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Climate Scientist James Hansen Shut Out of Keystone XL Hearings in South Dakota


Though tribes and other opponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have been granted intervenor status in a series of hearings before the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), several tribal and climate-expert witnesses were excluded on July 22 from testifying at the evidentiary hearings that begin next week.

Among them: Renowned climate scientist James Hansen, lead author in a new study claiming that temperature-increase targets of two degrees Celsius are too high to avoid climate catastrophe. But climate change was not mentioned in the original permit, said Bob Gough, the attorney who represented the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy before the commission.

“So the PUC is holding, and TransCanada has convinced them, that it is not an issue now,” Gough told Indian Country Today Media Network. “And we were denied that because it was deemed irrelevant because it wasn’t brought up in the original permit hearings.”

Hansen and another climate scientist were first excluded in May. The July 22 hearing was an attempt to get the PUC to reconsider. Hansen, who left NASA in 2013 to devote himself full time to both climate change and opposing Keystone XL, released a study on July 20 along with 16 other researchers that used computer models to project much faster, and higher, sea level rises and current predictions do.

RELATED: Veteran NASA Climate Scientist James Hansen Leaves Government to Fight Climate Change and Keystone XL

Hansen was the first scientist to identify the phenomenon of global warming, when he testified before Congress in 1998 to the greenhouse effect’s arrival. Keystone XL has been a touchstone for those against further mining the Alberta oil sands.

On July 22 the PUC laid out final rules for who can testify and what can be addressed in the evidentiary hearings slated to begin on July 27. These hearings will determine whether TransCanada, which wants to build the $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico coast in Texas, should resubmit its entire permit application. South Dakota law states that a permit that languishes more than four years after its original filing must get recertified by the PUC to ensure that the company can still meet the conditions laid out in it.

TransCanada claims that the conditions under which it applied back in 2010 have remained similar enough to allow the project to proceed with nothing more than a recertification of the original application. But the opponents claim that so much has changed in that time—not least of all new information about the importance of leaving most remaining fossil fuel deposits in the ground to avert climate catastrophe—that TransCanada cannot guarantee that the initial conditions remain valid, and want the entire process to be revisited.

This is the latest dismissal of tribal interests by the PUC. Last month, and also in May, the utilities commission turned down requests from four tribes and other Keystone XL opponents to testify on the grounds that their concerns did not relate directly to the conditions outlined in the permit.

RELATED: Tribes Incensed at Being Closed Out of Upcoming Keystone XL Hearings in South Dakota

The parties will ask for more witnesses and testimony to be reconsidered on July 23. Although several tribes will be represented at next week’s hearings, only those with information directly relating to the permit will be allowed to testify, under the rules that were finalized by the PUC on Tuesday. Tribal representatives said it was the last best opportunity for Native voices to be heard regarding the pipeline’s effect beyond its actual route.

“This is certainly the last best opportunity from the Lakota perspective to influence the decision making,” said Peter Capossela, representing the Standing Rock Sioux. “And they do not want to hear the voices of the Lakota. And that was the message we got yesterday.”