Part one: In Montana, Native Americans fear a leak could destroy their way of life, but local politicians worry about the threat of protesters above all else
Our people call it the black snake because it is evil,” says Tressa Welch, as thunder clouds steamroll the blue sky over the plains of Wolf Point. “And like snakes they come out of nowhere; they slither and strike unknown.”
She faces southwards where, a couple of miles away, forks of lightning crack over the Missouri river. The 2m acre Fort Peck Indian reservation straddles this winding water source, providing sustenance for the almost 7,000 Assiniboine and Sioux tribe members here and thousands of others throughout north-east Montana. It is the river that Welch and other Native American activists on the reserve say the Keystone XL oil pipeline – or the “black snake” – will corrupt.
The river maintains the deer, the fish, the native plants, sweet grasses and sacred sage. “Anything that threatens my way of life and my spiritual well-being, I consider myself at war with,” she says, her two-year-old daughter by her side. “I will do whatever it takes.”
Although the pipeline is expected to cross the Missouri just outside of the reservation, it will do so about 40 miles upstream of the tribes’ multimillion-dollar water treatment plant, which supplies clean water to communities throughout the entire region. A leak at this junction, they say, could be catastrophic. The project’s backers insist it will be safe.
The gargantuan underground pipeline is set to carry a daily load of 830,000 barrels of oil over 1,204 miles, from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada – where it enjoys the support of the prime minister, Justin Trudeau – across the US border into eastern Montana. It will travel down to South Dakota, eventually linking with the first Keystone pipeline, which was completed in 2010, in southern Nebraska. The route connects not just countries and states, but three US presidencies. First proposed by the private Canadian infrastructure giant TransCanada during George W Bush’s final months in office, the project was eventually rejected by the Obama administration in 2015, only to be resurrected almost as soon Donald Trump was sworn in at the beginning of this year.
Its potential pathway crosses 56 rivers and streams, dozens of farms and ranches, and one of the world’s largest groundwater sources, and comes close to a handful of Native American reserves, exposing the deep divisions and unlikely alliances within these rural communities after nearly a decade of struggle – positions which were entrenched even further by a bitterly divisive presidential election.
The pipeline has been framed as a victory over government regulation and a win for job creation by the Trump administration and those who support the project, but critics characterize the reversal as a success for a foreign business over environmentalism and private land rights.
As the prospect of construction looms, the Guardian spent one recent week travelling along the proposed US route of the pipeline, meeting with those who will be directly affected by the expansion.
The journey starts at the Fort Peck reserve, about 80 miles from the Canadian border and the first concentrated population in its pathway, where Tressa Welch and her group of “water protectors” believe it is a duty endowed upon them by their ancestors to resist the construction.
The men here are preparing the land for the Sun Dance festival in June, when the community will gather to pray for good health, fast without water for four days and offer parts of their flesh. “We give a little piece of ourself back to Mother Earth, because she supplies everything to us,” Welch says.
For the 26-year-old, as for many of the young tribal members on this reserve, the election of Trump and the rebirth of Keystone has brought with it a renewed connection to history and culture through activism.
Only a few years ago, Welch had worked as a land surveyor carrying out contract work for large oil companies. After she saw the protest camps opposing the Dakota Access pipeline, arguably the landmark environmental struggle of the Obama administration and a likely precursor to the future struggle over the Keystone XL pipeline, she felt compelled to travel to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. She stood on the frontlines as protesters were water-cannoned by police officers in subzero cold last winter. Their hard-fought victory was almost instantly reversed by the election of Trump, but the experience changed her life nonetheless.
It is likely that the Fort Peck reservation will be the first frontier of physical opposition to the XL, should a series of recent oppositional lawsuits fail and the final route proposal in Nebraska be approved. Already this year, Welch and others here have marched 85 miles along the banks of the Missouri and protested peacefully outside the site of a planned meeting between the tribal council and TransCanada, which was eventually called off.
