The road west to the Sibson farm in Miner County. Look closely, and just below the horizon, you might see a pale green line...
...pipeline. 80-foot sections of oil pipeline, stretching a thousand miles in either direction, right through the heart of the Sibsons' land.Mike and Sue Sibson live in western Miner County. They refer to their land, now sliced in half by the Keystone Pipeline, as their "homestead" of 30-some years.
"Homestead" is a powerful word. It recalls where our people came from: traveling across wild land, picking one spot out of a million possibilities, staking survival—financial and physical—on their best guess that this patch of land might produce a good crop. Our ancestors came in response to a simple promise from the government: build a house, grow crops, tough it out, and the land is yours.
The Sibsons thought the land they worked for was theirs. They chose a spot twelve miles out of town, built a home, paid the bills with corn, wheat, and cattle. By sweat and wits, they earned their farm. They figured it was theirs, plain and simple...
...until last year, when a foreign corporation said, "No, actually, we can claim your land anytime we want," and the government to which the Sibsons pay their taxes replied, "Yup, sure can."
"I'm one of the only guys who can say he had a 2000-mile pipeline shoved up his ass," says Mike Sibson.
The Sibsons were one of several South Dakota families to sign on to a lawsuit last year trying to prevent TransCanada from using eminent domain to seize easements from landowners along the proposed Keystone pipeline route. The landowners struggled just to find a lawyer willing to take the case; Sioux Falls lawyer and legislator Scott Heidepriem signed on to fight the losing battle. The Sibsons and other litigants ultimately cut their losses and settled on confidential terms. It was as good a deal as they could probably get, but, as Sibson says, this taking of his land was still against his will.
Mike and his wife Sue were willing to give me a tour of the work site across their land. The Sibson home happens to be where the Keystone pipeline comes closest to my home, about 25 crow-flying miles east in Lake County.
Work crews started moving earth on the Sibson farm a few weeks ago. Crews skimmed off the topsoil first, heaping it in a miles-long berm on the west side of TransCanada's 150-foot construction easement. That digging cost the Sibsons a strip of wheat, though Mike doesn't blame TransCanada on that count: he knew at planting time he was gambling that the wheat would mature before the workers arrived. This cool summer didn't help the wheat beat the construction foreman's clock.
The crews have taken some measures to protect the land and water along the pipeline route. Wetland boundaries are marked with small signs; the pipeline runs through one such sometimes boggy area on the Sibsons' land. Crews lay big timbers to make plank roads through the wetlands for the big machines to drive on. That's good for the land, preventing the trucks and such from tearing deep ruts into the wet ground. It's also good for the project schedule, since no one wants to spend all day towing equipment out of the mud.
The wetlands markers also prohibit refueling of vehicles and machinery; if any diesel or other fuel is going to be spilt—and you're going to spill a little when you're operating machinery—it at least won't splash straight into the marshes and sloughs along the pipeline route.
Then comes the pipeline: 80-foot sections of Indian steel, laid out in a line all across South Dakota as it has been or will be across six other states and three provinces. As we toured the construction zone on the Sibsons' land, the welding units were just making their way south from Pump Station 22, one of four stations in South Dakota that will keep TransCanada's oil flowing at pressures up to 1,440 psi. As the welders approach, the insides of each section are scoured. Then workers grind the ends of each section to make sure the weld can take, joining these massive sections. The backhoes will follow to dig the trench for the pipeline. The welding machines then trundle forward in big shacks around the pipe to shelter the sections during joining.
Once the pipeline is in, the earth movers return to dig the trench. The pipeline is then rolled intact into its final resting place. Before the trench is filled, though, installers take one more precaution to protect the wetlands. If the pipeline were simply buried and left empty, awaiting completion of the entire line and the pumping of oil, that hollow steel might float back up to the surface in the mushy areas. To keep the pipeline down in the wetlands, crews will ease big concrete weights down on top of the pipeline before restoring the earth. Mike referred to them as "saddles," although that term seems to get things backwards: rather than the pipeline "riding" the saddles, these saddles ride the pipeline.
These saddles come with saddle blankets. The round inside of each concrete block is lined with a rough, fibrous layer of insulation, an inch thick, maybe more. That blanket keeps the concrete from damaging the pipeline when the saddles are lowered atop the pipeline. That blanket also prevents damage if the pipeline or the saddles shift at all, whether from the fluid dynamics of the high-pressure oil within or the shifting land (freezing, thawing, future tractor action) without.
The pipeline is an impressive engineering feat. Mike says he's heard the Keystone pipeline may be the biggest single construction project in the world right now. The total price tag for this line is $5.2 billion; add in the proposed Keystone XL extension and the total reaches $12 billion US. That's a lot of money moving a lot of earth, steel, and eventually oil. From a pure engineering perspective—and from the kid-at-heart-seeing-big-machines perspective—watching the pipeline go in is fascinating, like watching the Pyramids being built.
