As the global community faces overwhelming uncertainty amidst our current public health crisis, many of us are also asking broader questions about what truly matters to us, how much control we have, and the collective strength of a community. These questions can trickle to all parts of our lives, and so I urge you in this time to not forget about the Keystone XL pipeline. The simplest and clearest reason to oppose Keystone XL is protecting our water.
While coronavirus updates rightfully dominate the news, TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) has quietly started pipeline work in Montana over 10 years in the planning. Even with construction prep in its early stages, this work brings pressing concerns about the effects of building “man camps” for temporary laborers, which often bring a threat of violence to Indigenous women. Pipeline opponents in Montana and beyond have also long held concerns about the environmental and public health consequences in the event of an oil spill near water.
In the most recent 2019 Montana legislative session, multiple bills aimed to halt the project, with testimony repeatedly returning to the risk to water, and especially to the Assiniboine and Sioux Rural Water Supply System on the Fort Peck Reservation. This $300 million, congressionally mandated drinking water system treats water from the Missouri River, made necessary after the tribes’ former source of groundwater was polluted by past oil drilling.
The proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline crosses under the Missouri River 70 miles upstream of the intake for the tribal water system. This underground crossing makes the pipeline vulnerable to rupturing and spilling oil if a heavy release of water from the nearby Fort Peck Dam spillway scours the riverbed. The dam’s spillway has seen increasing use in recent years, perhaps making this spill scenario more likely.
Riverbed scouring during a flood is responsible for an ExxonMobil pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River in 2011. Most recently raising eyebrows was the October 2019 release of 400,000 gallons of oil in eastern North Dakota, this time from the main Keystone pipeline owned by TC Energy, the same company behind Keystone XL. An oft-repeated sentiment challenges us to re-think our human abilities to definitively protect against these disasters: it’s not if a pipeline will spill, it’s when.
Other downstream communities are also at risk from a Keystone XL spill at this Missouri River crossing, and the pipeline’s route crosses numerous other waterways in its path toward Nebraska. Stopping the pipeline would protect access to clean water for many communities of people, not to mention wildlife.
As we look to the future and take stock of things we might have taken for granted, protection of our vital water resources should be counted among our priorities. As others in the arid West increasingly fight "water wars" to appropriate needed water, what are we doing to protect this precious resource? We can implement pipeline safety measures or model the effects to riverbeds under duress. Any number of actions might make us feel better about staving off the inevitable spill, convincing us we are in control. The truth is that the only way to prevent a pipeline spill is to not build the pipeline.
Montanans know and cherish the plain value of fresh water. We grant public access to waterways through the Stream Access Law and uphold our right to a clean and healthful environment in the text of our Constitution. Missoulians fought to buy back our water system and cherish the abundance of our natural aquifer.
In tumultuous times where we return to basics, re-prioritize and imagine a better future, let’s not give up in the fight against Keystone XL.
Mallory Scharf is a graduate student at University of Montana, focusing on environmental policy in the American West.
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