Tribes press judge to halt US-Canada pipeline as work starts

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This March 11, 2020 photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management shows the proposed route of the Keystone XL oil pipeline where it crosses into the U.S. from Canada in Phillips County, Mont. A Canadian company said Monday, April 6, 2020, that it's started construction on the long-stalled Keystone XL oil sands pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border, despite calls from tribal leaders and environmentalists to delay the $8 billion project amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Al Nash/Bureau of Land Management via AP)

BILLINGS, Mont. – Native American tribes and environmental groups pressured a federal judge on Thursday to shut down work on the disputed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Nebraska, citing fears that workers could spread the coronavirus and construction could damage land.

After years of delays, the company is rushing ahead amid the pandemic to get part of the line built so it will be harder to stop, attorneys for the project's opponents argued in a teleconference to decide if the construction should be halted.

They warned that plans to build construction camps housing up to 1,000 workers each pose a risk to tribes and rural communities that already struggle to provide basic health care services and would face challenges responding to coronavirus outbreaks.

The first U.S. segment of the 1,200-mile (1,900-kilometer) oil sands pipeline was installed by TC Energy this week across the Canada border in northern Montana. The fight over the line stretches back more than a decade after it became a lightning rod in the debate over fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change.

“With the rise of the pandemic, it is even more important to protect the tribe to at least put a pause on this activity, take hard look at this,” said Matthew Campbell, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund representing the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes of the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris did not immediately rule following an almost four-hour hearing that also included arguments over whether President Donald's Trump's authorization of the border crossing was legal.

Trump is a champion of the $8 billion project and gave it a presidential authorization last year in a bid to circumvent a 2018 court ruling from Morris that had blocked the project and prompted a new environmental review.

Late Wednesday, Morris handed another setback to TC Energy with a ruling that invalidated a key U.S. Army Corps of Engineers clean water permit. The so-called nationwide permit applied to a broad range of projects including Keystone XL, and is needed to so the pipeline can cross rivers, streams and other waterways.