How Grassroots Choked the XL Pipeline

Monique Vondall-Rieke

The November 6, 2015 announcement of the rejection of the Presidential Permit that would allow TransCanada to continue the XL Pipeline project to the Gulf of Mexico was rejected after being placed on hold by President Obama in 2011 amid conflicts of the route of the pipeline through sacred sites in Nebraska.

Prior to 2011, however, there was a smaller group effort to combat the pipeline’s approval during the Bush Administration, which widely supported TransCanada’s permitting with very little scrutiny from state and national representatives.

Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate v. Unites States Department of State, 659 F.Supp.2d 1071 (2009) brought to the forefront the issues at odds with tribes and the Keystone XL Pipeline project as proposed. The issue of raised in the lawsuit, which was brought forward by not only the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, but also joined in the case that challenged the Presidential Permitting process of the project was the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska and the Yankton Sioux Tribe. The four Sioux tribes joined together to take on the Department of State, namely Condolezza Rice, and then inherited by Hillary Clinton under the Obama Administration as Secretary of State.

Decided September 29, 2009, the case was ultimately dismissed in federal court however the matter was not immediately over with as to the issues raised by the tribes. The overarching law affecting the lawsuit involved the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (“NHPA”). The relevant section of the NHPA argument is that, per Section 106, the tribes requested 100% of the pipeline construction corridor be surveyed for traditional cultural properties. Raising the issue of a right to make this request under usurfructory rights (those affiliated with Indigenous people’s use of the land despite treaties and ownership), was a sub-issue of the lawsuit. Attorney for the Plaintiffs were Eric J. Antoine, Rosebud Sioux Tribal Attorney and Mario Gonzalez, special Counsel out of Rapid City, South Dakota, for the Plaintiffs. Cheryl Schrempp Dupris was the U.S. Attorney in charge of representing the U.S. Department of State.

The issue remained on the palates of both Secretary Clinton and President Obama immediately upon the granting of Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss based on lack of standing was highly scrutinized in grassroots efforts that followed the decision and tribes simply did not give up the issue just because it was determined that the four (4) Sioux tribes lacked standing to bring the lawsuit due to no jurisdiction over the lands in question.

During the time immediately before the action was filed in South Dakota Federal Court, the construction of the pipeline uncovered a historical archeological site along the North Dakota/Minnesota border which, immediately, was determined to be a homestead. The site was cleared, an elbow around the archeological site was routed, and construction went on without knowing whose remains were unearthed by this building project. It was later determined that the site belonged to the Pembina Chippewa who historically traveled up and down the Red River Valley that had home sites established there prior to North Dakota being adopted as a state. Little is known yet today about the what was unearthed during the project’s construction through North Dakota but it stands as evidence that what the tribes wanted in the case filed was true – that sacred sites still existed and would be entrenched deep into the heart of the argument over whether the pipeline was to continue or not.

During the lawsuit, what came to light is the fact that the Presidential Permitting process goes under very little scrutiny, has almost no guidelines attached to it, and is open for lobbying efforts by all interested groups. That means, if the economic interest for the Bush Administration outweighed their concern for trampling upon Native American sacred sites, it was going to get passed and it did, until we elected President Obama.

Continuing grassroots efforts were never halted during the time the case was dismissed and continue to be of high importance yet today with the looming threat of a Congressional coupe to overturn the President’s stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline. The warning has been heeded and we take note, as people who still believe that the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline is NOT in the best interest of the American people, as the President so eloquently stated in his comments revealed November 6, 2015.

Renewable energy sources, including wind, hydro and otherwise, are always options for the American People and Climate Change is real, despite what the naysayers are telling. I live in Alaska now and travel frequently to remote villages. Just yesterday, I looked off into the horizon of the Newtok Village in western Alaska and looked eight miles out to Nelson Island, where the Newtok Village is being relocated due to erosion and flooding issues caused by that very climate change that people deny. I see the struggles, challenges, limited resources, that this small village is faced with. The daunting task of having to move what you call home and once again be displaced from your lands is the stressful job of tribal leaders. We all have to take responsibility for the youth, elders and everyone else in the Newtok Village who will soon have to re-root and call a new pasture of tundra home. It is all of us that are responsible for taking care of Mother Earth and all of us that need to remember that the children of Newtok Village, whether they are complacent or not, will be effected by what you do to this earth for the next seven generations to come. So listen to the 7 Grandfather and Grandmother’s Teachings, teach your children to respect the earth and to not take it for granted. This island we all live on will not last forever, but for as far as we can see, it needs to last for us and our future generations as long as it is in our hands.

Keep up the good work, grassroots people. In closing, there are a handful of people to recognize for bringing the unknowns of the Keystone XL Pipeline to the forefront of the Obama Administration. Thank you to Mario Gonzalez, Dianne Desrosier, Vine Marks, the World Wildlife Federation, GreenPeace, Indigneous Environmental Network, Eric J. Antoine, Ben Roth, to the leadership of the four Sioux tribes involved in the lawsuit, and lastly, to Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama for recognizing that the truth prevails and the unknown threatens.

Monique Vondall-Rieke is a private practicing Tribal Advocate/Attorney who generally practices in the Turtle Mountain Tribal Court Jurisdiction. Ms. Vondall-Rieke served as an appellate justice for four years for the Turtle Mountain Tribal Court of Appeals.

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