WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Sara Hylton
The pipeline that died only to come back again may finally be dead for good. President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday formalizing the end of Keystone XL. The Frontline dives into the real people who made this climate victory possible: Indigenous water protectors.
President Joe Biden is wasting no time. Just as former President Donald Trump was quick to approve the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines upon entering the White House, Biden clapped back by doing the same. Well, almost.
Though the president did sign an executive order rescinding the presidential permit for Keystone XL, he has yet to take executive action on Dakota Access. However, frontline Indigenous water protectors won’t rest easy until he has.
Welcome to The Frontline, reminding you who’s actually behind the death of this pipeline. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Though Biden signed the executive order that will hopefully end this oil pipeline once and for all, Indigenous organizers are the ones to thank. They’ve been trying to stop this thing for 10 years—and, finally, they may just have won.
Joye Braun doesn’t care if she has to celebrate alone, but dammit she will celebrate this victory. When I spoke to her Wednesday, Biden had yet to sign his executive order. Like the rest of us, she was waiting to “see the ink,” as she put it.
“There were many times at the very beginning of this fight where I would be the only person standing there with a sign, and so I don’t care if I celebrate alone or with people,” Braun, a frontline community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network says. “I just want this to end, and I want it to be the beginning of the end for these other pipelines.”
Braun has been on the frontlines of the fight against Keystone XL for years—since January 2011, to be exact. Back then, the climate crisis and the pipeline’s greenhouse gas emissions weren’t the urgent concerns they are now. The focus was mostly on protecting waterways and sacred ancestral lands from a piece of infrastructure that could potentially spill barrels of oil, sicken tribal members, and ruin natural resources. Now, the world’s collective need to shift away from fossil fuels only underlines tribal concerns.
Braun has seen former President Barack Obama (with Biden alongside him) kill the 1,179-mile pipeline only to see Trump resurrect it. That’s why she calls it a “zombie pipeline.” It’s also why she’s hesitant to celebrate too soon. She worries that the executive order may still leave room for TC Energy (TransCanada) to justify pre-construction activities, such as the creation of giant pumping stations and worker camps. What she wants is a court injunction on the project. TC Energy did announce Wednesday it would stop work, but it didn’t note whether it would issue a legal response.
Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, is hoping Biden’s executive order marks the end of this legal battle. He’s representing the Rosebud Sioux and Fort Belknap tribes in their litigation against the crude oil pipeline, so Trump’s approval was never legal to begin with in his book. The courts have been in agreement for the most part thus far, but the process has been slow.
Still, there’s no downplaying the significance of the president’s actions. Tribal nations in the U.S. are sovereign nations with treaty rights. All they ask is that the federal government and private companies treat them as such and leave their water and lands alone. Should TC Energy (or the Canadian government, which also supports the project) decide to challenge Biden, they better prepare for battle.
“The tribes have been vigilant in protecting their treaties in this instance, and this looks to be the death of it,” Campbell says. “But these lands that the pipeline will be crossing are the tribes’ permanent homelands. They’re not just picking up and walking away. They’re here forever, and should [the pipeline] come back around, the tribes will still be here and will still be fighting for their treaty rights.”