After people power stopped the Keystone XL pipeline two years ago, Trump is trying to bring back this disastrous fossil fuel project.

This pipeline, proposed by TransCanada, would carry some of the dirtiest oil from Alberta’s Tar Sands region in Canada, down through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, cutting through farms, Indigenous lands, and vital drinking water sources. Not only would it put the land and water at risk from a spill, it is incredibly harmful to the health of communities at the source of extraction and continuing digging up tar sands means game over for the climate.

I recently spent six days along the route of the pipeline, meeting with people who’d be directly impacted and various leaders — many of whom have been working to stop this project for several years.

It was an incredible visit where I became more familiar with the land, the people, the ways communities have been fighting the pipeline over the years, and how they’ll continue to fight moving forward.

Here’s the top three reflections I came away with from my visit:

1. Indigenous communities and tribes along the route are already leading the transition to renewable energy

From the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation about an hour outside of Rapid City to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in southern South Dakota, solar and wind energy is being generated everywhere. Indigenous-owned businesses are training workers, installing solar panels and solar heaters, and helping facilitate large projects such as as several panel project that’s powering the hospital on the Rosebud Reservation.


Red Cloud Renewable Center, Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo Credit: Juliana Clifford

Right now, several Indigenous tribes in South Dakota are looking at huge industrial size wind projects. And on a smaller scale, the streetlights in the Rosebud community are already being powered by solar, and as you drive through the plains on Pine Ridge, the vast, beautiful landscape is spotted with solar panels and solar heaters. Even the farmers in Nebraska along the Keystone route have solar powered farms. Red Cloud Renewable Center, Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo Credit: Juliana Clifford.

And it’s not just along the Keystone XL route that people are transitioning. In Cannonball, North Dakota, where thousands of people camped on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, they are planning to build renewable projects just a couple miles away from the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Even though these communities have endured hundreds of years of colonialism and extreme oppression from the US government, they are leading the transition to renewables. They have protected mother earth for generations and are serving as the example to the rest of the country of the future that we want to build towards.

2. Water is at the center of the Keystone XL fight just like it was for Dakota Access

Indigenous peoples and farmers are heavily connected to the land and water that sustains them. The biggest concern that folks talked to us about is the contamination of water that would happen when the pipeline leaks. Communities in Cheyenne River who are downstream from where the pipeline would cross the White River are concerned with the contamination of the river that provides their livelihood..The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is concerned about the risks the pipeline poses to the Ogallala Aquifer, and farmers in Nebraska are also concerned about the contamination of their groundwater, drinking water, and the Ogallala Aquifer. Everyone I met, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, understands the sacredness of the water and will go to great lengths to protect it.

3. A shared commitment to the water, land, climate, and each other is what will help us win

Many people we spoke to talked about the relationships they’ve made with the different constituents involved in this fight and how they are some of the most valuable and rewarding parts of this work. Many people spoke about the alliances between various groups and how this fight has helped empower, educate, and build connections that weren’t there previously.

Some of my colleagues and I have been working on the Keystone fight for the last 6 years, and this was the first time we had the opportunity to visit the route. While we’d met some of the organizers on the ground before at events in New York or DC, spending time together on the land, eating, drinking coffee, driving, visiting, and praying together creates a deeper connection that will allow us to work better together now for years after this fight is over.

We’ll be fighting the fossil fuel industry for many years to come, and building deep relationships and connections are some of the most important ways we can be sustaining ourselves, and building towards a future that protects us all.

We know it’s a privilege to be able to travel, and we are very grateful to have been supported to learn and grow from these communities up close.

Click through the slideshow below to see a photo essay of our journey.

Photo Essay: People and places on the route of proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

What’s Next for Keystone?

Thousands of people, and hundreds of communities across North America have been fighting this project for several years, and they won’t stop now.

Indigenous communities at the source of extraction in Alberta are continuing to fight tar sands expansion, and calling for all new mines to be stopped. They want a transition that supports the workers and the communities that have suffered the worst health consequences from the dirty extraction of tar sands.

Communities along the route, supported by national organizations are also resisting this project in all ways they can. There is an ongoing lawsuit against the Trump Administration to challenge whether its decision to approve the pipeline is legal.

In the meantime, the pipeline doesn’t have a legal route through Nebraska and the Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC) has to decide whether this pipeline is in the public interest of Nebraskans in order to receive their permits. You can submit a comment to the PSC here.

If Nebraska does approve the final permit, which we are hopeful they won’t do, Indigenous communities in South Dakota – including the ones we visited – and communities all along the pipeline route and at the source of extraction will be fighting like we’ve never fought before.

Renewable energy is the future we want to see. If they try to build this pipeline, we will be back in Nebraska, South Dakota, or wherever we need to be, to put our bodies on the line and defend the water, communities, and our vision for 100% renewables. 

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