Kudos to Ken Santema for making the drive out to Ipswich for Monday's District 23 GOP House candidates forum. His summary of the candidates' responses to audience questions is a useful guide for voters in the sparse but sprawling north central district.

Of all the instructive policy statements staked out by the candidates, Mr. Powers chooses to focus on the vague partisan snark issued by Democratic Party apostate Dale Hargens. District 23 voters frankly don't care about that. They want to know which of the five candidates can best represent their views on property taxes, education, and social issues.

Santema notes that all five candidates—Hargens of Miller, Michelle Harrison of Mobridge, Gene Toennies of Cresbard, Larry Nielson of Tulare, and incumbent Rep. Justin Cronin of Gettysburg—appear to view economic development as a priority for government. Hargens said his departure from the Democratic Party came because of a "surge to the left" by our party, but I remain fascinated at supposedly free-market Republicans' ongoing surge toward leftist government intervention in the economy.

On education, all five candidates appear to defer the question of education funding to local control... because legislators would hate to be responsible for advocating the tax increases necessary for schools to end South Dakota's humiliation of teachers with the lowest salaries in the nation.

Santema reports some predictable fuss and feathers about Common Core. But someone phrased the Common Core question perfectly, asking the candidates what they thought would happen if there suddenly were no standards in public education. Harrison, Toennies, and Hargens gave the right answer: teachers would go right on teaching, proving there is no need for top-down standards and political reform movements like Common Core and No Child Left Behind.

On gay marriage, Nielson appears to have offered the greatest offense, saying (in Santema's paraphrase) that gay marriage is "nothing but a topic brought forth to expand benefits...." Yeah, because all you non-heterosexuals aren't looking for equality or justice or respect; you just want your partner's pension, and that's just evil. We should get rid of all those greedy spousal benefits for everybody!

On the hopeful side, Harrison said gay marriage and abortion are morality issues and that (reports Santema) "she doesn’t believe the government has the right to choose these issues for people." Hey, Charlie Hoffman! Can you get your neighbors to recognize the true conservatism in that statement?

Alas, Santema notes that all five candidates said they support the Keystone XL pipeline (Hargens on the false assertion that TransCanada's export of tar sands oil to China will promote our energy independence) and that not one addressed the issue of property rights and eminent domain that ought to raise Republican ire over Keystone XL.

Thank you for that report, Ken!

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I had a long drive yesterday, with plenty of time to think about Joop Bollen, Richard Benda, and their scheme to get rich funneling EB-5 money to TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. But it only took me about ten minutes out of the driveway to realize that the EB-5/KXL overreach was an outright violation of Bollen's contract with the state and the whole purpose of the state economic development office.

Recall the terms of Bollen's contract with the Governor's Office of Economic Development (the contract inked while Benda was GOED/DTSD chief, the contract that took Bollen's EB-5 operations private as SDRC, Inc., and out from under more strict state scrutiny):

A. DTSD is an agency and instrumentality of the State of South Dakota empowered and directed to promote economic development in South Dakota and to enter into public-private partnerships for the purpose of promoting economic development in South Dakota.

...D. DTSD desires to contract with SDRC for the pirpose of having SDRC administer the Regional Center and the EB5 Program and to market the EB5 Program for the benefit of South Dakota, all in conformity with applicable statutes and regulations [Department of Tourism and State Development, contract with SDRC, Inc., 2009.12.22].

Bollen and Benda sought to expand SDRC beyond South Dakota's borders in order to solicit EB-5 funds for stretches of the Keystone XL pipeline and pumping stations in Montana and Nebraska. The state contract allowed Bollen to work on EB-5 "within the Regional Center's territory," but the above text, GOED's mission statement, state law, and common sense make clear that South Dakota's state economic development authority is supposed to promote economic development in South Dakota. Let's look at the statute establishing GOED's purpose:

The Governor's Office of Economic Development shall forge a private-public partnership among state government, local communities, higher education, and the private sector to create jobs that create goods and services for use within the state and for export outside the state, which results in the creation of new wealth [SDCL 1-53-3].

