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Native American Tribes Are Ready to Go to War over the Keystone Pipeline

Opponents of the Keystone XL have managed to stall construction of the pipeline again on Tuesday, but their fight isn't over yet.
Photo by Stephen Melkisethian

Last night, a bill that would have advanced construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was killed. By a single vote, Senate Democrats managed to stop the legislation, which has become one of the most divisive issues of the Obama administration. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee who has staked her protracted reel​ection campaign on being able to get t​hings done for the oil and gas industry in her home state, had made a major push for the issue in the last week, but in the end, couldn't get the 60th vote needed to start the pipeline project.


About half of the Keys​tone pipeline is already built, and has been in operation since 2010. Since then, a solid majority of​ Americans have supported a massive expansion that would carry as much as 830,000 barrels of petroleum per day from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. The issue has blown up into a huge political proxy battle, between Republicans who argue that the pipeline would create jobs and be a boon to the economy and environmentalists who say it would damage ecos​ystems and create toxic runoff.

Beyond the Washington politics, a huge bloc of those opposed to the pipeline are people who actually live on the land that the Keystone would pass through—a 1,179 stretch that would pass through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, and then connect to existing pipelines all the way down to the Texas coast. Native American tribes from the area have been particularly vocal in their criticism of Keystone XL, claiming that they would be ready to protect their "sacred water" and other natural resources. In 2011, Native American activists and First Nations leaders from Canada were ​arrested protesting the pipeline in front of the White House.

Native American activists protest the Keystone XL pipeline extension at a rally in front of the White House this spring. Photo by Stephen Melkisethian ​via Flickr

The fight escalated this past week, in advance of Congress's votes, when Cyril Scott, the president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota stated that b​uilding the pipeline through his lands would constitute an "act of war." Tribes in the state have already started "resistance tra​ining" to fight the Keystone XL, and are considering various acts of civil disobedience to stop construction of the pipeline, in the event that it is approved.


"We are outraged by the lack of intergovernmental cooperation," Scott said in a statement, threatening to close his reservation's borders to TransCanada, the company that has proposed the Keystone. "We are a sovereign nation and we are not being treated as such."

Back in 2005, when the original pipeline was proposed, almost no one was paying attention. In fact, the State Department was all set to quietly approve construction in 2011, when environmental groups and other opponents, including the Native American tribes and an assortment of lefty ​celebrities, realized what was about to happen, and seized on the issue. While they have so far failed to kill the proposal outright, they have succeed in stalling construction, while President Obama puts off a final decision.

With Tuesday's vote, Keystone opponents once again managed to stall the pipeline. Even if the bill had passed the Senate, Obama would likely have vetoed it. But Republicans have vowed to bring back the bill next year, though, at which point, Republicans will hold a solid majority in Congress, which could force the White House to make a deal on the pipeline.

"I look forward to the new Republican majority taking up and passing the Keystone jobs bill early in the new year," incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said shortly after the vote.

Following the vote, Native American protesters in the Senate press gallery repor​t​edly broke into song, before being arrested and escorted out of the building by Capitol police.