BILLINGS, Mont. — Attorneys for the Trump administration want a U.S. judge to throw out a lawsuit from Native American tribes trying to block the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Nebraska.
Tribes in Montana and South Dakota say President Donald Trump approved the pipeline without considering potential damage to cultural sites from spills and construction.
The administration counters that Trump’s approval applies only to a 1-mile (1.6-kilometre) section of pipeline along the U.S.-Canada border and not the rest of the line.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris will preside over a Thursday hearing on the government’s attempt to dismiss the case. The judge blocked the line in November, saying more environmental studies were needed. But Trump circumvented that ruling in March by issuing a new permit for the $8 billion, 1,184-mile (1,900-kilometre) project.
The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana and South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux tribe say Trump’s action violated their rights under treaties from the mid-1800s.
“They’re saying we can’t sue the president, and the tribes’ treaties essentially mean nothing. We completely disagree,” said Matthew Campbell, a Native American Rights Fund attorney representing the tribes. “The treaties were agreed to by the president of the United States and ratified by the Senate, so the treaties clearly apply.”
Morris is overseeing a separate lawsuit against Keystone XL from several environmental groups. He’s signalled he may consolidate the two cases.
Pipeline sponsor TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, is also seeking dismissal of the tribes’ lawsuit. The company backed the administration’s contention that Trump’s March permit applies only to the border crossing — “far from any land where Rosebud or its members are alleged to hold any interest.”
Other federal agencies will review the rest of the pipeline before the project can proceed, according to court filings from the company and government.
The tribes argue that Trump’s permit applies to the entire pipeline. They say a spill could damage a South Dakota water supply system that serves more than 51,000 people including residents of the Rosebud, Pine Ridge and Lower Brule Indian reservations.
An existing TC Energy pipeline, also called Keystone, had a 2017 spill that released almost 10,000 barrels (407,000 gallons) of oil near Amherst, South Dakota.
The tribes also raised concerns about construction camps, often called “man camps,” which sprung up in neighbouring North Dakota during the Bakken oil boom. While most workers are not violent, the tribes’ attorneys warned that “man camps in the Bakken have become centres for drugs, violence, and sex trafficking of Native women and girls.”
TC Energy had planned to start construction of Keystone XL this year but was unable to overcome the pending legal challenges in time. The pipeline would carry up to 830,000 barrels (35 million gallons) of crude daily along the path from Canada to Nebraska.
Keystone XL was first proposed in 2008 and rejected under former President Barack Obama. It was revived by Trump as part of the Republican’s efforts to boost fossil fuel industries.