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South Dakota towns feeling impact of Biden canceling Keystone Pipeline

Published: Mar. 26, 2021 at 12:54 PM CDT
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PHILIP, South Dakota (CNN) - Concern about the environment was the main reason behind one of President Biden’s first decisions as president.

Biden canceled the permits for the planned Keystone XL Pipeline, which was to carry oil from Canada to the United States. But the Canadian company behind the pipeline said thousands of jobs would be lost.

And here in the U.S., the ripple effects were also felt almost instantly, especially in South Dakota.

When President Biden revoked the construction permit of the Keystone XL Pipeline, environmentalists celebrated.

15,000 miles from Washington, in Murdo, South Dakota, population 444, Jeff Birkeland had a different reaction. Birkeland said he felt like he got kicked in the stomach.

“Honestly, I didn’t, I didn’t feel good at all,” he said.

He’s the CEO of a tiny electric cooperative with a big opportunity - building two substations providing power to two of the pipeline’s pumping stations.

Birkeland estimated the substations would generate roughly half a million dollars a month. This for a company that has seen only 99 new customers in 30 years. The profits would go back to the co-op’s 3,700 members.

“Roughly our members on average would have received about a $325 dollars credit annually, that would be theirs,” he said.

Additionally, he says tens of thousands of tax dollars would have trickled down to the local school district and its 190 students.

All that vanished with the stroke of a presidential pen.

In Philip, South Dakota, population 779, Tricia Burns and her husband had just invested their own money expanding Ignite, a fitness center, with the hopes of making a little extra from the pipeline workers coming to town.

“So you know the old saying, you got to make hay when the sun shines,” Burns said. “And we felt like the sun was going to be shining, and we needed to take advantage of that.”

She watched Biden’s inauguration on TV.

“And then the executive orders started coming in,” she said. “And when he signed the bill to pull the permit, it was a tough, tough moment here at Ignite.”

By midnight, she says 45 members had called to cancel memberships.

“In a big city, that doesn’t matter,” Burns said. “Here, that’s over half of our memberships. Here that’s $3000 in reoccurring monthly income, that matters.”

The town of Philip also saw benefits. TC Energy, the pipeline’s owner, contributed money towards a new fire truck, new sidewalks, even local sports. Construction crews spent money at local stores.

Biden’s opposition to the project wasn’t a surprise. How fast everything stopped, was.

“Everything had been signed sealed and delivered, and that was all taken away in an instant,” Burns said.

TC Energy estimates nearly a thousand employees have been laid off.

“There’s all this money invested into this and all these jobs that people are basically promised and then the president can just sign an executive order and shut it all down,” said Brittany Smith, City Administrator for Philip, South Dakota.

No one in the area seems to know what comes next.

TC Energy has not replied to request for comment, but has said it was disappointed by President Biden’s decision.

Environmentalists had argued the pipeline and the oil would have added to climate change and feared damage to water and wildlife where the pipeline went through.

But stopping the pipeline has problems of its own, like what happens to the land that was already bought? Pipeline assets are stretched out across hundreds of miles. Now it’s all just left stranded. Pumping stations, construction camps and piles of pipe sit vacant and marooned.

Many in South Dakota saw the pipeline as a chance to do better. Now its remnants litter the landscape, haunting reminders of what might have been.

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