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Tribal Leaders Offer Last Push Against Keystone XL Pipeline

WASHINGTON – Tribal leaders have gathered in the nation’s capital to offer one final push against the U.S. State Department’s possible final approval of a pipeline that could have devastating cultural and environmental consequences for some Indians in North America.

The State Department is scheduled to hold a final hearing on Friday at the Ronald Reagan Building regarding its preliminary approval of the pipeline, granted in August to the developer of the project, the TransCanada Corporation. If the agency grants final approval, the proposed 1,711 mile, $7 billion pipeline, would be developed across tribal areas in both Canada and the U.S., through sacred lands and drinking water sources that serve indigenous populations. A final decision is expected from State in November; officials there have to date expressed opinions that the project will be environmentally safe.

Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellowbird Steele was one of about a dozen tribal leaders who attended meetings with State Department officials in the days leading up to the hearing to explain the tribal opposition. He brought with him a recent resolution passed by the Great Plain Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) in September. Of particular importance, the GPTCA resolution notes that TransCanada has so far offered a “relatively poor environmental record of the first Keystone pipeline, which includes numerous spills,” and highlights that “U.S. regulators shut the pipeline down in late May 2011.”

“[B]ased on the record of the first Keystone pipeline, and other factors, it is probable that further environmental disasters will occur in Indian country if the new pipeline is allowed to be constructed,” the resolution states. It also notes that several First Nations of Canada have passed resolutions supporting a moratorium on new tar sands development and expansion until an improved oversight system is in place.

The oil in Canada that would flow if the pipeline expansion becomes a reality is contained in large underground formations called tar sands, and the extraction process has been studied to be harmful to the land and can pollute water sources.

“[T]he United States is urged to reduce its reliance on the world’s dirtiest and most environmentally destructive form of oil – the ‘tar sands’ – that threatens Indian country in both Canada and the United States and the way of life of thousands of citizens of First Nations in Canada and American Indians in the U.S.,” according to the document.

The resolution also suggests that State did not properly consult with tribes along the route of the Keystone XL Pipeline and, as a result of the mechanisms used for what consultation was provided, the affected tribal nations were not provided the opportunity for “free and informed consent” – called for in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the U.S. moved to support last fall – regarding the construction of the pipeline.

Debra White Plume, a Lakota activist who was arrested at the White House early last month while protesting the pipeline, also planned to deliver to State officials a “Mother Earth Accord” signed by some tribal governments in the U.S. and Canada in September. “We insist on full consultation under the principles of; free, prior and informed consent,’ from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples both in the United States and Canada,” reads one part of the accord. “We urge President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to reject the Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Pat Spears, president of the Intertribal Council On Utility Policy, also in town for the hearing, said he believes Obama must be aware of the indigenous concerns, despite what Spears called “negligent coverage of major media.”

“We are told that the president usually doesn't make these permit decisions, unless one of the leaders of the federal agencies involved (8 in this case) raises issues or opposes approval of the permit,” Spears said. “We think he should become personally involved in this decision as it has such far reaching impacts on the environment, human health, the economy, and climate change.”

To date, the most significant part of this determination process for Spears came in August when the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency issued the finding of “no significant impact” for the environment of the proposed project. “There have been 14 spills in one year on Keystone I also installed by TransCanada,” Spears said. “The projection was one spill in 7 years.

“A spill into the Oglala Aquifer, which stretches from Canada to Texas across 10 states, would contaminate water for over 2 million people and agricultural uses,” Spears said. “The tribes feel that this risk has been discounted.”

In trying to understand how Indians have come to find themselves in this situation, Spears said it is appropriate to look at how tribes are situated in the federal bureaucracy within the U.S. Department of Interior. “DOI manages minerals, mining, reclamation, land, parks, fish and wildlife—and Indians,” he notes. “We have always been viewed as part of resources to be exploited as part of the manifest destiny doctrine. Now is our chance to be recognized by the Department of State, as we should always have been, as nations of people.”