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.

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Rick Weiland makes clear he's my kind of Democrat. In a March 10 interview with Tasiyagnunpa Livermont on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Weiland says that, polls be darned, he opposes the Keystone XL pipeline:

Weiland says proponents are exaggerating the domestic energy and jobs benefits:

The problem I've got with the Keystone piepline as its been proposed is that it's an export pipeline. Very little if any of the oil, tar sand oil, that's going to be coming through South Dakota is going to stay in the United States. Most of it's going overseas.

The other thing you hear about too is that it's supposed to create all these jobs, and... the last report I read, which was put out by the Government Accounting Office... basically says we're talking about 35 full-time jobs, permanent jobs, and we don't even know how many of those are going to be in South Dakota, and the 2,000 that its going to take to build the pipeline, those are temporary jobs.

The oil that's going to be shipped is really not going to contribute to our energy independence. And the jobs? It's not a jobs bill. Those are the two things that the proponents, the people that want to build Keystone are focused on, and... from the research I've done, that's just not the case.

So what you end up having... is an awful lot of risk associated with the construction of this and the potential for impacts on the environment and very little reward, and that's why I'm opposed to it [Rick Weiland, interview with Tasiyagnunpa Livermont, Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, 2014.03.10].

With such illusory benefits, South Dakota and the United States wouldn't really receive compensation for the significant risks Keystone XL would bring to, for example, the Ogallala aquifer:

...You look at what it takes in terms of the extraction of the oil and the energy that is consumed to do that, the transportation... they have to heat the tar sand up so it becomes almost liquefied, through a pipeline that crosses over precious water resources like the Ogallala and the potential for the damage that could occur, and the fact that we're not really getting anything for taking on that risk. I think that in and of itself is reason not to build it [Weiland, 2014.03.10].

Only demerits here: Weiland skips the part of Livermont's question about Keystone XL's crossing of Indian treaty land. Our Lakota neighbors are ready to wage war on the pipeline, in part because they contend TransCanada and the federal government have not sufficiently consulted with them in the permitting process. The bogus claims of jobs and energy independence are headline issues, but Keystone XL opponents should never miss the chance to build allies on the reservation and to remind all of us that TransCanada is pushing Keystone XL in ways that perpetuate centuries of abuse and neglect of Native interests.

But Weiland's explicit opposition to Keystone XL at least makes clear the door is open to the conversation about treaty rights, not to mention the property rights that South Dakota courts have surrendered to the foreign pipeline profiteers at TransCanada. This opposition is also one more sign that Weiland is willing to challenge big money when it acts against the best interests of South Dakota.

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Republicans don't like President Barack Obama's long delay in making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline. I don't like it, either: I wish he'd just tell TransCanada to shove their pipeline up their own backcountry.

But could the President's delay be clever cowardice?

Every day the President leaves the Keystone XL case open is another day that some other political entity may do his job for him and block the pipeline. Just a couple weeks ago, a Nebraska District Court judge ruled unconstitutional a Nebraska law allowing the Governor and TransCanada to use eminent domain for Keystone XL, effectively blocking the pipeline unless a higher court or the Nebraska Legislature takes action. This morning, Peter Marriman reports that TransCanada's authorization to build Keystone XL in South Dakota runs out in June. If the President and Nebraska don't clear the way for Keystone XL by June, TransCanada would have seek approval from our Public Utilities Commission all over again. If that happens, PUC Commissioner Gary Hanson promises due diligence and predicts "protracted" hearings.

By delaying the federal green light, President Obama gives anti-pipeline activists more time and more targets. U.S. Senate candidate David Domina can fight in the Nebraska courts. Lakota tribes, ranchers, and the Sierra Club can lobby the South Dakota PUC and DENR. And if those opponents manage to succeed in any state, the President doesn't have to take the heat for stopping Keystone XL.

The President's Keystone delay also serves the interest of long-term conservation. I look at our oil supply the same way I look at our coal supply. Back in 2009, while discussing clean energy legislation, I argued that we should conserve coal so future generations will have more coal available:

I like to believe in technological progress. I like to believe that if we just keep thinking and tinkering, someone will come up with fusion in a jar or anti-matter engines that will light cities and launch spaceships on a few drops of water.

