In spring 2009, representatives from TransCanada started visiting Darrell Garoutte on his cattle ranch in McCone County, Montana. The Canadian corporation wanted to build the Keystone XL pipeline across his land and its representatives did not mince words. Garoutte says he was presented one of two choices: sign TransCanada's long-term easement agreement voluntarily or the company would condemn his land through eminent domain.
"I don't believe my land should be taken and my rights infringed for somebody else's gain," Garoutte says. "But, you know, they can outspend us a zillion to one. We are ranchers and farmers, we work for a living, we neither have time nor an excess of money."
Garoutte and 30 of his neighbors formed an organization to collectively bargain with TransCanada. Originally they planned to resist the company's eminent domain claims. In 2011, however, the Montana Legislature, with the backing of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, passed House Bill 198 and thereby loosened rules on the use of eminent domain by private corporations.
"HB 198 scared the hell out of us," says Garoutte. "It was scary in that it soon became apparent to us that big business or whoever wanted to could go to the legislature and with the help of the governor and the legislature and the bureaucracy that the governor pretty well controls, they could get anything passed that they wanted."
In summer 2012, Garoutte and his neighbors relented. They signed contracts with TransCanada. They still feel sore about it.
"We signed because we figured we were going into [eminent domain] condemnation," says Don Brown, who owns a ranch that will be bisected by nearly five miles of pipeline near the Missouri River. "... It feels like we have been invaded by Canadian big money."
When the U.S. State Department issued a final environmental impact statement on the pipeline last month, it did nothing to assuage the fears of Garoutte, Brown and their neighbors. They say TransCanada has a questionable safety record and has not developed an emergency response plan to deal with possible oil spills in the region.
TransCanada's pipelines have a history of leaks and spills. For instance, pump stations along a portion of the Keystone pipeline system that was completed in 2010 suffered 12 different oil spills during the first year of operation, according to the State Department report. The worst of those spills leaked 21,000 gallons of crude onto company property and adjacent farmland in North Dakota.
The company's Canadian pipelines have also experienced difficulties. In 2009, a natural gas pipeline operated by TransCanada leaked thousands of cubic meters of natural gas into the atmosphere in Alberta, Canada. The gas then ignited, according to a report by Canada's National Energy Board. And last month, a TransCanada gas pipeline in Manitoba exploded, sending a ball of fire into the air and leaving thousands without heat in the dead of winter.
The Montana farmers and ranchers who are forced to live with Keystone XL want assurances from the company that it has an adequate plan in place to deal with similar disasters. TransCanada, however, has not been forthcoming.
"We are working through an emergency response plan that will have to be in place before the proposed pipeline would be operational, but as you can appreciate we are still waiting for a permit to proceed with this project, so the emergency response plan has not been finalized," says Terry Cunha, a TransCanada spokesperson. "It would definitely be done before the pipeline would become operational."
Cunha noted, however, that the emergency response plan will never be made available to the public, nor will it be made available to property owners like Garoutte.
"As a matter of security we do not make our emergency response plans available to members of the public," Cunha says. "This is a $5.5 billion piece of pipeline infrastructure. If we detail the exact location of our pipeline route and what we are doing to protect it along with our pump stations, it is not something we want to make available for the public because as you can appreciate not everyone is a supporter of our project."
Despite serious concerns about TransCanada's ability to maintain its infrastructure and the lack of transparency surrounding its emergency response plan, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality says it cannot reconsider its permit for the project.
"DEQ doesn't have the regulatory authority to reconsider the permit in this case, because we are preempted by federal law in enforcing safety standards for interstate pipelines," says DEQ spokesman Chris Saeger. "In other words, because the pipeline crosses state boundaries we do not have the authority to reconsider the permit in light of safety concernsthat lies with federal regulatory bodies."
Whether the federal government grants a permit to the Keystone XL project remains to be seen. The final decision rests with President Barack Obama.
In eastern Montana, the property owners who oppose the project remain anxious about the future of their land and their livelihood. Their last hope is that the pipeline doesn't get approved.
"The first time I heard of Keystone, [TransCanada] called here and the question was: How would you like to have a pipeline across your property?" says Brown. "I said I would not. And that hasn't changed."