Native communities confront oil development across Turtle Island: April 2018 update

Across North America, Native communities are leading the battle against increasing oil development, fighting proposed new production, pipelines, and crude-by-rail routes. There is hardly a new proposal without indigenous opposition. Here is an update from the front lines.

oil11mapNote: Many of these battles concern pipeline proposals to move diluted bitumen (aka


Canadian tar sands production continues to increase.

“dilbit”) from Canadian tar sands to markets in the US or to coastal ports where it can be exported to Asia. Presently, 99% of Canada’s exports are to the US. The vast majority of that is tar sands oil moving from Alberta to the Midwest via pipelines and rail. Canada’s goal is to move tar sands oil to China. Without these pipelines, Canadian producers have been forced to slow production. This is a very heavy oil, extracted from very costly and destructive open pits, and has among the highest carbon footprints of any oil. This makes it first on the list of oil that should stay in the ground.


Map of various pipelines coming from Canada. Domestic US pipelines in gray.


Proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (STATUS: pipeline rejected)

  • Proposed in the 2000s, the pipeline would have carried tar sands dilbit from Alberta to a marine terminal on the west coast of British Columbia, for export to Asia.
  • Amid tremendous opposition, especially from 130 different First Nations, the project was effectively killed by Prime Minister Trudeau in 2015.

Proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (STATUS: in court)

  • First built in 1953 and then augmented in 2008, the current Trans Mountain Pipeline carries 300 Mbpd (thousand barrels per day) of tar sands dilbit from Alberta to near Vancouver, British Columbia, primarily for local use.
  • The proposed expansion would add a second pipeline alongside the first one, dramatically increasing capacity to 890 Mbpd, primarily for export to Asia.
  • Many First Nations continue to engage in protests against the pipeline.
  • The proposal is currently being challenged in court by the Tsleil-Waututh, Suquamish, Kwantlen, and Coldwater First Nations, as well as the governments of British Columbia and local cities. The pipeline is supported by the federal government under Prime Minister Trudeau.

Swinomish crude-by-rail crossing (STATUS: in court)

  • In 2015, upon learning that many 100-car unit trains of Bakken crude were passing thru their reservation just a few hundred yards from their casino and hotel, the Swinomish field a lawsuit against BNSF to stop them.


    Rail lines in close proximity to Swinomish casino and hotel.

  • In 2017, the nearby Tesoro refinery received an average of 64 Mbpd by rail, about one 100-tank car train per day, passing thru the reservation. A prior agreement between BNSF and the Swinomish limited dangerous cargo to just one train of 25 cars daily.
  • As of June 2017, the case is proceeding – a judge ruled that BNSF has violated the agreement—but so are the trains.

Bears Ears proposed oil development (STATUS: in court)

  • Bears Ears National Monument was created in 2016 by President Obama. In 2017, Trump reduced the size of the monument by 85% specifically to exclude potential gas and oil production.
  • This reduction in the monument is currently being challenged thru several lawsuits, including one filed by the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Zuni Tribe.

Chaco Canyon proposed oil development (STATUS: pipeline cancelled; new oil leases deferred)

Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline (STATUS: in court)

  • The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would be Phase 4 of the Keystone Pipeline network. The first three phases, built by TransCanada between 2010 and 2014, deliver 590 Mbpd of Canadian tar sands dilbit to refineries in Illinois or storage facilities in Cushing, Oklahoma, and 700 Mbpd from Cushing to the Texas Gulf Coast.
  • Phase 4, the Keystone XL, would duplicate Phase I, from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. It would carry 500 Mbpd of tar sands dilbit and would include and “on ramp” in Montana where Bakken oil could be added to it.
  • First Nations in Canada and several Native communities in the US have been involved in multiple protests against the pipeline. All of the various proposed routes cut through the Great Sioux Nation as defined in the Treaty of 1868, weaving between the Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge, Lower Brule, and Rosebud Indian Reservations.


    Proposed Keystone XL route in South Dakota between various reservations.