TransCanada insists it has consulted with all parties along the XL route, including Native American tribal leaders.
But less than an hour down the highway in the old railroad town of Glasgow, the sentiment is the polar opposite. Here the city is almost cut in half by the railway track. The town’s station, a single-storey white bricked depot, sits at the centre of the Amtrak Empire Builder line, which runs over 2,000 miles and connects Chicago to the Pacific north-west.
Jeff Swanson and RJ Winderl, who both own ranch land the XL will cross, sip coffee and pore over the papers at the local John Deere retailer, which serves as a hub for ranchers who come to sit among friends and peruse the large green tractors and combine harvesters on sale outside.
The city is 92% white, in a county that voted 70% for Trump, and there is a sense of resentment expressed by some here for “the Indians” on the reserve.
“They’re mad because it didn’t go through their reservation, so they’re not getting payment off it,” says Swanson, slamming down his fists. “It’s greed, that’s all it is.”
The cattle rancher signed an easement with TransCanada years ago, which left him with a one-time payment of $15,000 (just 82 cents a day if the project fulfills its 50 year lifespan) in exchange for the use of a quarter of a mile of his pasture land. But Swanson says his support for the project was never about the money. It was politics.
He saw the Obama administration’s veto of the project as government overreach and reiterates the essence of one Trump banner in support of it: energy independence. “Our country needs oil. Why import from the Middle Eastern countries when we can take it right from our Canadian neighbor?”
The reality, however, dictated by cascading domestic crude prices in the US, is that the majority of final product from the XL will probably be exported to foreign markets after it is processed at refineries on the Gulf Coast. But that doesn’t seem to bother the pair.
Perhaps they share the concerns of those on the reserve about the potential for a leak?
“Well, the oil comes out of the ground, so it should be good for it,” says Winderl. “They’re going to double-pipe it anyway. There’s no way it will leak.”
Dena Hoff, a sheep farmer outside the town of Glendive in Montana, stands feet away from the site of the Poplar pipeline leak in 2015. Photograph: Laurence Mathieu-Leger for the Guardian
The next stop is about 150 miles south, across the Fort Peck dam. Back in 1933, the construction of this colossal hydraulic system, the largest in the US, brought over 10,000 jobs to the region after President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned it as part of the New Deal.
It is lambing season here, just outside the city of Glendive, and Dena Hoff, a sheep farmer, finds it painful to hear of Winderl’s confidence in the pipeline’s integrity. “It’s just not true,” she says.
The dregs of a few surviving snowdrifts are melting in the sun and some of Hoff’s flock are out to pasture a few meters from where, in January 2015, about 40,000 gallons of crude oil, traveling from Canada to southern Montana, escaped from the ageing Poplar pipeline straight into the Yellowstone river. She watched from her farmhouse as recovery crews drilled holes through the ice in a failed attempt to contain the leak.
The oil contaminated Glendive’s water treatment plant, polluting the drinking water for upwards of 6,000 people with dangerous levels of the benzene, a known carcinogen. People went without water for days and some in town still distrust the city’s water supply. Hoff recalls that time with evident disgust, arguing city officials were in no way prepared for the leak.
The Keystone, too, will cross under the Yellowstone river about 13 miles from her farm but still upstream of the town’s water treatment plant. At 36in wide, it is three times more voluminous than the Poplar pipeline and will carry a far dirtier, more corrosive substance, dilbit, which transports the viscous bitumen crude and natural gas liquids. According to independent studies, this would make a spill much more dangerous and any cleanup operation more complicated. Extracting tar sands also emits considerably more greenhouse gases than regular crude.
A widely cited independent study in 2011, authored by John Stansbury, an engineering professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, found that TransCanada had significantly underestimated the likely number of significant spills (defined as those greater than 50 barrels) over the XL’s lifetime. The company had projected a total of 11 over 50 years. Stansbury, citing a wide range of miscalculations, revised this number almost ten times higher, to 91.
