Since the proposed Keystone XL pipeline was introduced in 2008, it has become one of the most controversial energy projects in North America, stirring conflict across the political spectrum and among the communities in this small corner of Montana. I traveled back to the region this fall, with the looming elections in mind, in order to understand how communities living along the proposed route view the project now. I focused on the individuals and communities who stand to lose the most if the US continues to prioritize fossil fuels.
The pipeline, expected to be operational in 2023, would transmit 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, crossing through the U.S. Midwest. Environmentalists believe that should the pipeline succeed, it will set the stage for America’s energy future and its continued investment in fossil fuels. “The reality of the footprint is so much beyond what the pipeline itself is just doing. [There are] spills and leaks and those kinds of risks, but folks living there are already experiencing increased truck traffic and risks of COVID,” said Cathy Collentine of the environmental organization Sierra Club.
While, in November 2015, former President Barack Obama had killed the $8 billion project, arguing that it would cause emissions linked to climate change and would do little to drive the American economy, two months after taking office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reintroducing the project. Since then, TransCanada --which has made several attempts to push forward--has faced intense opposition from environmentalists, tribes, and politicians - failing to adequately assess impacts on waterways, wildlife, and the people it will impact.
The fight over the pipeline comes in the midst of extreme weather patterns throughout the state, Montana’s temperatures have increased more than the rest of the nation and some farmers are losing crops at increased rates. Mr. Sikorski, a plaintiff with the Northern Plains Resource Council and farmer in Baker, said, "the thing that I worry about most is the impact [the pipeline] will have on global warming and how it will affect extreme weather events,” he said.” Sikorski fears that “extreme weather events could put us out of business in just a few decades...basically it comes down to food or oil," he said.
In a few weeks, Americans will decide whether they want to invest in oil or food.
Angeline Cheek an environmental activist poses for a portrait along the Missouri Rivers. "This is our medicine" she said, when speaking about the plants and herbs along the river that she worries would be contaminated by a pipeline spill.
Lance Fourstar, an environmental activist from Fort Peck Indian Reservation, looks at sage brush along the Missouri river where the Keystone XL pipeline would cross. Fourstar worries that not only would a pipeline impact the safety of water sources of 30,000 people downstream, but it would poison plants and herbs used among Native American communities for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.
A view from the Fort Peck dam. TC Energy plans to build the pipeline two miles upriver from the spillway of the dam. The pipeline will cross 28 feet under the spillway, "the vibration alone may cause a break in the pipe" said Frank Smith. The spillway is upstream from the Fort Peck water treatment plant, that provides drinking water to up to 30,000 people.
A no trespassing sign outside of what activists believe to be the construction of a man camp area in Baker, Montana. According to Wade Sikorski, 64, who monitors construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a map of TC Energy shows this location as a large man camp area. Not only is the corona virus a concern among residents, with man camps housing hundreds if not thousdands of men, many of whom have come in from out of state, but man camps have been shown to increase alcohol and drug flow into nearby communities as well as impacting incidences of sexual violence and assault.
Pipe that will be used to construct the Keystone XL pipeline is stored in a field near the border of Montana and North Dakota. While the actual laying of the pipe has been halted because TC Energy and its employees do not have the proper permits, pre-construction activities have continued.
Vermae Taylor, 79, outside of her home in Wolf Point, on Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Vermae spent time in Standing Rock opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline and continues to fight against the construction of TC Energy's Keystone XL. "They're going to ruin the water...[there are] tens of thousands of people downstream who depend on the Missouri...I guess I will always be anti-KXL for as long as I live."
Frank Smith, 78, a Senator, who is also running as a State Representative in Wolf Point. "We know from history that the question is not if a pipeline spills but when. This tar sands oil is nasty stuff that is impossible to clean up when it leaks. Our water system will be destroyed by a KXL spill. We refuse to sacrifice our water for the sake of a Canadian oil company" he said in a statement in Helena, Montana.
Frank Smith, 78, displays a printout of where they Keystone XL pipeline would cross. The small circle are burial or sacred grounds, he said.
Dena Hoff searches for the pipeline crossing near her land in Glendive, Montana. In 2015, a ruptured pipeline leaked 40,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River, contaminating water supply. "The idea that a foreign country could impose imminent domain and violate the sovereignty of another country with the support of our so called leaders is unbelievable. And they're not bringing anything to this country, they're merely going through it to export to Asia and wherever...so what is the benefit? A few short-term jobs and longtime destruction. This river, the Mylk River, the Missouri River, iconic, historic, environmentally important, economically important and they're going to risk destroying it for what? Because Trump and his buddies are invested?"
Wade Sikorski, 64, displays corn from his crop that was destroyed by a hail storm. "It was the worst hail storm of my life" he said. Extreme weather events have become more common in the region, according to Mr. Sikorski. He is active in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline "the thing that I worry about most is the impact it will have on global warming and how it will affect extreme weather events...what I'm seeing now is that extreme weather events could put us out of business in just a few decades...basically it comes down to food or oil."
Frank and Charlene Mehling, 81, ranchers in the area of Baker, Montana. The family owns 12,000 acres of land and all of their income is from livestock. According to Mr. Mehling, neither candidate is appealing in the upcoming electios. He says only 2 percent of the U.S. is involved in agriculture "so we really don't have much of a voice." But he will vote for Mr. Trump, because he can't imagine minumum wage being raised and maintaining his business, something the democrats have promised.
Outside the lodge of Frank and Charlene Mehling, ranchers in the area of Baker, Montana.
Spencer Wahl, 25, from Wyoming, a rider working on the Mehling ranch in Baker, Montana. Mr. Wahl is a big Second Amendments supporter, the right to keep and bear arms, so he will vote for Mr. Trump.
Bill Whitehead, Chairman of the Assiniboine Sioux Rural Water Supply System and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. "I've been involved in three lawsuits against the state" he said. "Fighting for our rights...we’re not like white people...we have a responsbility for seven generations. That’s why so much of our identity is the water, the land, the air, and the responsibility for our people...we never give up. I'm not done until I die."