Law enforcement and pipeline foes alike prepare for work on Keystone XL

April 9, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — When Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier crested a hill near Cannonball Creek last August, he knew he was in trouble.

A group of protesters had blocked a private road used by workers building the Dakota Access pipeline across his North Dakota county, halting the construction work.

Eleven protesters were arrested that day. It was the first of months of demonstrations, some violent, that quickly overwhelmed Kirchmeier’s 33-member Sheriff’s Office.

What began as a couple of small protest camps on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation eventually swelled into an international incident. Now the sheriff thinks Nebraska will be next for a similar mega demonstration.

“I do,” Kirchmeier said.

With the recent resurrection of the Keystone XL pipeline project by President Donald Trump, the group that led the opposition to the pipeline, Bold Nebraska, has pledged to renew its fight.

On its website, the grass-roots group is not only asking pipeline opponents to write letters and attend rallies and court hearings, but also to risk arrest.

“I pledge to participate in peaceful direct action that may result in my arrest, should construction begin on the Keystone XL pipeline,” it states.

Jane Kleeb, who launched Bold Nebraska, said she doesn’t envision Nebraska having the massive and violent protests that erupted over the now-finished Dakota Access pipeline. Thousands of Native Americans and environmentalists poured in to protest there. Nearly 700 people have been arrested, and about $40 million has been spent, to date, on law enforcement costs.

But Kleeb said her group wants to be ready if the pipeline is eventually approved in the state.

“We’re certainly not setting up a big protest camp like at Standing Rock — we’ve made that clear to partners. But we do have supporters, including land

owners, who want that option to participate in civil disobedience,” Kleeb said.

To be sure, such actions are probably a long way off.

A federal lawsuit filed to block the Keystone XL project might take months to resolve. And TransCanada Corp. must gain approval from the State of Nebraska for its proposed route across the Cornhusker State, a process that will carry into the fall.

Additional lawsuits to block the use of eminent domain to obtain right of way easements for the 36-inch pipeline will most assuredly follow.

It might take two years to cross all of those hurdles and start construction.

One landowner on the proposed route said he’s among those willing to be arrested to fight the project.

Terry Van Housen, a 64-year-old married father of two, said if the groundwater underneath his farm and his 10,000-head cattle feedlot near Stromsburg were contaminated by an oil spill, he’d be ruined.

“The water source right underneath of us is our living,” Van Housen said. “Going to jail, or getting in front of a bunch of people and telling them what I think, I would do anything like that.”

Law enforcement and county officials interviewed say there have been some discussions about what might be coming, but they declined to say whether any protest-control training is underway.

Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said that commenting on such security preparations would “jeopardize” those plans.

The Nebraska State Patrol is well aware of what happened in North Dakota, patrol spokesman Mike Meyer wrote in an email, and regularly trains for “contingencies” such as protests and natural disasters.

Meyer said that recent purchases by the patrol of the sort of nonlethal devices used in crowd control — such as impact sponges and rubber-ball blast and pepper spray grenades — were not out of the ordinary, and are part of the agency’s regular equipment purchases.

York County Sheriff Dale Radcliff, whose county is on the proposed route of the Keystone XL, said he doesn’t know what to expect. So far, local pipeline events have been peaceful, said Radcliff, who believes any protests are months away.

“We’ve talked about it, but so far that’s about all,” the sheriff said. “Hopefully if something happens we’ll have time to set something up.”

The issue of protests and preparations has come up before.

In 2013, Bold Nebraska denounced TransCanada after it discovered, through a public records request, that the pipeline company had made presentations to Nebraska law enforcement officials about environmental protests and how anti-terrorism laws could be used to jail demonstrators.

At the time, Kleeb charged that TransCanada was wrongly portraying pipeline opponents as “abusive, aggressive law breakers” when, in fact, all protests had been nonviolent and peaceful.

A TransCanada spokesman, in 2013, said the company was only trying to show law enforcement officials what tactics protesters had used elsewhere.