Mike Sibson is a bigger aficionado of heavy equipment and good engineering than I am, but understandably, he has trouble looking on the project with much enthusiasm. As interesting as the big machines and the construction process might be, they're still doing something to his land that he didn't ask for. That gash in the earth and those big green pipes are a visual reminder, a more vivid proof than any abstract philosophy or legal document, that his land really isn't his. At any moment, the pipeline says, folks bigger and stronger and richer can have their way with the land you've worked for.
Mike says he made it onto a list, circulated by TransCanada to its contractors, warning them that he is a "hateful landowner." If there is such a list, and if that designation has any truth, Mike's interaction with the workers doesn't show it. He says gotten along reasonably well with the pipeline construction workers, about as civilly as any of us might with a few hundred uninvited guests making permanent changes to our property. He understands that the men (I didn't see any lady hardhats roving the construction site, but then I only toured a mile or so of the route) from Michels Pipeline Construction and other contractors aren't responsible for the invasion of his land. These men have come from all over the country to work hard and earn a living, just as Mike and Sue do on their land.
But the pipeline builders also need reminders to do things right. Their trucks used to race along the gravel road right by the house. Sue went out with a video camera one day to record the fast passages. A truck roared forward from its stop at the intersection. The driver saw Sue, saw the camera, and geared down fast. Handmade signs reminding drivers to "Reduce Speed" appeared shortly afterward.
The Sibsons noticed that when the workers first started coming through their land, trash was left here and there on the work site. The Sibsons complained, and workers started picking up after themselves a little better.
Mike also hears from fellow farmers and landowners to the north that when pipeline work started up in Marshall County, the workers prepping the pipeline sections for welding would leave the metal filings on the ground. Landowners complained, and now the contractors are careful to clean up those metal filings.
The Sibsons had to do some persuading to get the contractors to put up fences along the route. The pipeline runs roughly down the center of the Sibsons' main square mile, cleaving in half crops and land where they run cattle. The contractors thought the big dirt berms would keep the cattle from crossing the work site and getting into other fields. Mike said no, cows would tromple down those dirt piles like kids on the playground. The company then offered to compensate the Sibsons for any cattle that got hurt or killed stumbling into the pipeline trench. Mike said no, a good farmer doesn't let his herd suffer for no reason, especially not when that suffering can be avoided. Farming isn't just about money; it's also about stewardship. TransCanada o.k.'ed good fence along the pastures.
The men building TransCanada's Keystone pipeline have accommodated many of the Sibsons' concerns. But they had to be asked. If the Sibsons and other landowners hadn't complained, TransCanada's contractors would have kept on doing what they were doing, however they saw fit. And now landowners along the Keystone pipeline route will have to maintain similar vigilance... well, forever. If TransCanada had negotiated an annual leasing system, then simple market forces could have held the company responsible: if their surveyors or repair crews would fail to respect the land or landowners, the landowners could decline to renew their leases the following year, or at least could demand more money in compensation for their undeserved trouble. But TransCanada would have none of that: a one-time payment, plus a little extra for lost crop production over the next couple years, and TransCanada can do as it pleases on that strip of land for the rest of the century.
The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission did offer some relief for landowners in the 57 conditions it imposed on TransCanada in exchange for the go-ahead to dig. There is, however, some question whether, if nuts came to bolts, the PUC has the legal authority to enforce those conditions.
Even if Pierre has any authority to hold TransCanada accountable, would Pierre use it? The Sibsons don't think so, not for the sake of common citizens. They felt the state blew them and other landowners off during the pipeline approval hearings. They see the Legislature refusing to put even a meager tax on the pipeline to provide for environmental clean-up. They note the slight jog east the pipeline takes just up the road near Twin Lakes, to avoid, says Mike, the state game land there, and see the state exerting its will to keep the pipeline off state land but not lifting a finger to minimize the intrusion on private land. They hear rumors of other state favors for TransCanada. They see the state's media avoiding any hint of negative coverage of the pipeline project (did you hear about the accident near Carthage between a fast pipeline truck and a young driver who ended up in the hospital? Neither did I). The Sibsons put all that together, and they see themselves stuck for a lifetime with a new corporate neighbor whom they'll have to watch like a hawk... since no one else will.
In the four-wheeler, Mike and I had talked about how when a bad deal is a done deal, you can laugh about it, or you can cry about it. We managed to laugh a few times during our trip out through the pasture and up and down the line. Back in the farm yard, Sue Sibson started to say something, then checked herself. I wanted to encourage her, maybe say playfully, "Come on, say it. What do you have to lose?"
But at that moment, all Sue was concerned about losing was her composure. She bit back her emotions, and we finished our conversation with smiles and handshakes.
Sue finished her thought in an e-mail later that day: "We had to stand up for the land and ourselves. Even though we have a crude oil pipeline now, we still had to stand up."
Had to stand up. For Sue and Mike Sibson, the obligation to stand up for the rights of landowners and citizens is obvious. Just as disheartening as the failure of the Sibsons' stand is the failure of our elected officials to stand with them.