In one of his first acts as commander in chief, President Biden stopped construction of the $8 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline. In the first part of this series, “Pipe Dreams Lost,” the Washington Examiner investigates the monumental decision’s effect on the people and communities of South Dakota.
MIDLAND, South Dakota — On the day President Biden was inaugurated in Washington, D.C., Laurie Cox wept. They weren’t tears of joy.
News had spread that morning that the incoming president would be pulling the plug on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. For Cox, the owner of the two-story Stroppel Hotel in Midland, South Dakota, news of a shutdown also meant her business would take a major hit.
“I had a real gut-sinking feeling and was watching little snips of the news and Facebook to see what was going to happen after the inauguration,” she told the Washington Examiner.
A few hours later, when news broke that Biden had revoked the pipeline’s presidential permit, Cox’s fear came into focus.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I was in shock for three days.”
Over the months, Cox had become somewhat of a den mother to the pipeline workers (welders, carpenters, and union laborers) staying at her hotel. She made them food, ran errands, and even drove two hours to get them groceries while they were at work.
In a few months, they have become family.
So it was especially hard that two hours after Biden was sworn in, her “family” was about to be ripped apart.
The pipeline workers she affectionately called “her guys” returned to the hotel. Their faces were forlorn, and they had already started wondering where they’d get their next paycheck.
“They said their bosses sat them down and said, ‘The area is locked up, and we’ve all got to go home,'” she recalled. “I tried to choke back my tears because they were still packing up, and their families still had to be told, and the last thing they needed was an innkeeper sitting here crying on them.”
Similar scenes played out across the country as newly unemployed workers and communities tied to the Keystone XL pipeline project felt the real-life consequences of Biden’s decision.
“Come down here. See the destruction you caused. See the pain of job loss. You took our chance to have a decent life with a stroke of the pen,” Gaylord Lincoln, a South Dakota semiretired mechanic, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s all bulls— in Washington. They are playing with our lives.”
Some South Dakotans told the Washington Examiner they felt forgotten — their voices drowned out by a sea of protesters and environmentalists who viewed the pipeline as a political and health hazard. Others said they felt used, like pawns in a decade-old tug of war between Washington power players hellbent on reversing everything the previous administration had done.
The pipeline was first proposed in 2008. Since then, it’s become a cautionary tale of what happens when economic development and climate change face off. The Obama administration rejected the pipeline on environmental grounds. In 2017, then-President Donald Trump revived it. Last year, construction on the cross-border collaboration began, following a $1.1 billion cash infusion by the government of Alberta to jump-start the project. Less than 12 months later, the project was once again stopped in its tracks.
If all had gone as planned, the 1,700-mile pipeline would have carried 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
In South Dakota, the pipeline would have run diagonally across nine counties in the state, from the northwestern corner to Tripp County in south-central South Dakota.
Despite claims it is on sacred ground, the proposed pipeline would not run directly through any Native American reservations in the state but would have bordered the Cheyenne River Reservations to the south and Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations to the north.
The pipeline was supposed to bring economic prosperity to Harding, Butte, Perkins, Meade, Pennington, Haakon, Jones, Lyman, and Tripp counties. But instead of hope, it brought heartache and drove some families to the brink of financial ruin.
For Trudy Flesner, the whole situation has played out like a bad case of deja vu.
Flesner, the owner of Truck Stop 34 in Milesville, a small city of 316 people located about 70 miles west of Pierre, first got involved with the pipeline more than a decade ago. TC Energy, then-called TransCanada Corp., approached her in December 2008.
“They liked our location, said it would be close to a pump station, and asked if we would work with them,” she said. Flesner needed the extra income and said yes immediately. She began getting her truck stop and restaurant ready to accommodate an influx of pipeline workers. A few months later, the Obama administration halted the pipeline and basically dashed Flesner’s dreams.
When Trump was elected, Flesner said she had hope of an economic recovery.
This time, she was positive things would work out.
Flesner and her husband made updates to TS-34 and invested heavily at the Kampgrounds of America with hopes that some of the pipeline workers wouldn’t want to sleep at the man camps and would opt to sleep at KOA.
But just like last time, one signature turned her dream into a nightmare.
Frustration would be the nicest way to describe how Flesner felt. It had been a rough 2020 for her. She had been sidelined last year after contracting the coronavirus and has heart issues. She was still upbeat because the pipeline’s fate still looked pretty good.
That feeling didn’t last very long.
Flesner blames an anti-Trump movement for the cancellation of the XL pipeline and told the Washington Examiner she believes Biden killed the project as political payback.
“Anything Trump has done, [Biden] wants to undo,” she said. “They are totally turning the tables on us.”
Flesner fears the deepening beltway divide in Washington will continue to take a toll on South Dakotans and said “clueless” politicians are playing with people’s lives.
“I do not want to be the ‘Hatfields and the McCoys,’ and I don’t want us to be like the North and the South. … You’re a Republican, and you’re a Democrat, so we’re going to war against you. I don’t want that,” she said. “The way it is now, if you’re a Republican, they’re going to cut your head off.”
Keystone XL President Richard Prior said more than 1,000 mostly unionized jobs would be eliminated in the coming weeks.
The head of North America’s Building Trades Unions, which had endorsed Biden in October, called Biden’s decision “deeply disappointing.”
Laborers’ International Union of North America blamed Biden in a tweet for killing “thousands of good-paying #UNION jobs!”
“Sadly, the Biden Administration has now put thousands of union workers out of work,” lamented the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters.
In all, seven pump stations were on track to be built in five South Dakota counties that would create a lot of jobs. Small business owners like Cox were also betting on a pipeline boon.
“We paid more [for the hotel] than we probably should have for it, with the idea that the pipe liners and construction workers would help out [with the costs] for about a year or so,” she said, adding that it would be a perfect fit for “workers that were needing long-term temporary housing.”
She and her husband purchased the property on Sept. 24, 2020. Four months later, their dreams came to a screeching halt.
“How could somebody, with a swipe of a pen, destroy not only thousands of jobs but thousands of businesses?”
A few miles down the road in Philip, a city sandwiched between Rapid City and Pierre that boasts a population of 779, the effects of the pipeline shutdown are likely to hit mom-and-pop operations especially hard.
The disconnect between Washington politicians and rural South Dakotans is not lost on Philip Mayor Michael Vetter.
“The [pipeline] did provide a nice boost to many small businesses. The same small businesses that every politician claims to support,” the part-time mayor told the Washington Examiner.
But despite all the setbacks, there are still a lot of people in South Dakota holding out hope that either Biden changes his mind or that the next administration will look favorably on the unfinished project.
“I’m quite certain this project is on pause, not stop,” Vetter said. “It has dragged out for several years. Each time beginning and stopping on the whims of individual presidents or judges. And each time, thousands of American jobs hang in the balance. A decision of finality is needed, one way or the other.”
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