
“I don’t know if you understand the benefit to these local communities,” Todd Tibbetts of Terry told her.
He listed several things Transcanada helped sponsor in the community. The list included the Fire Department, local schools, and even a broken fence.
“Maybe Keystone learned its lesson from your friends in Texas,” he said. “In Montana, they have put their best foot forward. As far as me being a landowner, they have.”
“They are a foreign corporation using eminent domain to take property,” the woman responded. “I don’t know how that can be being a good neighbor.”
For a few tense moments, it seemed as if the conversation might escalate. But the tension dissipated.
Some of the opponents, such as Hollie Mackey, originally from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, but now a resident of Fargo, North Dakota, introduced themselves to the landowners and shook hands.
Mackey told Tibbetts it felt contentious for a minute, and that wasn’t what she wanted.
“If they allowed people to talk, it would not be as contentious,” she suggested.
“They did allow us to talk,” Tibbetts pointed out. “We just stood up and talked.”
Among Mackey’s concerns are cultural resources that she said stand in the path of Keystone XL and will be destroyed by it.
“They aren’t going around it,” she said. “They are going through it.”
When it was suggested she add the comments to the public record being created at the open house, she demurred.
“It will be a waste of time,” she said.
Mackey also doesn’t believe the pipeline will be as safe as the company contends.
“There aren’t any pipelines that don’t have problems,” she said, echoing concerns that were a focal point of the rally scheduled just prior to the federal public meeting.
The rally was held outside, in a caged-in area that had a yellow sign that said “free speech area.”
“We’re here to protect our water,” said Kandi White, of New Town North Dakota. “We’re here to protect our people. we’re here to protect our climate.”
Jestin Dupree, a council member for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, told the Williston Herald after the rally that protecting water is his main concern.
“We have a 320 million gallon water treatment plant that serves upwards of 22,000 people, and by next year it will be 30,000, in northeastern Montana,” he said. “That is our biggest concern. If this contaminates that water, we are all in a world of hurt.”
Unlike Mackey, Dupree did record his comments on the project during the federal public meeting. Among them, is a suggestion to co-locate the line with infrastructure already in place in North Dakota.
“What would be the harm in that?” he asked. “They are taking the shortest route, and it’s skirting a lot of Indian reservations all the way down.”
As far as drilling the pipeline deeper underneath the river, he said the route itself would still be a concern due to cultural resources.
Dupree was critical of the United States’ efforts at consultation, and said it did not match what he sees as proper government-to-government consultation.
Public officials at the hearing were unsure what consultation efforts were made, but pointed to a series of letters sent to tribes inviting them to consult. Copies of the letters are part of the draft SEIS.
Dupree, along with Montana Senator Frank Smith, D-16, criticized the distance of the public meetings from their community. None of the meetings been less than a couple hundred miles away, Smith said.
“I had to drive five hours — 300 miles — to be here today,” Smith said during the protest rally. “Why is it so far away and not in our community? Why do we have to be outside? Why not an open hearing, instead of private rooms? We should be inside the building, not outside, to make sure our voices are heard.”
As far as safety goes, Montana Petroleum Association Executive Director Alan Olson, said that Transcanada is taking many precautions.
Among them, the line will be at least 43 feet below the river, and the bore holes will be 380 feet away from the river on one side and 1,100 feet away on the other. That should prevent the bank erosion and scour issues that led to the Bridger pipeline spill.
“This pipeline is probably the safest that has been developed to date,” Olson said. “This pipeline is being developed with 21st century technology for safety and efficiency. There is no reason to believe this pipeline will fail.”