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'We Will Fight': Keystone XL Pipeline Foes Fear Worst for Water Supply

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline fear that a leak could have devastating consequences for the Ogallala Aquifer, their main source of water.
Ogallala Aquifer
Royal Yellow Hawk leads a ceremony to greet the sunrise at an encampment raised to protest the Keystone XL pipeline’s route beside Rosebud Sioux land east of Mission, South Dakota. Tribe members fear that leaks from the pipeline, which is intended to carry bitumen oil from Canada’s tar sands to Oklahoma, could damage their land and the aquifer beneath it, and they worry about the effects of an influx of construction workers to the region. At left is Yellow Hawk’s wife, Natalie Stites. At right are tribe members Kathleen Emery and Stacy Two Eagle.Gil Aegerter / NBC News

Editor's note: This story is one in a series on a crisis in America's Breadbasket – the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer and its effects on a region that helps feed the world. Read the previous installments here and here.

IDEAL, South Dakota – Facing the sunrise on a frigid morning, Rosebud Sioux tribal leader Royal Yellow Hawk offered an ancient prayer in song, his voice periodically muffled by the whistling prairie wind. Behind Yellow Hawk was a cinematic scene from another century: 30-foot-tall tipis arranged in a half circle, quickly brightening in the morning light.

This tipi encampment was erected this spring to be a visible and ongoing embodiment of opposition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which, if constructed, would hug the reservation’s territory in transporting diluted bitumen oil 1,179-miles from Canada’s tar sands to Steele City, Nebraska.

The Keystone XL is being built by the Canadian energy company, Trans Canada. This fourth and final phase of the project—still awaiting approval by the Obama administration—will cost an estimated $5.4 billion. Other segments of the Keystone–at an estimated cost of $5 billion—have been in operation since 2010, bringing the tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries in the American Midwest and the Gulf Coast.

The tribe’s principal fear is that a pipeline leak could have devastating consequences for their main source of water—the vast, underground Ogallala Aquifer. Although the proposed route of the pipeline does not cross their land, water in an aquifer is constantly moving and doesn’t observe manmade boundaries. According to the Rosebud, many of their wells are within miles of where the Keystone would be buried.

The health of the Ogallala Aquifer is not only an issue on these lands where the Lakota once hunted buffalo; it’s the fountain of life for the entire American Breadbasket. This subterranean sponge of water spreads southward from South Dakota all the way to Texas, touching eight states and covering a massive 111.8 million acres.

“We are taking this prayer all the way through to the end of the fight,” says Gary Dorr, who is committed to living at the tipi encampment, on this wind-whipped mesa near the village of Ideal, until the Keystone Pipeline is stopped.

Dorr served in the U.S. military for 11 years, served in Iraq and the Middle East, and was wearing a hat affixed with the insignia of his unit, the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.

If construction of the pipeline does begin, Dorr says, the next step will be civil disobedience.

Ogallala Aquifer
Gary Dorr of the Nez Perce Tribe points out a spot where the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline would pass just feet from Rosebud Sioux land east of Mission, South Dakota.Gil Aegerter / NBC News

“We will have men staked out on the corridor of the pipeline,” he says. “As they get arrested, more will step up. There are no weapons here, you notice. The only military attire right now is my hat from my old unit. We’re not projecting that image. ”

The Ogallala widens and deepens as you go south into Nebraska, where it flows beneath the state’s vast Sand Hills, a kind of endless beach of undulating grassy dunes. This bounty of water is inseparable from the success of Nebraska’s estimated $24-billion farm economy.

Nebraska farmers–unlike many of their counterparts in Texas and Kansas, where the Ogallala is quickly being sucked to the last drop—know that they are blessed to have wells of gushing water, especially as the grip of a drought across the Great Plains extends into a fourth year and, moreover, as scores of scientists forecast a future climate drier, hotter, windier – in all, more punishing.

This precious water, and the risk that it could be poisoned by oil piped from Canada, has galvanized not only the tribal nations of South Dakota, but also a coalition of Nebraska farmers, ranchers and concerned citizens. Together, they’ve formed something called the Cowboy-Indian Alliance, and it includes grandmothers and grandfathers suddenly radicalized.

“I’m not rich, been a school teacher all my life,” says Art Tenderup, 62, who retired to a small Nebraska farm with his wife, Helen. “We don’t live in a fancy house. We don’t have fancy cars. We’re just common people. But I know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong … and this whole thing is wrong.”

“I’m not a violent person,” he continues, “but I think there’s a place for civil disobedience. I never thought I would be talking about something like that. But Helen and I have had some very serious discussions, and we’re going to fight this thing as long as we can.”

Ogallala Aquifer
Farmer Art Tanderup and Jane Kleeb of the advocacy group Bold Nebraska with a center pivot irrigation unit on Tanderup’s farm near Neligh, Nebraska.Gil Aegerter / NBC News

Byron “Stix” Steskal is one of the leading figures of another anti-pipeline group that calls itself the “Pipeline Posse.” He lives in Stuart, a town of 590 people with no police officers. Over burgers at The Cast Iron Bar and Grille, his eyes water and his voice trembles as he considers how an unapologetic blue-collar Republican – a guy who installed irrigation rigs for 25 years and now drives trucks and works at Stuart Fertilizer – has turned green and is battling pro-pipeline politicians and a multi-billion-dollar project by a multi-national corporation.

“I waited until I was 60 years old to stand up for something,” he says.

“It’s about the water,” Stix continues. “It’s about the kids. What are they going to say if this goes through? They’ll wonder: ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ This way if it still ends up going through, it shows that some of us did fight it.”

