Last month, oil workers were still buzzing the centre of Steele City in Nebraska: they were the regular customers for the laundry, the supermarket and The Salty Dog Saloon, the only bar in the hamlet. Now oil workers have moved away and left the snowy streets. Until recently, work was carried out on a large pumping station for the most controversial pipeline in the United States, the Keystone XL.
On his first day as president, Biden signed a decree that immediately stopped the construction of the Keystone XL. Environmental activists and concerned landowners, the self-proclaimed Keystone fighters, breathed relief after years of fighting the pipeline. But for the thousand employees who were already working, a period of economic uncertainty began in the middle of the pandemic. The energy company predicted in October that the Keystone XL would generate 11,000 jobs this year.
The moment Biden signed his signature, the effects became immediately apparent. “My supervisor told me that the next day I only had to come to work to pick up my payslip. Then I could leave,” says Tiernee Fichter. He worked at a local gas station. “I have no idea what I‘m going to do now. I’m unemployed, I‘m in assistance. I do what I can, but it’s hard.”
In 2008, energy company Transcanada, the current TC Energy, announced its plans for the construction of the Keystone XL. The pipeline would run across the United States in order to connect Canadian tar sands, sandy soils from which oil is extracted, to Nebraska. In Steele City, the Keystone XL was able to connect to an existing pipeline to the oil refineries in Texas.
Jeanne Crumly opens a rusty fence to the fields of her family farm in the north of the state. The planned route of the Keystone XL went under her corn fields, which she absolutely did not want. “This country is our heritage, we want to leave it better than how we got it.”
This principle was jeopardised by its country suddenly becoming part of a political game with major economic interests. Pressure from TC Energy to give up land increased. Crumly says that people from the oil company showed up unannounced and threatened that she would miss money if her neighbors signed earlier. “There was no negotiation at all,” she says. “We have been woken up by the way corruption and greed influence political decision-making in this country.”
Among Crumly‘s fields is the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the world. An oil spill could be catastrophic: it would not only irrevocably affect fragile nature but also pollute the drinking water source of millions of people.
Crumly wasn’t alone. Over 70 landowners have joined forces and filed lawsuit against TC Energy after trial. The construction of the Keystone XL has been at the centre of political wrangling for years: President Obama refused to grant the permit, President Trump approved the pipeline, and now President Biden has put a line through it again. This political rollercoaster led to uncertainty among both pros and opponents of the pipeline.
The ambitious environmental policy of the Biden government poses a major challenge: ensuring that oil and gas workers are not forgotten in their intended transition to green energy. Certainly during a pandemic in which the most remote areas of the country are already suffering hard. To avoid this, Biden has promised to create 10 million jobs in the green energy sector.
But union rep TJ Dick doesn‘t believe it. “Biden can say what he wants, but I can’t see anything back,” he says on the abandoned industrial estate of Steele City. “If someone here loses his job, he can‘t cross the street and start working with windmills.” Former oil worker Fichter agrees with him: “We are not that far, certainly not in these states. We can’t go any way.”
You‘d think landowner Crumly is overjoyed, but she can’t forget the battle of the past eleven years. “I am relieved for now,” she says when she stands on the land she fought so hard for. Crumly is afraid that with a new government her nightmare will start over. “We have completely lost faith in our politicians. We continue to fight, but I fear our opponents will do the same.”