Funding Bollen and Benda's EB-5 promotion to lay pipe in Montana and Nebraska would not "create jobs that create goods and services for use within" South Dakota.

Remember also the basic tenet of government promotion of economic development: we spend tax dollars to make things happen that wouldn't happen without government help. TransCanada has said it needs no government assistance to build Keystone XL. TransCanada is an oil company. They are stinking rich. They've planned to fund the pipeline out of cash flow. And they've planned to build Keystone XL through South Dakota all along.

TransCanada didn't need any government incentive or crutch to choose a pipeline route through South Dakota. Bollen and Benda's desire to divert EB-5 money to TransCanada would not have created a single job or cranked out a single dollar of tax revenue that TransCanada didn't already plan to plow into South Dakota. The only unique benefit of connecting EB-5 investment with Keystone XL would have been more money in the pockets of Joop Bollen, Richard Benda, and their friends in the EB-5 money machine.

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And in other crazily connecting Keystone XL news, Bob Mercer suggests we could see President Obama's latest delay on approving TransCanada's tar sands oil pipeline open the door to an oil-train deal that could enrich Mike Rounds's friends.

On very Good Friday, President Obama said he cannot approve Keystone XL until the Nebraska Supreme Court has had a chance to sort out legal questions over legislation establishing the pipeline's route through that state.

If Nebraska is the monkey in the wrench, TransCanada might want to go around Nebraska. That detour could happen, logically, in South Dakota. Bob Mercer says that detour could involve a South Dakota rail line that friends of oil-friendly Mike Rounds are lobbying to rebuild:

Keystone XL Route through South Dakota

Keystone XL Route through South Dakota
(click to enlarge)

TransCanada’s proposed route through South Dakota would cross the old Mitchell – Rapid City railroad right of way that is owned by the state of South Dakota. The rail line is already rebuilt from Mitchell to Chamberlain. The Legislature this year approved $7.2 million to help pay for rehabilitation of the rail line’s bridge over the Missouri River between Chamberlain and Oacoma — this $1.2 million piece was at the request of Gov. Dennis Daugaard — and to help rebuild the line west to the vanished community of Lyman, where Wheat Growers wants to put a fertilizer distribution and grain shipping complex. That second piece with an appropriation of $6 million came at the request of Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell.

And for what it’s worth, the public-affairs trio whose firm is running the U.S. Senate campaign of former Gov. Mike Rounds — the former governor’s former chief of staff Rob Skjonsberg, former senior aide Jason Glodt and former state Sen. Bob Gray — also are involved in the effort to put together the money to get the line west to Lyman. It all might be a coincidence, but it’s also worth noting that the former governor’s father, Don Rounds, was a long-time lobbyist for the petroleum industry [Bob Mercer, "Will Oil Trains Be Next for South Dakota?" Pure Pierre Politics, 2014.04.19].

I think re-establishing a cross-state railroad is a fine idea... if only we could include a commuter line so I could ride the rails from Sioux Falls to Spearfish and blog all the way while Casey Jones does the driving. But keep an eye out: one way or another, friends of Mike appear determined to cash in on Keystone XL.

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The GOED/EB-5/Benda scandal has connections to Northern Beef Packers, mega-dairies, Hutterites, Hyperion, the Philippines, and Mike Rounds. Now we add Keystone XL.

Jonathan Ellis fills our Easter baskets with the revelation that Rounds pals Joop Bollen and Richard Benda were scheming to connect their money-making EB-5 visa program to TransCanada's tar sands oil pipeline:

Joop Bollen, SDRC’s founder, applied to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services — which administers the federal EB-5 program — for permission to add TransCanada as a qualifying business under the program, which enables wealthy foreigners to get green cards for investing as little as $500,000 in qualifying projects.

