Black Snake Chronicles: KXL Returns and Wiindigo Economics



As the plagued Keystone Pipeline spills 200,000 gallons of oil near the Sisseton Dakota reservation, the Nebraska Public Service Commission made a convoluted approval of a permit. In the meantime, the Dakota, Lakota and allies stand strong.

“Nothing has changed at all in our defense of land, air and water of the Oceti Sakowin Lands,” Faith Spotted Eagle told hundreds gathered for the signing of the Treaty to Protect the Sacred on Nov. 20 in Lower Brule, S.D. “If anything, it has become more focused, stronger and more adamant after Standing Rock.”

Oyate Win Brushbreaker, a 97-year-old elder reminds those present, “Reaffirm the boundaries of that treaty. Keep out that black snake you have been talking about.”

The Gathering to Protect the Sacred was sponsored by the Braveheart Society of Women, Wiconi Un Tipi, Ihanktonwan Treaty Committee, and Dakota Rural Action, and brought together two hundred water protectors.

This is a story about Wiindigoo Economics, or Wasichu (white man) Economics, if you like. We can say that it begins in the US, where a fossil fuel economy rules, or we can say that it begins in Canada, where 90% of the value of the Canadian dollar, the looney, is based on tar sands. Now that’s a stupid idea. Simply stated, we have Canada with all the oil company allies, and the land locked province of Alberta, and no way to get all that to market. This is also a story about how that is unlikely to work out for Canada, because we are stopping them. We are killing the Wiindigoo.

The Keystone and the Spill

What the ..? The Keystone Pipeline is not fully operational yet and it can’t even operate safely. The mid-November South Dakota Keystone spill – well, the last five Keystone spills – were not supposed to happen. That’s what they all tell us, after all it’s new pipe and such. TransCanada’s June 2006 pipeline risk assessment found no reason for alarm: “…the estimated occurrence intervals for a spill of 50 barrels or less occurring anywhere along the entire pipeline system is once every 65 years,…. Applying these statistics to a 1-mile section, the chances of a larger spill (greater than 10,000 barrels) would be less than once every 67,000 years.”

So, to be clear, Keystone has now had at least a dozen spills. They are all going down the line in succession. One journalist asked if the pipeline was passing a kidney stone. In a 2011 analysis, University of Nebraska professor Dr. John Stansbury estimated there would be at least two major spills per year, some potentially releasing as much as 180,000 barrels. Told you so.

It appears pipeline spills and the public utilities commissions of Nebraska (giving a go ahead for the Keystone), South Dakota and Minnesota are in the thick of the confusion – Wiindigoo Economics. Pipeline spills are the new norm. In 2016, there were 220 “significant incidents”, or pipeline spills, in the US – with 3,032 since 2006. Those provide a stark reminder of the environmental hazards of an aging pipeline infrastructure carrying fossil fuels, and that new pipes have catastrophic leaks. The costs of these leaks since 2006 has amounted to $4.7 billion. (I’m not sure on the clean up costs.)

What about the “watchdogs”? Inspectors for leaks are few and far between, with unclear regulatory jurisdiction. The US now has 553 pipeline inspectors (208 federal inspectors and 345 state inspectors). They are responsible for nearly 5,000 miles of pipeline each. These inspectors work for the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). It is high risk, Pipeline Roulette.

Wiindigoo Economics and Pipelines

While Donald Trump is busy approving all these pipelines, another reality is forming – Water Protectors challenge pipeline viability, and so does oil economics.

A few months ago there were four big pipelines proposed to bring Canada’s tar sands out of Alberta. On October 5, the longest tar sands pipeline proposal – the $l5.7 billion Energy East – was scrapped by TransCanada. Canadian oil economists pointed to economics – the decline of tar sands production and prices – as a driving force for project cancellation. This was augmented by Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau’s more stringent review of pipeline projects, which included green house gas emissions and down-stream impacts. One down, three to go.

While TransCanada received approval in November for a pipeline, they do not have a route. The Nebraska Public Service Commission voted 3-2 to give the project the go ahead but rejected pipeline TransCanada’s preferred route. TransCanada must now submit an application for an alternative route or appeal the decision, a process that could take up to two years. That is catastrophic in itself for a pipeline company. One thing is for sure: the new route will face fresh opposition. That’s the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, and they defeated the pipeline last time.

And, as Wiindigoo Economics goes, tar sands divestment is climbing, electric cars are coming on line and Fox News reported in June, “…Keystone XL is facing a basic challenge. The oil producers and refiners the pipeline was originally meant to serve aren’t interested in it anymore.” In other words, the company has no customers for the pipeline, and a pipeline without customers is not going to be built.

At the Enbridge hearings in St. Paul in November, a Canadian official sat quietly in the audience, worried and watching. At the end of the day he approached one of our attorneys asking if the tribes were likely to sue and stop the pipeline. It turns out TransCanada had asked the Alberta government to buy some oil shipping space on a KXL, and the Wiindigoo Economics wizards of Alberta may be hedging their bets.

It’s an uncertain time. If I was South Dakota, I would be making sure that there was a great clean up of this catastrophic spill before anything else moves ahead, and before Trans Canada goes bankrupt. Indeed, the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) issued the Keystone permit in 2007 with 57 conditions, ranging from construction standards to environmental requirements. The Commission may revoke or suspend it if the company is found to have made misstatements in its application or does not comply with the conditions. “If it was knowingly operating in a fashion not allowed under the permit or if construction was done in a fashion that was not acceptable, that should cause the closure of the pipe for at least a period of time until those challenges are rectified,” said Gary Hanson, one of the commissioners.

In the meantime, the Dakota and their allies remain committed to protecting Mni Wiconi (water is life). “The coming battles are going to be new, not like the ones in the past, and will demand all our strength,” Lakota organizer Judith LeBlanc wrote in an article posted on “The traditional indigenous practice is that you must respond to adversity with courage, humility, compassion and love of community, as we always have. The NO KXL movement is being built from a spiritual starting point that’s rooted in the traditional Lakota, Dakota culture and origin stories, in the grassroots and in sovereign treaty rights …Native peoples have a legal, moral, spiritual and inherent right to be caretakers of the planet ..”

At the Gathering to Protect the Sacred, Arvol Looking Horse (19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe) told the crowd, “We have been here before. Time and time again we have faced this invasion in our camps and our communities. But we always prevail.”

Julian Brave Noisecat was there as well, “After the treaty was signed, we came together to dance in victory. As the drummers hit the honor beats, we raise defiant hands. Women clutch red scarves symbolizing scalps and emblematic of the victory our people and planet so desperately need right now.”

The path forward for Keystone XL remains full of perils. Landowners, tribes and opponents of the pipeline have time to organize an appeal, and more than 5,000 people have signed up to join Indigenous people in acts of civil disobedience when and if construction begins.