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Native Sun News: Activists plan Keystone XL hunger strike

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

U.S. President Barack Obama promoted the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline extension at TransCanada Corp.'s Pipe Yard near Cushing, Okla., on March 22, while local officials ordered Native American protesters to confine demonstrations to a remote location. Photo Courtesy/The White House

CUSHING, OKLAHOMA –– As U.S. President Barack Obama voiced concessions to the Keystone XL tar sands, crude oil pipeline on March 22, American Indian and other activists protested in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Canada and Europe.

“Right now, a company called TransCanada has applied to build a new pipeline to speed more oil from Cushing to state-of-the-art refineries down on the Gulf Coast,” Obama said during a whistle-stop energy speech at a private industrial site near the Oklahoma oil-patch town of Cushing.

“I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done,” he said to a round of applause.

The administration has twice refused to grant Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada Corp. a presidential permit that would allow the Keystone XL pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canadian border.

The line would transport tar sands slurry from a giant minefield on the Athabasca River in the border province of Alberta through some 1,700 miles of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, in order to reach refineries in the tax-exempt foreign trade zone on the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama’s argument was not against the tar sands or pipeline, but rather against congressional efforts to shorten the administration’s period for consideration of the project’s “national interest.”

Republicans in Congress have twice failed to pass bills forcing the administration to accept the project without further adieu. Joined by congressional Democrats, Obama has so far succeeded in putting off the permit decision until after this year’s November presidential elections.

TransCanada Corp. informed the U.S. State Department on Feb. 27 that it would start building the pipeline from the southern end, since that requires no presidential border-crossing permission and since “the Cushing to U.S. Gulf Coast portion of the Keystone XL Project has its own independent value to the marketplace.”

Obama spoke from a podium in front of stacks of pipes at TransCanada’s Stillwater Pipe Yard near Cushing.

“We don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all (the oil) to where it needs to go – both to refineries, and then, eventually, all across the country and around the world,” he said.

Meanwhile, local authorities in Cushing told Native Americans to hold their planned protest event in a cage erected in a park miles from the presidential speech, activists said.

“The protestors were stunned that their community, so long mistreated, would be insulted in such an open manner instead of being given the same freedom of speech expected by all Americans simply for taking a stance consistent with their values,” the non-profit Indigenous Environmental Network said in a written statement.

“Tar sands is devastating First Nations communities in Canada already, and now they want to bring that environmental, health and social devastation to U.S. tribes,” said Indigenous Environmental Network tar sands pipeline organizer Marty Cobenais.

Obama’s speech stressed the administration’s commitment to domestic oil, noting that the pipeline is part of his “all-of-the-above” strategy, creating jobs in both fossil fuel and renewable energy fields.

“Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy,” he added, to another round of applause.

However, a major concern for Native Americans in Oklahoma, according to spokespersons gathered for the protest event, is that “Keystone XL and the Canadian tar sands mines that would supply it ignore impacts to indigenous communities and their sacred spaces.”

In a written statement, Cobenais added, “President Obama is an adopted member of the Crow Tribe, so his fast-tracking a project that will desecrate known sacred sites and artifacts is a real betrayal and disappointment for his Native relatives everywhere.”

The Oklahoma Archeological Survey has identified 88 archaeological sites and 34 historic structures threatened by Keystone XL.

TransCanada was asked to re-route around only a small portion of these, leaving 71 archaeological sites and 22 historic structures at risk, according to protesters. They said they asked for a list of these sites and to oversee operations that might threaten sacred burial grounds, “but neither request has been honored.”

“Natives in Canada live downstream from toxic tar sands mines,” said dissident Earl Hatley, “and they are experiencing spikes in colon, liver, blood and rare bile duct cancers, which the Canadian government and oil companies simply ignore. And now they want to pipe these tar sands through the heart of Indian country, bulldozing grave sites and ripping out our heritage.”

Addressing issues beyond the threat to cultural heritage, the activists brought up the pipeline’s environmental impacts. Nebraska state government rejected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval of the pipeline route until TransCanada Corp. agreed to re-route it to avoid the sensitive Sand Hills ecosystem overlying the crucial Ogallala Aquifer.

State officials’ concerns influenced the administration’s decision to delay the presidential permit, Obama reiterated in his Cushing speech, which coincided with U.N. World Water Day. Nebraskans are still dissatisfied because the proposed route change still crosses the water table providing the drinking water and irrigation for seven food-producing states.

