The Keystone XL Pipeline has flooded news headlines for more than a decade. It’s a major source of controversy between Native Americans, big government, and oil interests in the U.S. and Canada. Its construction drew concern among those who fight for a sustainable future, and sparked activism among Native-Americans and allies.
The presidency of Donald J. Trump was a big supporter of the infrastructure project, and sent in forces to deal with protestors when he allowed construction to continue in 2017 after the permit had been delayed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. However, when Joe Biden became the 46th POTUS in January 2021, one of his first executive actions was to put a stop to construction. However, we should not fall into the trap of seeing Biden as a “white savior”: this win is the product of years of Indigenous protests that gave politicians no other option but to hear them out.
So first things first, what on Earth is Keystone XL all about?
The Keystone pipeline is a massive oil distribution network that goes from the province of Alberta in Canada to various points in the United States (as far as Texas!). The Keystone XL segment would connect the sites of Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Nebraska. The pipeline would run through the states of Montana and North Dakota, which are home to Native-American populations, traditions and sacred sites.
When a big infrastructure project is planned there are often people who are affected, and almost always those are the most vulnerable. There are happy instances, however, in which at the end the powerless become powerful by making their voices heard.
And what about the risks?
There were some serious concerns among activists and journalists that the real impact of the Keystone XL pipeline was not objectively assessed. As far back as 2011, The New York Times argued that there were conflicts of interest in the review. In Nebraska, critics argue that there have been at least 21 oil spills in Keystone, which pose an incredible health and environmental risk.
So what does Biden’s cancelation of the project mean for Indigenous populations in the area?
Major political voices within the Democratic Party have been historically opposed to Keystone XL, among them Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The two main concerns were environmental impact and the defacing of lands and sites that are considered sacred by Native-Americans.
On both sides of the border, Indigenous groups opposed the construction because it represented cultural and health risks to their communities… air, water and soil pollution. Sexual violence against Indigenous women was also a concern. Peoples such as the Lakota had been protesting the project for a decade, which is why Biden rescinding the permit was, as the now POTUS famously says, a #BFD. Biden’s decision will also build momentum for Indigenous resistance against other projects that threaten their safety and way of life.
The struggle is far from over.