What is initially sucked out of the Alberta tar sands is a new version of crude oil – thick, peanut-butter-like bitumen. And it has a potentially devastating quality if it leaks into any body of water: it can sink.

Of recent major spills involving Canadian dilbit, the most notable occurred four years ago, in Michigan, and the clean-up isn’t finished yet.

In 2010, a 30-inch pipeline operated by Canada’s Enbridge Energy, carrying oil from the Alberta tar sands, spilled nearly a million gallons into the Kalamazoo River, closing it for 35 miles. The tear in the pipe was only five inches at its widest point. Within days, the bitumen sank to the river bottom. At $1 billion, it is already the costliest on-shore cleanup in U.S. history.

In an e-mail responding to the claims that the Keystone XL presents a threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, Trans Canada spokesman Davis Sheremata noted that “phase one of the Keystone Pipeline, which has been operating since July 2010, has safely moved over 600 million barrels of oil to market, and traverses the entire states of South Dakota and Nebraska.”

Ogallala Aquifer
Little barn on the prairie: The advocacy group Bold Nebraska built this barn in southern Nebraska along County Road 22 west of Benedict across the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. It has solar power and a small wind turbine.Gil Aegerter / NBC News

Regarding Trans Canada’s safety response, Sheremata wrote: “We monitor our pipeline system through a centralized high-tech center 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We use satellite technology that sends data every five seconds from thousands of data points to our monitoring center, and if a drop in pressure is detected, we can isolate any section of our pipeline by remotely closing any of the hundreds of valves on the system within minutes.”

But after what has been a relentless, five-year campaign to secure permission to build the Keystone XL through 12 Ogallala-fed counties in Nebraska – 10 of which do not have oil pipelines – reportedly more than 100 landowners have rejected significant offers from Trans Canada, as high as six figures.

“This lady makes us feel like we won the lottery,” says Tenderup, of the offer he received. “You know, we’re going to get a lot of money; the oil is going to reduce our fuel prices; it’s going to give Americans jobs. It’s going to do all these wonderful things. It was like I’d be un-American if I didn’t jump on this bandwagon.”

Tenderup, who says he rejected a $130,000 payment for an easement, sees Trans Canada waging a war of attrition all around him. Recently, he said, one neighbor received an added signing bonus of $45,000.

“My wife is very passionate about this farm,” Tenderup says, his voice tinged with determination and emotion. “This farm has been in her family for about 100 years. Her parents, her grandparents, they took care of this land. They survived through the Dust Bowl. We’ve got to be strong like they were … We’ve got to preserve what’s here, because it’s not just the fact that it’s our land. It’s the fact that life is underneath it … in … that … water!”

Image: An infographic on rainfall on the Ogallala
NBC News

In part, these holdouts have not been assured by Trans Canada’s safety promises. In an independent report by the University of Nebraska’s engineering department, Professor John Stansbury said Trans Canada had underestimated the time it would take to detect a spill and also underestimated worst-case scenarios. Stansbury noted that it took Enbridge Energy technicians in Edmonton, Alberta 17 hours to stop the Kalamazoo leak. He also said just one spill from the Keystone XL could pollute 4.9 billion gallons of Ogallala groundwater.

Sheremata, Trans Canada’s spokesman, indicated that since Keystone began operating in July 2010, there have been “10 reportable releases of oil” in the United States, totaling 427 barrels (approximately 18,000 gallons). Of that total, Sheremata claimed only five barrels “left our pump station property.”

The pipeline fighters have also been enraged but what one landowner has called “eminent domain running amok.”

Many were first shocked to learn that a 1963 state law allowed even a foreign oil-pipeline corporation, like Trans Canada, to take the land of Nebraska residents if they didn’t cooperate. In 2012, that law was superseded by another which gave Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman– who first opposed but now supports construction of the pipeline — sole power to execute the authority to exercise eminent domain. Three Nebraska citizens challenged the law as unconstitutional, on the grounds that it was a piece of special legislation for the benefit of Trans Canada.

A Nebraska district judge agreed in February; the state is appealing. Citing the ongoing litigation, in April the Obama administration again postponed a decision on allowing the Keystone XL.

“Both Trans Canada and our elected officials underestimated the people of Nebraska, underestimated the unique bond we have with our land and water,” Nebraska’s York News-Times publisher Greg Awtry wrote in a May editorial, “(they) underestimated the fact that we would not allow a pipeline company to influence our state legislature into passing a law that was clearly unconstitutional, and underestimated the fairness of allowing a foreign corporation to threaten landowners with eminent domain to build a project that poses unacceptable risk and very little reward.”

After the morning prayer greeting sunrise on the Rosebud reservation, visitors were invited into a nearby mess tent to speak with tribal leaders about their deep opposition to the Keystone XL. Hot soup and coffee were waiting.

“This land is what we’re fighting for,” Dorr said. “We will fight to protect the land. We will fight to protect the resources that are here.”

For much of the time, Keith Fielder – a member of the Land & Nature Committee of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe – chose to listen quietly, patiently standing in a corner. But he would have the last words.

Ogallala Aquifer
Russell Eagle Bear, a representative on the Rosebud Sioux tribal council, at the encampment protesting the route of the Keystone XL pipeline beside tribal land east of Mission, South Dakota.Gil Aegerter / NBC News

“We have to return to our hearts and be smart about how we want to live,” he said. “Do we want to live in prosperity and love for one another, and respect for all things? Or do we want to be what the Sioux called the non-Indian back in history: ‘the grabbers of the fat’? If people want to be like that, we’re going to seek our demise at an earlier time.”

“We’re connecting here with our spiritual side, because that will overcome anything. I never dreamed I’d be talking like this, let alone praying. But it makes me feel good to be connected again.”

With additional reporting by Gil Aegerter.