Don't Believe the Lies: The Keystone Pipeline Will Only Create 35 Permanent Jobs

For those who still insist fossil fuels are the future, the Trump administration represents a new day for some old ideas. In an early sign of things to come, the president showed his faith in big oil when he signed documents Tuesday pressuring federal agencies to support construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Each of these projects faced enormous protests and was put on hold by the Obama administration because of legitimate environmental and due process concerns.

Congressional Republicans frequently howled at far less heavy-handed exercises of executive power under the previous administration. Today, they applaud Trump’s move on the mistaken premise that these pipelines are good investments. Not only will these projects not create long-lasting jobs – as CNBC, not exactly an anti-corporate mouthpiece, has noted: “Pipelines do not require much labor to operate in the long term” – they will further delay the inevitable transition to clean, renewable energy our economy needs and the American people demand

Beyond risking our energy economy on what we now call “alternative facts,” these pipelines pose specific risks to Indian Country – and President Trump ignores those risks at his own political peril. Keystone XL would run on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast multi-state underground reservoir that provides water to millions of Americans, including many Native American tribes, across the midwest. Part of the Dakota Access pipeline would run under Lake Oahe, a major water source for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota. Consultation with Native American tribes in the construction of both pipelines has been feeble.

What I’ve heard in conversations with Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II and other leaders is that Indian Country is tired of being treated as an afterthought or a nuisance in federal decision-making. Unfortunately, in addition to being environmentally destructive and economically shortsighted, Trump’s executive orders represent the potential death of tribal sovereignty when it was just beginning to reassert itself at the close of the Obama years.

The Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes that will suffer the consequences should a pipeline rupture – as one did in December just 150 miles from the Standing Rock reservation, spilling 176,000 gallons of crude oil – are asking nothing more than to be treated fairly and for federal agencies to follow our environmental planning laws. Instead, they were subjected to an excessive law enforcement crackdown in North Dakota in late October. 

Water hoses and pepper spray were turned on civilians in freezing temperatures. Police in riot gear fired beanbag rounds into crowds. These civil rights abuses contributed to the decision by Obama officials to halt Dakota Access construction, until a complete environmental and legal review could be conducted.

This review represented the greatest hope in years for a return to the principle that Native American tribes must be consulted, not merely notified, before major federal actions affecting them are undertaken. That principle is now being scrapped by the Trump administration in the name of temporary job creation. 

This is self-defeating. Not only will these pipelines not create the jobs President Trump needs to fulfill his extravagant promises – the state department formally estimated that Keystone XL, which also faced considerable Native American objections, will create only 35 permanent positions – they will harm his relationships with Indian Country and lead to more of the widespread protests he clearly despises.

These actions are part and parcel of a larger delusion. We simply cannot hope to keep building oil pipelines, opening dirty factories and digging coal mines in perpetuity. The standard playbook of 30 or 40 years ago – ignore environmental concerns, do favors for big polluting industries, and expect the economy to boom – is a proven bust. 

The George W Bush years offered a direct, real-world refutation of the idea that we can pollute our way to prosperity. Indeed, the Obama job market far outpaced the Bush years despite Republican alarms about environmental regulations.

If President Trump and his allies choose to ignore those lessons, they risk an even bigger backlash from Indian Country and elsewhere – and they will have no one but themselves to blame.

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