“The Ogallala Aquifer is not the only source of water in the plains,” RoseMary Crawford, project manager of the nonprofit Center for Energy Matters, said in the Indigenous Environmental Network statement. “Tar sands pipelines have a terrible safety record and leaks are inevitable.”

TransCanada Corp. had at least 14 leaks during the first year of operations on its recently built Keystone I pipeline, which already pumps tar sands oil from Alberta to Cushing refineries on a route through eastern North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Four Sioux tribal governments failed in a federal lawsuit to prevent construction of that pipeline due to its alleged impact on cultural resources.

Obama advocated for the pipeline extension on grounds that “There’s a bottleneck right here because we can’t get enough of the oil to our refineries fast enough.”

Pumping the tar sands all the way to the Gulf Coast – where refineries are hungry for product – would improve the income of oil interests, according to the nonprofit Center for International Policy’s Americas Program analyst Curtis Moore.

If the Cushing distribution barrier were busted by the pipeline extension to the coast, TransCanada calculates, producers could get more for the barrel. At TransCanada’s conservative estimate of an increase to $3 per barrel, just one refinery, Koch Petroleum, which imports 400,000 barrels a day, would see a sales profit increase of $1.2 million a day, or $438 million a year, Moore notes.

Conversely, the bottleneck actually creates a petroleum glut in the Midwest that favors customers because it keeps gasoline and diesel prices in much of the country 20 cents lower than on the coasts and $7 lower than in other countries. Obama noted that “the price of oil will still be set by the global market” if the pipeline is completed.

Some 98 percent of economists recently polled by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business on the cause of high gas prices agreed that they are due to market factors rather than federal economic or energy policies.

Still, pipeline activists are bringing Obama’s energy policies to task in election politics.

“The people who voted for this president did so believing he would help us address the global environmental catastrophe that our pollution is creating. He said he would free us from ‘the tyranny of oil.’ Today that campaign promise is being trampled to boost the president’s poll numbers,” Crawford said.

“We can’t stop global warming with more fossil fuel pipelines,” she added.

Indigenous Environmental Network representative Ben Powless and Dene National Chief and the Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief of the Northwest Territories Bill Erasmus led a Canadian delegation to convince European government and political and trade leaders to eschew tar sands oil purchases on grounds that production negatively affects global climate.

“As indigenous peoples, we are pleased that Europe is taking a mature approach via the Fuel Quality Directive at what’s required in order to have a sustainable global economy related to fossil fuels,” Erasmus said in a written statement. “Canada is very myopic in its approach and politics related to its fossil fuel agenda, which is directly opposed to indigenous peoples’ solutions,” he said.

The delegation had meetings March 19-26 in Paris, London, Berlin and The Hague, Netherlands. The meetings were to “ensure that the voices of civil society and First Nations are heard,” the delegation’s statement said.

“Clear information will be presented regarding the First Nations and human rights implications of the reckless expansion of the tar sands and the federal government’s failure to regulate Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution,” it said.

Meanwhile, high-school students and staff of Bella Bella Community School in the Heiltsuk First Nation’s territory on Campbell Island in British Colombia invited others to join them in a four-day hunger strike beginning April 1 to oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline proposed by Enbridge Inc.

The pipeline would run from Alberta to Pacific ports to supply supertankers with tar sands oil for shipping along the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest, which they announced would be “jeopardizing the environment upon which we rely for sustenance.”

In a written statement, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe members announced their own Lakota Hunger Strike for Sacred Water Protection, set for April 1-3, in solidarity with the Bella Bella.

A portion of the statement read as follows: “The Lakota Hunger Strike recognizes the sacred water in the Boreal Forest of Alberta Canada (which provides 80 percent of the world’s fresh drinking water) The tar-sands oil is located under the Boreal Forest.”

“Mining corporations use and contaminate an enormous, irreplaceable amount of pure drinking water, creating the world’s greatest ecological manmade disaster in the extraction of tar-sands oil," the statement read.

The event starts with a rally at 11 a.m. in Eagle Butte. A caravan is scheduled to proceed from there to a campsite where a sacred fire is to burn through the end of the hunger strike.

(Talli Nauman is the Health & Environment Editor for Native Sun News. Contact her at

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