Besides trying to help Trans-Canada, the same application asked to dramatically expand SDRC’s geographic area of coverage. Bollen sought federal permission to expand SDRC to Montana and Nebraska in a bid to provide financing to the Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian border to Nebraska’s southern border. SDRC’s contract with South Dakota to run the EB-5 program was supposed to be “for the benefit of South Dakota,” according to the contract’s language [Jonathan Ellis, "Documents Link State-Sponsored Company, Keystone XL," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.04.19].

Bollen applied to include Keystone XL in May 2011. Governor Dennis Daugaard knew nothing about it... which is what we would expect when Mike Rounds let his pals take the EB-5 program private and hide their work from public oversight.

The EB-5–Keystone XL connection makes perfect sense. Recruit Chinese investors to pour money into a pipeline that will bring North American oil to their homeland. Send a 10% commission to Bollen, Benda, and other friends of Rounds and Daugaard, who cheerlead the pipeline and do nothing to block TransCanada's eminent-domain predations on South Dakota landowners.

Ellis reports the cost of Keystone XL in South Dakota alone may be $920 million. That would have allowed Bollen and Benda to recruit up to 1,840 EB-5 investors at $500,000 a pop. Recruiting investors for a huge industrial project that's received oodles of global press and is guaranteed to make money would have been much easier than selling the merits of some local beef plant or a Deadwood casino that no one outside South Dakota has ever heard of. And those investors would have paid Bollen, Benda, and SDRC's lawyers $45,000 each, for a possible take of $82.8 million.

TransCanada, to their credit, said no thanks. As with Hyperion, Bollen and Benda just couldn't strike oil with their visa investment scheme. But the EB-5 story keeps on growing. Stay tuned.

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The South Dakota Corn Growers say that Big Oil has "hijacked" the railroads and is cutting into farmers' ability to ship their harvest and access fertilizer:

Dennis Jones, a farmer near Aberdeen, S.D., and co-founder of the South Dakota Corn Growers, said that rail equipment has been “hijacked by big oil,” and farmers can’t move their corn to either the Pacific Northwest for export or to closer destinations to feed ethanol plants.

“We need to get ag products back on the track and get fertilizer here, and move the mountains of grain that should have been shipped by now,” Jones said [Tom Meersman, "Farmers Seek More Rail Capacity for Grain," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2014.04.08].

The Corn Growers could propose solutions that would lessen farmers' dependence on the railroads: Invest in organic farming that cuts farmers' dependence on industrial fertilizer. Grow more crops that can make profit locally.

Instead, Big Ag advocates letting Big Oil hijack more of their land:

Jones said the longer-term solution to help farmers is approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline so that most North Dakota oil could be transported by pipeline instead of by rail [Meersman, 2014.04.08].

I know some folks who'd probably throw a corncob at your head if you told them letting a foreign company seize South Dakota farmland for an oil pipeline is good for South Dakota agriculture. But big corporate lobbies can make any statement sound plausible.

Meanwhile, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is opening a camp near Bridger in the Cheyenne River Valley to train members of the resistance movement against the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps some East River farmers should cross the river, camp out for a few days after planting, and compare perspectives on respect for the land.

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CNN reports what we South Dakotans know from experience: Chinese investors love the EB-5 visa investment program. According to yesterday's report, Chinese immigrants took almost 6,900 EB-5 visas in 2013, 81% of the total issued. Compare that with the 16 EB-5 visas issued to Chinese immigrants in 2004, the year South Dakota started leaning on the program to support large dairy projects in East River.

