PHILIP, S.D. — A worried and frustrated group of rural South Dakotans packed an ambulance garage in the western town of Philip, S.D., on Monday, Feb. 8, to tell three Republican congressmen what the loss of the Keystone XL pipeline — which was expected to cross just outside town until its authorization permit was rescinded last month by President Joe Biden — will mean to their businesses and community.
“Philip is a lot different than a lot of other small towns,” said Jerry Kroetch, of Scotchman Industries. "We don’t rely on the interstate. We don’t rely on tourism. But we’re a strong, strong-knit community that’s hard to find, and if we don’t get help from the outside, we’re just going to get smaller and smaller.”
When Biden ended the Canadian-owned Keystone XL pipeline's bid to cross into U.S. territory on his first day in office, he received adulation from environmental and tribal advocates alike, who'd pressured the Democratic administration into promising bold action on climate change.
But on Monday, over a dozen business owners from this remote county seat in western South Dakota (Philip has a population of 852) and surrounding communities shared Kroetch’s grievance: That the demise of a pipeline that drew controversy in Washington, D.C., meant, pragmatically, the loss of local workers from a nearby man-camp, shoppers at the grocery store, and anticipated tax revenue that could've fed public school coffers.
"This was an opportunity to grow our community," said Marion Matt, a councilman in Philip. "And now we're going to be at a loss."
South Dakota’s lone congressman, Rep. Dusty Johnson, who organized the roundtable that was also attended by Washington State Rep. Dan Newhouse, chairman of the congressional “Western” caucus, and North Dakota’s Rep. Kelly Armstrong, compared Biden’s executive order to rezoning a “corner lot to commercial” late in the game.
“Somebody’s bought the new material, they’ve knocked down residential house, they’ve started construction on the convenience store, they bought the gas pumps, and then a new mayor comes in and says, ‘I don’t know the facts have changed. I don’t know the law has changed, but I’m going to revoke that zoning change,’” Johnson said. “We don’t do that in America.”
One by one on Monday, the microphone was passed around the community room to hear stories from locals: The hotel and bar owner. The couple running the gas station and Subway. A farmer, Tyrone Moos, who said the pipeline workers who’d worked out of the man-camp a mile north of town were ”good guys.”
The owner of a fitness studio who’d gained dozens of gym memberships said one worker’s freshman daughter had found “stability” in Philip and even joined the drama club after changing schools over 20 times.
“They (a family who moved to Philip for a pipeline job) went and bought furniture — they usually sleep on mattresses,” said Tricia Burns, owner of Ignite Wellness Studio. “They had a Christmas tree for the first time in years, and they get the call, and they’re done. She said, ‘We can’t even give you notice.’”
Burns said the family stayed long enough for the daughter to compete in a state theater competition but has now made it to Iowa. They’re headed to Florida, with no job yet secured.
The Keystone XL project has long been debated, with its job-creation projections fluctuating. Last month, TC Energy, the Canadian-based owner, said shuttering the pipeline extension, meant to carry crude to a transfer station in Nebraska and crossing Montana and South Dakota, had cost 1,000 people their jobs. In 2017, a State Department report issued when former President Trump approved Keystone XL's permit found that the pipeline would create only 35 permanent jobs.
Still, the ripple effects of the economic injection from TC Energy — which has yet to fight the Biden administration's action in court — in undeniable in places such as Philip and nearby Midland, S.D., where the Stroppel Inn's owner says she paid more money for the property with the expected influx of reservations from pipeline workers.
On Monday, Jeff Birkeland, of West Central Electric Cooperative, said the off-lining of two pumping stations in Haakon and adjacent Jones County would be the loss of $800,000 a year for each county’s local school district in tax revenue. Brandon West, owner of 73 Bar and Motel West, said after years of skittishness about developing in Philip he’d hired a local plumber and electrician to outfit properties he’d purchased with the hope of housing new residents to town.
“I just hope that somebody hears our voices out here,” said Rita O’Connell, who owns a construction company with her husband and said they’d spent tens of thousands of dollars on a new dump truck related to the pipeline build.
The conversation of the mostly maskless participants (only Johnson wore his mask when not speaking) held amid a pandemic signaled one side of the pipeline battles long waged on the grasslands of the Dakotas. Those battles have reignited since Biden followed through on a campaign promise by pulling the federal permit allowing for the pipeline’s construction in U.S. land.
Leadership at Dakota Rural Action, a grassroots advocacy network that represents a wide range of residents, has welcomed Biden's move. Tribal governments in South Dakota have also been suing in federal court for years to stop the pipeline's expansion, which would cross ancestral lands and, leaders say, threaten water supply, and cheered the president's action.
On Monday, Joye Braun, a resident of Eagle Butte, S.D., and enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told Forum News Service she watched Monday’s news conference and felt "compelled" by many of the Philip business owner's plights.
But she said her Main Street USA had a completely different reaction to Biden's rescission to end the Keystone XL pipeline, which was planned to cross the nearby Cheyenne River.
“Actually, we were really happy,” Braun said, acknowledging she opposed pipeline, given the absence of what she called “meaningful” consultation. She also said the pipeline threatened her community with “environmental catastrophe.”
“(TC Energy) says it would take two hours to repair (a pipeline spill),” Braun said. “But it would only take 32 minutes to reach our brand new water intake."
In 2017, a spill from the Keystone pipeline in northeastern South Dakota saw the release of over 275,000 gallons of oil into agricultural land.
Faith Spotted Eagle, an indigenous activist from Lake Andes, S.D., and member of the Yankton Sioux Reservation, also told FNS on Monday that the "ghost pipeline" should never be built.
"This is all about money," said Spotted Eagle, who called it "unethical" to pit rural persons against one another. "They (tribal citizens opposed to the pipeline) did this because our land, water, animals, and children were facing danger."
She called on the state government, which has announced a surplus of $19 million, to make payments to "benefit Philip."