Montana Public Radio

Work Starts In Montana On Disputed Canada-US Oil Pipeline

Apr 6, 2020

Construction on the long-stalled Keystone XL Pipeline started Monday, according to a Canadian company. Work on the U.S.-Canadian border kicked off despite calls from tribal leaders and environmentalists to delay the $8 billion project amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A TC Energy spokesperson said work began over the weekend in a remote area with sprawling cattle ranches and wheat fields. About 100 workers are currently involved, but the company expects that number to swell into the thousands in coming months.

The 1,200 mile pipeline was proposed in 2008 and would carry up to 830,000 barrels of crude daily for transfer to refineries and export terminals on the Gulf of Mexico. It's been tied up for years in legal battles, and several court challenges are still pending, including one that's due before a judge next week.

Last week’s surprise announcement on starting construction came after the provincial government in Alberta invested $1.1 billion to jump start work. A TC Energy spokesperson said Montana's Department of Environmental Quality issued the final state permits Friday.

Leaders of American Indian tribes, as well as some rural residents in communities along the pipeline route, worry workers could spread the novel coronavirus. As many as 11 construction camps, some housing up to 1,000 people, were initially planned for the project, although TC Energy said those are under review because of the pandemic.

The company added that it plans to check everyone entering work sites for fever and ensure workers practice social distancing. For most people, COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses like pneumonia and lead to death.

Back in January, pipeline opponents asked U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris to block any work while the legal challenges are pending. They said clearing and tree felling along the route would destroy bird and wildlife habitat. Native American tribes along the pipeline route have said the pipeline could break and spill oil into waterways such as the Missouri River.

A hearing on the request to block work is scheduled for April in Great Falls.

Keystone XL was rejected twice under former President Barack Obama because of concerns it would worsen climate change. President Donald Trump revived the project, later pushing approval through after Judge Morris issued an order to block construction in 2018.

In December, Judge Morris denied an initial request to block construction because at the time, TC Energy said no work was immediately planned. Stephan Volker, an attorney for the environmental groups asking the judge to again intervene, said the company's decision to “jump the gun" before next week's hearing was an insult to the judge.

“We are confident the court will not be bullied, and will overturn President Trump’s second approval, just as he overturned President Trump’s first approval, as unlawful," Volker said.