The presentation showed how demonstrators had chained themselves to heavy equipment and built treehouses in the path of the pipeline route to slow construction. It described northern Nebraska landowners as “aggressive abusive” but labeled their “capability and intent” to do something as “low.”

Bold Nebraska has erected some structures on the pipeline route that eventually could become flashpoints for protests.

A solar-powered “energy barn” was built near Bradshaw, in York County, and a cross and a satirical “office” for TransCanada — an outhouse — have been erected in Holt County on the proposed route.

This spring, for the fourth year in a row, the organization will plant “resistance corn” — an ancient variety of blue corn considered sacred by the Ponca Indians — on a farm near Neligh. The farm, which is on the pipeline route, also was the site of a benefit concert in 2014 by singers Neil Young and Willie Nelson.

In South Dakota, near the Rosebud Indian Reservation, there is also a “spirit camp” — much smaller than the protest camps in North Dakota — that was established in 2014 to protest the Keystone XL. The pipeline would pass near the reservation, which is just across the Nebraska state line.

The Ponca Tribe has taken a particular interest in the Keystone XL because it crosses the Trail of Tears, the historic path followed by tribal members in 1877 when they were forced off their ancestral lands in Nebraska and marched to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Nine Poncas died en route, including a young daughter of Chief Standing Bear.

Kleeb, who met recently with representatives of the Ponca, Santee and Winnebago Tribes of Nebraska, said that a cultural inventory of features like the trail has never been conducted in association with the Keystone XL.

A handful of Bold Nebraska members were arrested during a protest at the White House in 2011, and some members of an affiliated group, Bold Iowa, have been arrested in that state while demonstrating there against the Dakota Access pipeline.

Kleeb said that all protests have been nonviolent, and that Bold Nebraska plans to be in contact with law enforcement officials if events of civil disobedience are planned in the future, for safety’s sake.

“I think you’ll see creative, nonviolent civil disobedience if it comes to that,” she said. “We’re obviously going to do everything we can to stand with landowners and the Ponca Tribe to protect their land and their legacy.”

But Kleeb emphasized it may not come to that. She expressed confidence that the state will either reject the pipeline route or do what Bold Nebraska has suggested: move the pipeline route to parallel the existing Keystone pipeline that runs through eastern Nebraska, thus avoiding the disruption of new properties.

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said Friday that no one wants to see a repeat of incidents like those in North Dakota. Guard dogs attacked protesters, demonstrators were doused with water in freezing weather and police were spit on and pelted with rocks and debris.

Cunha said that “safety” is the company’s top priority.

“Regardless of the opinions about this pipeline that motivate individuals to oppose it, we hope they will conduct themselves in a way that respects the safety and security of our operating sites and the employees and contractors,” Cunha said.

Sheriff Kirchmeier said that several other states, including South Dakota, have asked him to relay what he learned from the Standing Rock protests, and said that eventually he expects to talk with those from Nebraska.

In North Dakota, both his county and the state declared emergencies so they could utilize emergency funds to buy riot gear and cover the costs of officers who came from other states, including Nebraska.

Kirchmeier said some tactical lessons were learned in confronting protesters, but he declined to share them.

But he said it’s important, in today’s world of Facebook and Twitter, to match the social media presence of demonstrating groups in order to provide law enforcement’s side of the story.

The sheriff said it also is important to keep lines of communication open with protest leaders so each side knows what to expect.

That became difficult at Standing Rock, Kirchmeier said, because the protest got so large, so fast, that several divergent groups emerged. Most wanted to peacefully protest, but a small group wanted to disrupt and do damage.

Only 6 percent of the 670 or so people arrested were from North Dakota, he said. Kentucky was the only state that didn’t have a person arrested. The top state for protesters arrested was California.

Ideally, it’s best to prepare in advance, he said, and talk to fellow law enforcement agencies so they are ready to help, if needed.

That option wasn’t available for him at Standing Rock, Kirchmeier said.

“I don’t think you can prepare for demonstrations of this size, especially how large and how fast they got,” he said.