TransCanada, Step Aside

On Tuesday, October 28, the Public Utilities Commission met in Pierre to decide who can formally weigh in on whether it should re-certify TransCanada’s permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline through our state. As you likely know, that proposed pipeline would transport toxic tar sands oil (not crude oil) down from Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast, primarily for export. TransCanada’s original PUC certification expired this summer.

Nearly 45 individuals, tribal nations and non-profit organizations petitioned for intervener status, opposing re-certification. That number is three times more than it was four years ago when TransCanada’s permit was first approved. “Not a record number [of interveners],” said PUC Chair Gary Hanson, “but certainly quite a roomful.” Among them were Dakota Rural Action, South Dakota Wildlife Federation, South Dakota Peace & Justice Center, Sierra Club, and the Cheyenne River, Rosebud, Standing Rock, and Yankton Sioux Tribes.

This was an important meeting in the fight against Keystone XL. That’s why I traveled to Pierre to lend my support to those seeking intervener status. As interveners they or their legal counsel would be allowed to testify, call witnesses, submit evidence and cross-examine TransCanada “experts” at the eventual PUC re-certification hearing.

Those applying as interveners cited a range of concerns about Keystone XL, including violations of property and treaty rights; environmental risks, especially to the Ogallala Aquifer, the Missouri River, and innumerable other South Dakota water resources; the threat to sacred cultural sites of tribal people; the pipeline’s contribution to climate change; the social ills associated with man-camps (e.g., human trafficking), and more.

Tuesday’s meeting lasted nearly three hours. By my count, TransCanada’s lawyer, Mr. William Taylor, contested the standing of half the petitioners. For some reason, he was allowed to remain at the microphone, seated before the panel, even as the Commissioners were hearing testimony from petitioners. In other words, he was seated directly beside those persons opposing his corporate client.

This seemed to me a clear intimidation tactic. I almost applauded when Dallas Goldtooth, one of the last petitioners called forward to defend his right to intervene, asked the Commissioners, “Does Mr. Taylor need to be sitting right beside me while I testify?”

TransCanada’s attorney then rose from his seat and stepped aside. But with all due respect, Mr. Goldtooth should never have had to ask the question.

Dallas Goldtooth objecting to the presence of TransCanada’s lawyer.

Everybody in that room knew where TransCanada’s loyalties lie. They don’t lie with farmers and ranchers, or tribal people. With anyone wanting to protect water and land resources from contamination that can’t be cleaned up. With anyone trying to protect the planet against climate change due to human activity, like the extraction and use of tar sands oil and other fossil fuels. Clearly TransCanada’s loyalties don’t lie with South Dakotans.

But what about the PUC’s?

I’m happy to report that at least on Tuesday, despite enabling Mr. Taylor’s subtle intimidation, the PUC was loyal to the people of South Dakota. The Commissioners voted unanimously to grant intervener status to every petitioner. By statute, they explained, this process is meant to be fair, democratic and broadly inclusive.

I can only hope that I’ll be able to report the same after the re-certification hearing. The date of that hearing is yet to be determined, but as Chairman Hanson observed, it’s likely to be a “protracted” event.

And well it should. Much will be at stake. And we South Dakotans should be at that hearing in great numbers, to make sure that TransCanada is finally made to step aside from this odious pipeline project, once and for all.

(Photo credit: Chas Jewitt, detail.)

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