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Montana tribes welcome cancellation of Keystone XL
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Montana tribes welcome cancellation of Keystone XL

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The Fort Belknap Indian Community was happy President Joe Biden kept his promise to rescind the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, saying it showed recognition of tribal treaty rights and sovereignty.

Fort Belknap Indian Community President Andrew Werk Jr. called it a happy day.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Werk said. “It’s a good day here for the A’aniiih Nakoda People.”

A’aniiih is the tribal name for the Gros Ventre, and Nakoda is the tribal name for the Assiniboine. The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is comprised of members from both tribes.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by TC Energy Corp. in 2008 and would have brought tar-sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to transfer stations in Nebraska. Biden canceled the pipeline's federal permit by executive order hours after his inauguration on Wednesday. The pipeline had also been canceled during the Obama administration in 2015 before being revived by the Trump administration. 

In November, the Fort Belknap Indian Community filed a lawsuit in federal court alongside the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to stop TC Energy from developing the pipeline. The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northern Montana also filed a lawsuit against the pipeline in June.

Native American Rights Fund attorney Matthew L. Campbell represented Fort Belknap as well as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in a lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s administration in its issuance of a permit to build the pipeline.

The pipeline would carry primarily crude oil drawn from tar sands in northern Alberta. Tar-sand oil is considerably more expensive to produce than oil pumped from underground reservoirs, and currently is profitable when oil sells on the international markets for between $65 and $100 a barrel. Crude oil on Wednesday was selling for about $52 a barrel.

“We’re optimistic this should be the end of the line for Keystone XL,” Campbell said.

The pipeline’s proposed path was going to run through “the homelands of the Oceti Sakowin (otherwise known as the Great Sioux Nation) and the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes,” according to the lawsuit. All three tribes maintain historical, cultural, governmental, traditional and spiritual ties to the land.

The Fort Belknap Indian Community’s negative history with resource development near its tribal lands and the detrimental effect it had on tribal resources made the Keystone XL Pipeline’s proximity of special concern, Werk said.

In 1979, the Zortman and Landusky mines opened just south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and contaminated surface and groundwater resources, destroyed countless sacred sites and degraded and eliminated wildlife habitat, according to the Indian Law Resource Center. The tribe is still dealing with the “unknown” consequences from that development, Werk said. That was why it decided to file a lawsuit.

“We’re not going to sit on the sidelines on matters like this,” Werk said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte criticized the move by the Biden administration.

Daines acknowledged the tribes’ concerns and said all Montana voices should be heard on this issue. He wants to continue to facilitate conversations between the tribes and TC Energy. Daines said he supports the pipeline because it would create Montana jobs, support local economies and generate tax dollars.

Daines also noted that the project will also help the U.S. be less reliant on foreign nations. However, the U.S. is importing very little petroleum from foreign countries compared with past decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2019, U.S. net imports of petroleum from foreign countries averaged about 3.3% of average daily U.S. petroleum consumption. This was the lowest percentage since 1949, the first year for which the U.S. Energy Information Administration has historical data.

Daines said he planned to introduce legislation to authorize the continued construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

However, it was unclear if the company would continue construction on the pipeline. TC Energy wrote in a news release Wednesday it would review the decision and assess its implications. But, advancement of the project would be suspended.

Gianforte did not immediately respond to questions about the Fort Belknap Indian Community’s concerns.

Tester's office said the senator was disappointed by the decision to rescind the permit and was “reviewing appropriate next steps.” The senator's position, as described by the spokesperson, was that the pipeline must be constructed with “significant consultation with impacted tribes.”

Werk said he knew the pipeline had bipartisan support and that before Gianforte, Gov. Steve Bullock also supported it.

“That’s fine,” Werk said. “We’re not going to agree on everything. As long as we can agree to disagree and be reasonable about it.”

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