Immigration lawyers tell CNN Canada's decision to end a similar immigration program based on poor payoff has already driven more immigrants to apply for EB-5 visas. Rich Chinese looking to buy their green cards get a great bargain from the U.S.:

"The cost is very reasonable in relation to other countries," [immigration lawyer David] Hirson said. Australia, for example, requires a $4.5 million investment -- nine times the minimum required in the U.S. [Sophia Yan, "Rich Chinese Overwhelm U.S. Visa Program," CNNMoney, 2014.03.25]

Readers know I'm not nearly as fond of the EB-5 visa investment program as the handful of South Dakota players who've profited from it without proper state oversight. But let me reach for a silver lining to the Chinese takeover of the EB-5 visa quota:

For rich Chinese, opportunities in America are attractive. A green card offers a way to send their children to college, escape heavy pollution and enjoy an improved quality of life, said Kate Kalmykov, an attorney with Greenberg Taurig. Plus, the EB-5 program is relatively cheap [Yan, 2014.03.25].

These Chinese investors want to escape pollution. So when they come here and see the spate of oil spills and pipeline ruptures driven in part by their home country's increasing thirst for North American oil, those EB-5 immigrants may join our fight to protect their new home from the predations of TransCanada's China-bound Keystone XL pipeline, keep the price of driving their new American Cadillacs down, and leave a billion barrels of dirty tar sands oil in the ground. Save West River, and save the planet: bring on more EB-5 investors!

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Senator John Thune thinks that 65% of Americans want the Keystone XL pipeline. Maybe 65% of Americans say that, but that "support" may signal that they don't understand the real effects the pipeline would have.

Consider this subsequent poll that finds that 77% of Americans support restrictions on oil exports if those restrictions help keep domestic gasoline prices down. The absence of Keystone XL is a significant practical export restriction. As we've discussed here numerous times, TransCanada's business case for Keystone XL is to make more money by clearing the North American glut, pushing its oil out to China and other global bidders, and raising our gasoline prices here in America.

People who support Keystone XL may operating, like Rep. Kristi Noem, under the hopeful assumption that a new pipeline means new oil for us and cheaper prices at the pump. But TransCanada's last big pipeline project produced no such result.

You and I don't stand to benefit from the Keystone XL pipeline. But the Koch Brothers do:

The biggest lease owner in Canada's oil sands isn't one of the well-known international oil giants. It's a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the privately owned cornerstone of the fortune of conservative Koch brothers Charles and David.

The Koch Industries subsidiary holds leases on 1.1 million acres — an area nearly the size of Delaware — in the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada, according to an activist group that studied Alberta provincial records.

...[T]he International Forum on Globalization... is arguing that Koch will benefit indirectly. The IFG contends that the Keystone XL pipeline will create competition among rail and other pipelines and lower transportation costs for all oil sands producers, bolstering profit margins and making additional reserves economically viable [Steven Mufson and Juliet Elperin, "Koch Brothers' Quiet Play: Oil Sands," Lincoln Journal-Star, 2014.03.22].

Once again, Senator John Thune and the Republican Party put the interests of Big Oil over the economic and environmental interests of South Dakotans. Thanks, John!

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Remember Rebecca Rodriguez? She was one of Harding County rancher Bret Clanton's interesting house guests last year. Rodriguez was walking TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline route from Port Arthur, Texas, to Hardisty, Alberta, for her documentary project, This Land Was Your Land. She trod through Clanton's land in early November; with winter setting in, she got to Val Marie, Saskatchewan, near the U.S.–Canada border and called it good. (There is great merit to knowing when to say when... especially when walking northwest toward Alberta in December.)

Rodriguez writes back and says South Dakota holds a special place in her heart. She collected lots of great photos and great stories. She offers one story based on her encounter with John Harter, a Colome rancher who fought TransCanada in court and lost, as South Dakota's judicial system uphold the outrageous notion that a private foreign company can use eminent domain to usurp South Dakotans' property rights. Rodriguez also sends a video of Harter himself telling his story. I happily yield the floor to her literary account of one part of her journey through South Dakota.

