Photos of the People in the Path of the Keystone XL Pipeline

Some view it as their savior, others as a project that will hasten their demise.

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May 7 2015, 4:00am

This article appears in the May Issue of VICE Magazine.

At 6 PM we took the turn onto Highway 12 toward Gascoyne, North Dakota. We'd been driving across the Midwest for a week.

"Do you think we'll make it?"

"We'll make it."

The sun faded into the kind of gold prairie sunset you see in Marlboro ads or Reagan fan fiction. We would have found it beautiful if we weren't worried about not seeing the Keystone XL Pipeline that day. Our phone signals died. I was hopeful; Pete was determined.

We drove through the town center and over the ridge.

"Should we turn around?"

"After the next hill."

Our 12-passenger van was empty except for Pete and me and the ghosts of rowdy rock tours past.

And suddenly there it was, below the rise of the highway: miles and miles of pale-green pipes 36 inches in diameter, stacked four high and spreading out for hundreds of yards. The tranquility of it was both striking and underwhelming. For something so expensive and intensely debated, you'd think there'd be protesters, propaganda, even a small sign. But the lack of pomp was fitting. So much of the conversation and hand-wringing is dominated by those who speak loudest, eliminating any middle ground. Up close and in person, the pipeline was less frightening.

It wasn't the metal stacked there that would tell the story of the Keystone. Instead, it was the farmers and workers we met on our trip. For people like Bill Scheele, the mayor of Steele City (population 61), where the pipeline links up to other pipes that will take the Canadian tar-sand oil to the refineries and ports of America's Gulf Coast, it means work, food on the table, tax revenue, easement payments from TransCanada, and ultimately the survival of their towns.

In York County, Rick Hammond and his family of Nebraskan steppe farmers have fought the pipeline every step of the way for six years. The risk of a spill, which would contaminate the Ogallala aquifer that provides water for his family and the crops that are their livelihood, weighs on his mind. Like those on the other side of the debate, Hammond views the pipeline in terms of survival.

Farther north, in Stuart, Nebraska, the streets were empty because the local girls' basketball team was competing in the state playoffs. The players' names appeared on big placards as we rolled into town. Main Street's Central Bar didn't seem like the kind of place where one would find people who agree on anything with our current president. Playful signs hung behind the bar: welcome to america, now speak english and we don't dial 911, with two revolvers painted beneath. "You wouldn't happen to know Lloyd Hipke?" I asked the bartender as I finished my catfish lunch and Budweiser with tomato juice. Patrons spoke up immediately, denouncing the pipeline and giving me phone numbers to call.

Half an hour later we pulled into a farm belonging to Wynn Hipke, Lloyd's brother. The Hipkes are farmers who have united against TransCanada's pipeline. Wynne, in his Stetson hat and pickup truck, drove us across his land, exasperated. "It's so political, so money-driven. There's no common sense to it," he said. Down the road at his brother's place we met his sister-in-law, Vencille. She pointed to her well, which the pipeline will go through. "They said that this is gonna have insignificant impact. Well, we're the insignificant."

In the news, the pipeline was dead. Vetoing a point of pride in the Republican-held Congress was a victory for the Obama administration. But in the farms of Nebraska, reservations of South Dakota, and oil towns of Montana—in the communities that view the pipe as both their demise and their savior—there was a rare consensus from both sides. Administrations change and leaders come and go, but there's too much money, too much pride, too much politics wrapped up in the pipe in Gascoyne, the oil in Fort McMurray, and the water in the Ogallala for this to be over.

-Gabriel Luis Manga

Pete Voelker is releasing his first book of photography tonight. More of info can be found here.

Scroll down for more photos.

Pipes for the Keystone XL Pipeline in Gascoyne, North Dakota. Until the pipeline is approved and the legal cases surrounding it are resolved, they have nowhere to go.

An oil drum repurposed into a trash barrel in Omaha, Nebraska. Though the pipeline does not go through Omaha, the debate is omnipresent in the city. The lawyer for many of the landowners fighting the pipeline, Dave Domina, is based there, along with activist groups such as Bold Nebraska and the headquarters of Laborers’ Local #1140, the union that would be tasked with building the pipeline in the state.

The pipes of the Keystone 1 pump station in Steele City, Nebraska. The first segment of the Keystone pipeline has been carrying oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the pump station since 2010.

Bill Scheele, mayor of Steele City, Nebraska, also runs the local post office. He and many others in the town support the pipeline and consider it to be vital to the economic survival of their community.

Jenni Harrington, whose family has owned farmland in York County, Nebraska, for years, and her brother-in-law Rick Hammond built an “Energy Barn” as a symbol of resistance; it demarcates where the pipeline would cut through their property.

(Left to right) Rick Hammond, Jenni Harrington, Abbi Kleinschmidt, and Meaghan Hammond inside the Energy Barn. The extended family has been active in protesting the pipeline for years.

Cody Hipke, a veteran of the Iraq War, stands next to his family’s well near Stuart, Nebraska. The pipeline is slated to go directly through the well that supplies the family with water.

Wynn Hipke, a farmer who lives near Stuart, has refused to sign a deal with TransCanada to give permission for the pipeline to go through his land.

The Hipke family farm near Stuart, Nebraska

A road crossing over the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska.

A spring near the Hipke farm outside Stuart, Nebraska. Unlike other Nebraskan farms that receive water from the Ogallala aquifer, the Hipke farm relies on a well and streams like this to provide for livestock and crops. A leak in the Keystone XL could taint the water supply.

The Spirit Camp near Ideal, South Dakota. Set up by the Rosebud Sioux tribe, the camp is manned 24 hours a day to resist the construction of the pipeline.

The original route of the Keystone XL called for it to pass through the sandhills region near Valentine, Nebraska, which overlies parts of the Ogallala aquifer, a main reservoir of drinking water for Nebraska and the surrounding states. After meeting resistance, the route was adjusted to avoid the sandhills, but, if built, the pipeline will still pass through large sections of the aquifer.

Remnants of oil in the water of the Yellowstone River in Glendive, Montana. In January, it was estimated that 1,200 barrels of oil were released into the river when the Poplar pipeline burst.

The water-purification plant in Glendive.

Though adamantly opposed to the Keystone pipeline, Jason Nelson says he and many of his friends find it hard to turn down the high salaries that working in the Canadian oil industry can bring.

A handmade sign opposing the pipeline on a northern Nebraska farm.

A surface mine at the Suncor Energy camp in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

An extraction plant run by Suncor in Fort McMurray. The Canadian energy company specializes in extracting bitumen, which is then turned into synthetic crude oil.

Caterpillar 797B heavy hauler trucks can carry 400 tons of oil sands from the mines to the processing plant.

A man-made tailing pond in Fort McMurray. The ponds are made up of the water, clay, residual oil, and sand that are left over from the extraction process.

The pipes of the Keystone XL lie unused in Gascoyne, North Dakota.

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