But suppose we don't. Suppose we can't overcome the limitations of earthly materials and energy inputs to make fusion or other alternatives affordable and scalable by 2143. Our descendants look up from the flickering screens on their computers and see that last pile of coal being shoveled into Big Stone XVI. What do they do... besides curse us? "Dang it!" they'll grumble over candlelit dinners. "We were getting close on fusion. If we just had 20 more years of coal, we could have completed that work and built some reactors. Now we've got to spend all day digging for peat. But our ancestors in 2009 couldn't sacrifice a little bit of GDP to help us out. They just had to have their plasma screen TVs and leave their computers plugged in while they slept" [Cory Allen Heidelberger, "Vote for the Future: Cap Carbon, Cut Coal, Conserve for Great-Great-Great Grandkids," Madville Times, 2009.08.13].

We can make the same argument for the tar sands oil Keystone XL will ship. Just as every passing day gives the Nebraska courts or the SDPUC a chance to raise a legal roadblock to Keystone XL, each passing day also gives inventors and dreamers a chance to come up with that jar fusion or water-drop alchemizer or natural-gas car to render Keystone XL financially uncompetitive, if not technologically unnecessary. And if we don't develop better alternatives, taking longer to build Keystone XL still enforces restraint in our energy consumption, giving our descendants more time (hey, every year helps!) to fall back on fossil fuels.

I can't fully defend President Obama from the charges my columnizing (though rarely calumnifying) colleague Ken Blanchard would level, that the President's Keystone XL delay is cowardly do-nothingness. I also can't defend conservation as an absolute principle: conservation in the extreme would mean using zero energy, and the engine of progress doesn't run on empty.

But I don't share Blanchard's economic fatalism. If Keystone XL can be stopped, President Obama's delay maximizes the opportunity for states, activists, technology, and even the market to stop it. He also cleverly keeps TransCanada on the hook: had the President nixed Keystone XL back in 2011, the oil interests would have turned immediately to alternative pipeline routes. As it is, we wait, and waiting on shipping all the tar sands to China to burn is fine with me.

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South Dakota's tribes are gearing up to fight the Keystone XL pipeline, the "black snake." But Yankton tribal elder Faith Spotted Eagle isn't very optimistic:

"There is no way for Native people to say no—there never has been.... Our history has caused us not to be optimistic.... When you have capitalism, you have to have an underclass—and we're the underclass" [Faith Spotted Eagle, quoted in Rob Hotakainen, "American Indians Versus the Pipeline," Governing, 2014.02.18].

Winner mayor Jess Keesis doesn't let Marxist critique weigh down his Dakota development desperation:

Mayor Jess Keesis is eager to welcome construction workers from a 600-member "man camp" that would open just 10 miles from town if President Barack Obama approves the pipeline.

"Out here on the prairie, you know, we're a tough people," said Keesis, who's also a member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. "We deal with drought and 8-foot blizzards and all kinds of stuff all the time, so anytime we can get something like this to give us a shot, it's a good thing" [Hotakainen, 2014.02.18].

Of course, if any of those men are gay, a lot of Winner businesspeople won't want their money, right?

Mayor Keesis also engages in some irrational optimism at the black snake's business prospects:

Besides the short-term construction work, Keesis said his city would gain another 30 to 40 permanent residents who would work on pipeline-related jobs. He said Winner needs a lift, noting that since the city shut down its strip clubs a few years back, fewer pheasant hunters are visiting, opting to stay in big hunting lodges nearby.

"When I moved here, during the first three weeks of pheasant season, you couldn't find a parking space," he said. "Now you can park anywhere" [Hotakainen, 2014.02.18].

Mayor Keesis, read the State Department report again: Keystone XL will only create 35 permanent jobs nationwide. Those jobs will not all land in Winner. And even if it were possible that they would, must Winner and all of South Dakota really be that desperate to reopen the strip clubs by sacrificing our land, water, and safety?

Related: Speculators are optimistic about Keystone XL, because they see the southern leg of the black snake (wait, snakes don't have legs...) doing just what I've reported it would for years: ease the glut at Cushing, Oklahoma, and raise our oil prices.

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Keystone XL: Resist with all the love in your heart.

Resist for the Badlands, the good land, all the land, our land,
Our land only to give to our children and their children.
Love, love, resist with love.
Resist with all the love in your heart.

9 comments

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