The academic concluded that in a worst-case leak under the Yellowstone, 165,000 barrels of oil (6.9m gallons) could escape the pipeline. At the XL’s crossing under the Missouri, an extreme break could lead to over 122,000 barrels (5.1m gallons) escaping.
This week, Stansbury told the Guardian he stood by his conclusions, arguing that TransCanada’s most recent environmental impact statement suffered from the same flaws he identified in 2011.
A TransCanada spokesman, Terry Cunha, said: “We disagree with all of the claims made by Mr Stansbury.” He pointed to what the company describes as “state of the art” leak detection systems it intends to deploy along the XL route, which the company maintains is safe.
The US state department, which in March issued a permit approving the pipeline, estimated that a leak would convey enough oil to reach a protected body of water once every 542 years.
For Hoff, the risk is clear. “There are only two kinds of pipelines,” she says. “The ones that are leaking and the ones that are going to leak.”
However, Dennis Zander, a Republican county commissioner in Glendive, who stands outside the county courthouse in a pair of striking off-yellow Ostrich leather boots, accepts the 2015 Poplar leak was “an inconvenience” but has no fear about the XL passing close to town. He says emergency services here have learned from past mistakes, and expects the pipeline will bring with it an annual revenue of $5m from additional county property taxes. According to TransCanada, the project would lead to $55.6m in local property taxes in the 27 US counties the pipeline is set to traverse during the first year of operation.
Zander won’t say how these additional funds will be spent in Glendive.
The city, like Glasgow, is overwhelmingly white, inside a county that voted at an even higher rate for Trump. The poverty level here is close to the national average as the city reaped the rewards of the Bakken oil boom in the neighboring state of North Dakota, which peaked in 2013. Against rows of unremarkable houses, it is the city’s backdrop that is most striking.
Glendive is surrounded by the majestic badland formations of the Makoshika state park, where dozens of pristine dinosaur fossils, preserved by the ice age, have been discovered. Xander points to these discoveries to dispute the overwhelming scientific evidence of manmade climate change. The climate is always changing, he says. “I think we’re naive [to think] that we can have that much effect on Mother Nature.”
He is by no means the last local official along the route to espouse such views.
The state department estimates the XL could transport enough oil to send up to 27.4m metric tons of greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere each year, the equivalent of the annual emissions from almost eight coal-fired power plants. Advocates say even this high-end projection is a dramatic underestimation.
Along the 60-mile drive south, the winding roads that scale the badland formations give way to vast plains where wild antelope and deer cast long shadows as they bound. The town of Baker, surrounded by large oil pumpjacks that rotate in seeming unison, marks the last major population center on the XL’s route in Montana.
Here, TransCanada plans to open a large camp to house up to 1,200 migrant construction workers that will in effect double the population of the town. Mayor JoDee Pratt, who, like Xander, denies the existence of human-induced climate change, is preparing to welcome these temporary residents. She looks forward to the additional revenue they will bring to the town, which has enjoyed its fair share of boom and bust since the discovery of nearby oil and natural gas deposits at the turn of the 20th century.
In recent days, a field officer for the Montana department of emergency services came to Baker and Pratt was eager to discuss the potential fallout from the pipeline construction, which, barring any permit setbacks, will commence in 2019. The mayor only wanted to know about one thing: protesters.
While events at Standing Rock may have awakened a new generation on the Fort Peck reserve, here, in a county that voted 86% for Trump, the events inspired a sense of pervasive fear. “When I saw it, I was afraid for people’s lives. I was ashamed of what [protesters] were doing,” she says.
More afraid of them than of the consequences of a potential large scale leak?
Pratt nods. “Did you see what a mess they left? The amount of garbage. I was appalled.”
Part two of this three-part series will be published on Wednesday: a dispatch from South Dakota, where officials are moving to curb protests and Republican ranchers are among the Keystone XL pipeline’s unlikely opponents.