The CIA, the Black Snake, and the Last Man Standing

Rebecca Jane Rodriguez

They’re playing old country music so I stay, all night until closing. I awaken the next morning in the city park in the town of Witten, South Dakota. As light breaks through the tree limbs into my tent, my throat is dry, my head is heavy, a reminder of the night before—one too many whiskeys at the bar across the street called “Cowboy-Up.” My phone rattles. It’s Johh Harter, a rancher from nearby Colome. We tried to meet the day before in Winner but we couldn’t make it happen. Harter is the only man in the state to challenge TransCanada’s claim to his land. The Keystone XL pipeline is set to run across his pastureland, the same homestead that has been in his family for decades, and he's not taking it lying down. He tells me he has time to talk.

John arrives a few minutes later in a black pick-up truck. He’s a smaller guy but tough with a slim muscular build, eyes like frost on bluestem behind square glasses. He invites me to stay with him and his family for a few days on his ranch just outside of Winner. The South Dakota plains are serene: rolling hills, flat land; this is sand country, all under a blue sky swollen with clouds—a place that I’ve quickly become absorbed in. On the ride home he gives me the details of his six-year fight to protect this little patch of heaven from a pipeline giant.

During a 2008 meeting for landowners at the Holiday Inn Express, TransCanada representatives set up tables, laid out maps, and there he found out the pipeline was set to cross his land. According to TransCanada, this pipeline was going to fix all the community’s problems, money for the schools, local jobs….

All he had to do had to do is sign on the dotted line.

The other farmers and ranchers were eager to get on board, but John hesitated because he’s heard this story before.

"I guess when I was at this meeting I had this thought of caution while I was there listening and asking questions. One of the things that embedded in my mind before I even went to this meeting was what my Dad told me when I told him about the pipeline. My dad told me not to trust them. He said, ‘Them oil people all lie.’”

This was not the Harters’ first brush with the oil industry. John recalls a childhood memory when his family was paid a visit by some oilmen.

“Years ago there was these people that come up, it was when I was probably younger than ten years old. I remember a van coming in the yard and these were people coming in wanting to drill test wells on the property and my Dad wouldn’t let them do that.”

John tells me his Dad was no fool and he wasn't buying their bull either. So he looked into it further and learned another B-word: Bitumen.

John’s research lead him to Dakota Rural Action, a local grass root organizer. He went to some informational meetings where he was put in touch with other landowners, who had direct experience with the Keystone I, a precursory pipeline to the XL further to the east carrying the same product. They weren’t talking like the pipeline peddlers in the area. From the get-go pipeline reps downplayed the contents, telling John it was just crude petroleum. But it wasn’t crude, not quite.

“[Trans Canada] told us that it was crude oil and then we learned about what the tar sands actually is. It’s bitumen, a mud peanut butter-consistency type of a product that they have to dilute with a lot of other chemicals that if it got into the water table it would be poisonous and virtually unable to clean up.”

Harter's main problem with the whole thing was where the engineers wanted a put the pipeline.

John's pasture is ideal for cows but a dubious place for a pipeline. The thought of a 36-inch, high-pressure pipeline, less than a ½ inch thick, at 1600+ psi,100 feet from where he waters his cows, understandably made him nervous. More alarming, the effects a bitumen spill would have on the land, so close to the water table, would mean the end of his cattle operation. A spill wouldn’t just be bad for his cattle outfit, but it could wreak havoc on the drinking water for his whole community. For John, it’s a matter of life and death.

“Safety probably was and still is the main point. Just a few miles north of my property is the start of the depth of the Ogallala high plains aquifer. [The pipeline] runs beneath that and the city of Colome’s water wells. You’re constantly hearing about oil spills that go on, so across my property, where the water table is right at or just below ground level, sometimes it is even above ground level, a spill would be devastating. To me that's intent to do the public harm and they’re doing it on purpose and… it's unlawful.”

