Protesters demand Tester, Daines drop support for Keystone XL pipeline

After another oil leak, a small but determined group of young Missoulians want their congressional delegation to stop supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.

To make their point on Tuesday, about 15 marched at noon from Caras Park to Sen. Jon Tester’s office, carrying signs opposing the Keystone XL and a letter expressing their disappointment in Tester’s past support for the pipeline and asking him to reverse course.

“We demand he stop supporting the pipeline and sign the No-Fossil-fuel-money pledge,” said Sunrise Movement Missoula member Matthew Giacone. “Tester addresses climate change and speaks of these issues, but his actions show differently. These actions affect Montanans every day. We hope he will take our voices seriously and take action.”

The Sunrise Movement asks politicians nationwide to pledge to refuse contributions of more than $200 from fossil fuel industry corporations or PACs.

Tester regional director Deborah Frandsen met the protesters and invited them into the office, where Giacone read their letter aloud. Giacone and others requested that Tester respond with a personal letter or email either saying he will no longer support the pipeline or explaining why he feels it necessary to do so.

“We’re tired of automated letters. We want an actual response from our senator,” said one protester. “The only time we got a real response was when we talked to him at the town hall, when he said he still supports the Keystone XL.”

After all the protesters signed the letter, Frandsen said she’d get it to the senator. She added that Tester tries to get to all parts of the state for his town halls, but he just held one in Missoula in June so he is unlikely to come back for a while.

Later, in a statement, Tester said he supports the Keystone XL with qualifications while pushing the nation to invest in clean energy.

“I’ve always said the Keystone pipeline should adhere to the highest safety standards, respect tribal sovereignty, and preserve private property rights before it can get the green light. I appreciate folks making their voices heard, and my door is always open,” Tester said.

Next, the protesters walked the two blocks to Sen. Steve Daines office, only to find the office dark and the door locked. Daines’ staff later said the senator supports the pipeline.

“The senator has long been supportive of moving forward with construction for the Keystone XL as it’s critical for Montana jobs and our American energy independence,” said Julia Doyle. “The senator believes it’s long overdue that this project is in motion.”

Giacone said the protesters chose to focus on Tester, as they feel the state’s Republican delegation can’t be swayed on the issue.

“As time progresses, we’re chirping at Republicans a little more. We came here just to get the word out. But with the two Republicans (in the delegation), it’s somewhat of a lost cause,” Giacone said. “Tester is a great person to spend our time and energy on, because he is that Democratic face of Montana. But we need true action.”

The protest comes on the heels of an unexplained leak two weeks ago in the North Dakota portion of the existing Keystone pipeline, which is not the same as the proposed Keystone XL. More than 383,000 gallons were released fouling a half-acre of wetland before TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, shut the pipeline down.

Now, TC Energy is pumping again at reduced pressure before pipeline repairs have been done. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has provided no comment as to why this is being allowed.

Oil spills along the Keystone system have happened more than TransCanada predicted in its environmental assessments, according to a 2017 analysis by Reuters.

That’s what some people fear because the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would traverse new territory in eastern Montana, western South Dakota and Nebraska to connect with the original pipeline at Steele City, Neb. The $8-billion pipeline provides a more direct route to make pumping easier and would provide greater capability to carry tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through the Midwest to Texas refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

Tar sands oil is called dirty because the product, bitumen, is not like conventional oil; it’s strip-mined and is so sticky and thick that it can’t be pumped through a pipeline without extensive processing. This has stripped parts of Alberta of its boreal forest and contaminated rivers. Because it’s so dense, spills are far more difficult to clean up.

For that reason, the Keystone XL poses a risk to the vast Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. A spill could devastate a water source that millions depend on.

That’s what worries Mica Cantor, who joined Tuesday’s protest and signed the letter to Tester. Cantor, 11, is still too young to vote but not too young to take part in other parts of democracy.

“(The pipeline) goes through over 1,000 waterways and will pollute lots of communities’ drinking water. And it will pollute the environment,” Cantor said.

Not only that, but recent studies have shown that overuse and climate change is depleting the aquifer. So Nebraskans worry about polluting what remains.

The Keystone XL pipeline has been fought over in Congress and the courts since it was proposed in 2008.

Most recently, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June lifted an injunction on pipeline construction after President Donald Trump issued a new pipeline permit to TC Energy. The company said June was too late to begin construction this year. So environmentalists are trying to head off construction before it begins in 2020.

Nebraska residents have been some of the most outspoken opponents, but their objections were overruled by their state Supreme Court in August.

The students of Sunrise Movement, which helped organize the nationwide school climate strike on Sept. 22, oppose the pipeline because it carries thousands of gallons of fossil fuel a day to be exported to other countries. That translates to the addition of tons more greenhouse gases and less chance to avert climate disaster as the atmosphere warms.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.