  • The proposal was blocked by Obama in 2015, but revived by Trump in 2017.
  • In November, 2017, the Nebraska Public Services Commission became the final authority to grant approval for the pipeline. However, they only approved an alternate route, which now requires TransCanada to do additional years of new review and face new legal challenges.
  • The current approval of the pipeline by the State Department is also being challenged in court, based on outdated environmental documents. A hearing is scheduled in May.
  • The soonest construction is likely to begin is 2019, if ever.

Dakota Access Pipeline (STATUS: in court)

  • In the aftermath of the conflict at Standing Rock in late 2016 and the Army Corps’ unprecedented withdrawal of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process due to Trump’s executive order, the question of the pipeline went to the courts. The pipeline was completed and began delivering Bakken oil in late spring 2017. Just weeks later, on June 14, the judge ordered the Army Corps to address numerous deficiencies in the woefully deficient Environmental Assessment (EA), the main permitting document. He also allowed the pipeline to continue running while the Army Corps revised the document.oil8DAPL
  • See my analysis of the judge’s June 2017 ruling on why the tribes’ victory here may be short-lived. Also see my analysis of all the laws broken by Energy Transfer Partners in the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • Now we wait for the Army Corp to complete its revisions of the EA, due in April 2018. At the same time, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe continues to ask for meaningful consultation, which it has been demanding since 2014 but has never happened. They are also demanding adequate spill preparedness measures at Lake Oahe.

Red Lake Enbridge Pipelines crossing (STATUS: pipelines must be removed)

  • Enbridge Lines 1 thru 4, carrying a total of 2,234 Mbpd of light synthetic tar sands oil, dilbit, and heavy tar sands oil, cross the Red Lake Indian Reservation. The pipelines were built between 1950 and 2002, without the permission of the tribe.
  • Amid protests by citizens of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, in 2016 the tribal council reached a deal with Enbridge, swapping the 24 acres where the pipelines are in exchange for $18.5 million to be spent on 164 acres of adjacent land.
  • On March 13, 2018, in a principled move that echoes Pine Ridge’s “the Black Hills are not for sale”, the Red Lake Tribal Council voted unanimously to rescind the deal and order Enbridge to remove the pipelines from its lands.

Proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline (STATUS: construction halted by judge; in court)

  • Proposed in 2015, the Energy Transfer Partners pipeline would run across the bottomlands of Louisiana, including the Atchafalaya Basin, to connect refineries in Texas and Louisiana.
  • Protests, primarily by local residents and several local tribes, began in 2017. Energy Transfer Partners has attempted to hire the controversial private mercenary firm, Tiger Swan, that was used at Standing Rock, though the state of Louisiana has so far denied them a permit to work in the state.
  • The Army Corps approved the project, with just a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) on an EA, on December 15, 2017. (Note: that’s completely absurd for a 160-mile long pipeline running through wilderness and waterways.) The company immediately began cutting a path through the swamp.


    Just the clearing of trees in the pipeline corridor has caused ecological harm. Large trees have been removed and turned to mulch. The mulch has been placed in the swamp waterways, creating hypoxic conditions leading to the death of fish, crawfish, and other aquatic organisms.

  • Local crawfish producers and several environmental groups filed suit on January 11, 2018. On February 3, the judge granted a preliminary injunction and ordered the pipeline construction halted pending trial.

Proposed Energy East Pipeline (STATUS: cancelled)

  • Yet another pipeline to move tar sands dilbit to the coast for export, this pipeline was proposed in 2013. At just under 3,000 miles, it would have been the would have been the longest pipeline in North America, transporting 1,100 Mbpd from Alberta east to refineries in Quebec and to an export terminal in New Brunswick.oil10East
  • The pipeline route crossed lands of 155 different First Nations, nearly all of whom opposed it for its threat of oil spills. Many organizations also opposed it due to its enormous carbon footprint.
  • On October 5, 2017, TransCanada announced it was cancelling the pipeline for economic reasons.


    Protest in Quebec against the Energy East Pipeline.

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