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Houska: Obama to Veto Keystone XL Pipeline Bill, But Will He Reject Permit?

Houska: Obama to Veto Keystone XL Pipeline Bill, But Will He Reject Permit?

“Respect our rights, honor our treaties!” yelled Sarah LittleRedFeather. Her cry was joined by thousands of others – Native and non-Native – who had arrived in New York City to demonstrate against climate change.

The People’s Climate March was in full swing, and we had reached the epicenter. Amidst the pulsating lights of Times Square and the throngs of onlookers, a line of nearly 400,000 people marched for Mother Earth. Eagle staffs caught the sun and our drumbeats bounced off skyscrapers. It was an incredible moment of solidarity – a moment in history.

Yet, four months later, we are faced with a Congress that is overwhelmingly in support of passing a bill approving the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Keystone XL Pipeline will transport the dirtiest oil on the planet through the largest freshwater aquifer in the United States, while sustaining the current levels of mass destruction occurring at tar sands extraction sites in Canada. If you haven’t seen the tar sands operations in Alberta, take a gander at what’s now the size of England and even visible from space.

Tommy Square, Akwesasne, holds a sign protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the White House on January 3, 2015. Photo courtesy Tomas Alejo.

Tar sands crude is resistant to typical cleanup techniques and requires a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals just to get it through a pipe. Extraction produces 1.5 barrels of toxic waste for every barrel of tar sands crude and is nearly 20-percent more greenhouse gas-intensive than standard oil. In the era of technology enabling us to move away from extractive industries towards renewable energy, one wonders how tar sands operations can possibly be justified – cue our elected officials.

Throughout the political back and forth of Keystone XL, the primary talking point has been job creation. Initially packaged as creating tens of thousands of jobs, fact-checking of the Keystone XL project has forced a scaling back of those claims to the potential of a few thousand temporary construction jobs, with a mere handful of permanent jobs. To put it in perspective, last month the U.S. economy added 252,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate dropped another .2 points to 5.6-percent.

When the Keystone XL bill failed to pass by a single vote in December (and Greg Grey Cloud, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, honored the Senate with song), Republicans indicated Keystone XL would be their top priority in the new Congress. Despite a 57,000 gallon spill in Saskatchewan of tar sands crude in that same month, and another 50,000 gallon spill into the Yellowstone River last week, the congressional majority has stayed true to its word. The Keystone XL bill was scheduled for a committee hearing the first week of the 114th Congress. Indigenous voices of those directly impacted by Keystone XL were notably absent.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama appeared to shift from a noncommittal stance and began speaking about the paltry job creation Keystone XL would bring and the risk the U.S. would bear for a project benefitting Canada.

The White House officially announced it would veto any Keystone XL legislation on January 6, but Press Secretary Josh Earnest was careful to include mention of following the “process”; trans-boundary permitting is a power reserved exclusively to the executive branch. Environmental protectors shifted their focus back to the State Department, where a Keystone XL permit application remains pending, even after issuance of the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Last Monday’s State of the Union included a brief mention of Keystone XL; President Obama reiterated that investing in U.S. infrastructure should be more than “a single pipeline.” To some, it signaled hope that the president will reject the Keystone XL permit. To cynics, there remains concern about conceding Keystone XL in exchange for a large-scale infrastructure bill. Senate democrats have proposed a flurry of amendments to Keystone XL; everything from requiring U.S. steel be used to construct it (rejected), to forcing their fellow senators to admit whether climate change is real (final vote: 98-1 believe it’s “not a hoax”). Last Thursday, Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat out of Maryland, introduced language that mandated consultation and the express consent of tribes impacted by the Keystone XL pipeline, including the lands of the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868. As of this writing, no action has been taken on the amendment.

So where are we left in this political showdown over a project that could leave millions without clean drinking water? The Keystone XL bill is likely to be on President Obama’s desk by Friday, where he has said he will veto it, and the permit application sits in the State Department, waiting for a final assessment.

On January 17, the State Department announced it was opening a brief additional comment period for eight agencies ending on February 2. This week, a delegation of Lakota and Dakota tribal leaders, alongside Native and non-Native environmental organizations, will lobby those agencies to submit comments and congressional representatives to understand why Keystone XL must not pass. Environmental protectors will demonstrate in front of the White House; prayers and sage will once again fill the air.

The delegation has already experienced a major setback; late last Friday, Secretary Sally Jewell’s office rejected tribal leadership’s meeting request outright and did not offer an alternative agency official. The Department of the Interior, the agency that directly oversees Indian Affairs, will not be meeting with the tribes most impacted by the Keystone XL project.

If and when Keystone XL leaks, it will contaminate the drinking water for more than 80-percent of the people in the Great Plains region. It will perpetuate the large-scale destruction of tar sands extraction in Alberta. It will contribute to the increased violence suffered by local communities adjacent to big oil operations. It will increase greenhouse gas and put a major water supply at risk. Most of these outcomes will disparately impact indigenous peoples and reservations; contamination of 30-percent of our nation’s irrigation water will affect us all. Out of sight, out of mind does not and should not apply to Keystone XL.

Call your congressional representatives; call the White House. Tell them to choose clean water over benefiting entrenched oil industries. Tell them to end the cycle of disregarding tribal nations and the treaties this country signed. Tell them our children’s future is not a political talking point. Reject Keystone XL.

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Jason Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP and a founding member of NotYourMascots.org. Follow her on Twitter @zhaabowekwe.