He didn't want to sign, but felt he didn't have a choice. He tried to negotiate, but that didn't go well. Dakota Rural Action was able to hammer out a better easement with TransCanada. It included more money but not the safety concessions John wanted, like ¾-inch thick pipe on his pasture near the aquifer, an area not even considered “high consequence” to TransCanada’s engineers. Desperate for better protection, John even went so far as to contact the Natural Resource Conservation District, which determined that the property in question was indeed a wetland area, shifting it into a “high consequence” zone and worthy of thicker pipe.

That didn’t matter to TransCanada. They wanted his land for their pipeline, --done the cheapest way possible --and they weren't taking no for an answer. There would be no more concessions. They informed him if he wasn't going to give up his land willingly, they had the legal right to take it from him. That's when they started using the words, "eminent domain".

"I was reluctant to sign a survey easement with TransCanada but they were threatening eminent domain just to get the ability to go out and even survey across your property so, I did not have the ability, nor did any other property owners, of saying ‘No’ to these people."

A seventh degree black belt, one thing Harter doesn’t like to be is bullied, so he took his case to court. He lost…but the story doesn’t end there.

After the decision of condemnation came down, with a little support from other ranchers in the area, Harter looked for allies in an unlikely place.

“We don’t own the land, the land owns us.”

Faith Spotted Eagle, a grandmother and activist from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota has been working with John Harter and other non-natives resurrected a partnership called the Cowboy Indian Alliance or the CIA. Back in the 1970’s the unlikely coupling began when the Lakota native community and Dakota ranchers joined forces under the CIA to halt uranium mining. The CIA has now been loosely reestablished by a new generation of farmers and ranchers, finding support with folks who are no strangers to the loss of land.

I talk to Faith at a “Draw the Line” event, organized by Spotted Eagle and local native groups as part of an international day of solidarity with Bill McKibben and others in the climate movement 350.org. Mixed in with tribal members from the nearby Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservation are an assortment of folks; a middle aged couple from Valentine, Nebraska, a journalism student from Colorado and some new age types with sun hats and mom jeans. Harter and his wife Tracee round out the cast; representing the only landowners to stand defiant to TransCanada advances. Faith has found common ground with Harter and the other white ranchers who are feeling the effects of perpetual
encroachment by corporate interests.

"I think the most phenomenal thing is that we are aligned with the cowboys and the white ranchers. We would not be having this conversation with you. We wouldn’t be standing on the street with them if it hadn’t been for the KXL and what Harper is doing in Canada—and in a way—we have to thank Harper for uniting us because of the predator economics. I think that it affected our white neighbors in a way that has really shaken their sprits to realize how it felt when our land was taken and so we jokingly call them “the new Indians”.

We drive out to see the old family homestead. We totter down an uneven dirt path to see the pasture that the pipeline will dissect, a long line of tall cottonwood trees dot the way there. Faith and a group of Lakotas from the demonstration follow us caravan style to the site where the pipeline is planned. They offer to bless the land in question for protection in case the pipeline does goes through.

"It’s real hard to go out to their ranches where their land has been condemned." Faith says, “That is not only condemned land, it’s also treaty land, so it’s like it’s been taken twice."

No one lives here now, just an old trailer where John’s little brother used to live before he moved to town. Harter and his dad continue to run cattle there and lots of memories of the old days remain. I grew up here working on the ranch." Harter tells me, "The land is a part of me, it is history within me.” History is all Harter has right now as the future seems so inevitable. It is little consolation to him that his fate is a shared one.

The “Black Snake,” as the Lakotas have called it, is slithering its way up the spine of America; strangling all who stand in its way. It is just a matter of time before corporate interests come knocking at your door the way the oilmen did to the Harters. They will be polite at first, listen to your concerns; if you are firm they might even go away, but rest assured they will be back.

Here's Harter telling his story:

Last Man Standing from Rebecca Jane Rodriguez on Vimeo.

Thank you, Rebecca, for visiting South Dakota and telling our story.

9 comments

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