TransCanada pumps hundreds of thousands into S.D. ad campaign

PIERRE, S.D. -- The company behind the Keystone XL pipeline is spending thousands to shift opinions of South Dakotans about the controversial oil delivery system that would run through 11 of the state's counties if approved. "We want to be more t...


PIERRE, S.D. -- The company behind the Keystone XL pipeline is spending thousands to shift opinions of South Dakotans about the controversial oil delivery system that would run through 11 of the state's counties if approved.

"We want to be more than a pipeline company. We work hard to be a trusted neighbor."

That's the closing line in one of TransCanada's recent advertisements in South Dakota to convince residents that the Keystone XL pipeline will benefit the state.


With a S.D. Public Utilities Commission evidentiary hearing fast approaching, beginning July 27 in Pierre, the oil supplier hopes to renew a permit to construct a portion of their 1,100-mile pipeline in the state. Mark Cooper, a spokesperson for TransCanada, said the advertising campaign is meant to provide context for the benefits of the proposed pipeline and the safety measures built into the project.

"Certainly there's no mystery that ahead of the Public Utilities Commission hearings, where it will be front and center, there's information we need to get out to South Dakotans," Cooper said. "There's been a bit of extra push in the recent couple of months or so."

Cooper said TransCanada has spent between $100,000 and $200,000 on the advertising blitz that includes print, television, web and radio spots. He said it's critical to maintain an open dialogue with South Dakotans about the pipeline, which can be partially done through mass communication.

The Keystone XL pipeline originally received a construction permit in S.D. in 2010, but state law forces an applicant to reapply if they did not start the build within four years of issuance. TransCanada is waiting for approval from the U.S. State Department and a Presidential Permit before it can proceed with building the pipeline.

Cooper said he's optimistic the 2015 permit application will be successful.

"When this project and the permit was granted in 2010, we felt strongly that this was a good and important project for South Dakotans," Cooper said. "We feel even stronger now that the conditions have not only remained positive, but they've improved in a number of areas that makes this even more of an important project for South Dakotans."

The advertisements also focus on the financial benefits for the state. TransCanada claims that S.D. communities stand to collect millions of dollars in property taxes once the pipeline is operational. Along with an estimated $20 million in annual property taxes, the company claims the state will gain 3,000 to 4,000 jobs from construction of the pipeline.

Although Cooper said South Dakota has been very supportive of the pipeline, he said others have been "loose with the facts." According to Cooper, polls have shown about 65 percent support for the Keystone XL pipeline, with some of the remaining 35 percent still undecided.


One of those who's undecided is State Rep. Julie Bartling.

Bartling, a Democrat and assistant minority leader, represents a district that includes one of the counties the new pipeline would pass through. Bartling said she remains neutral on how a pipeline could affect Tripp County.

"I've been kind of neutral on it because I know there's some pros and cons with the issue," Bartling said. "I'm trying to listen to both sides of the issue, but I'm quite certain the permits will be reissued."

The seven-day PUC hearing will determine if the pipeline still meets the 50 conditions set in 2010. Chris Nelson, PUC chairman, said the three PUC commissioners will read through all written comments from the public and the parties involved before the hearing.

The PUC, which consists solely of Republican elected officials, will also hear from TransCanada, PUC staff and 42 intervenors during the evidentiary hearing.

Several letters have been sent to the PUC in support of the project, but there have been some committed opponents. Cooper said TransCanada is open to hearing from the opposition, but hopes the ad campaign persuades some to change their opinion of the pipeline.

"It's making people stop and think about, 'Would I rather have oil that's domestically created here in the United States and from a good friend and neighbor in Canada, or do I want my crude oil to come from places like Venezuela or other countries that are often hostile to American interests?' " Cooper said. "I think when people see that, it really isn't a question about what they support."

One group of concerned organizations and area Native American tribal leaders have a very different viewpoint on whether the Keystone XL pipeline would be beneficial to South Dakota. In a letter to the conservative PUC commissioners, the No KXL Dakota Coalition, Rosebud Sioux Tribe and other Native tribes and organizations alleged the PUC appears biased in favor of TransCanada. They also claim TransCanada has "acted like a bully to South Dakota landowners and ranching families."


The group letter also asked the PUC to thoroughly review the environmental issues and impact on climate change that the use and transportation of tar sands crude oil. Bartling said she also hopes the issues from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and other Native American tribes would be addressed by the PUC.

Even with the opposition from tribal leaders, Cooper called South Dakota "a state that gets it," and said a majority of the state understands the need for crude oil. But the tribal leaders who collectively sent the letter to the PUC in early July have had their environmental concerns validated by the U.S. State Department's report on the Keystone XL pipeline in 2014.

According to the report, the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin crude oil that would be transported from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico emits 17 percent more greenhouse gases from extraction to use than typical crude oil sources. That's the equivalent of 300,000 passenger cars operating for one year.

The department also stated the project has a risk of spills and leaks, construction-related habitat disturbance and permanent habitat fragmentation.

Cooper hopes the advertising campaign improves communication between South Dakota residents and TransCanada, particularly where safety is concerned.

"I'm not saying that there aren't some that are genuinely opposed to our project, and we respect that," said Cooper. "We will always be willing to speak to anybody to provide information to anybody about our project and the efforts that we're making to ensure that it's a safe project that benefits the communities along the route."

Six of the conditions TransCanada has to meet to renew its permit in South Dakota focus strictly on enforcement and liability of damage potentially caused by Keystone XL pipeline construction or leaks and spills. Cooper said TransCanada has gone above and beyond to make sure the pipeline is as safe as possible.

"We don't move forward with a project without ensuring that there's a detailed emergency response plan in the unlikely case that there's an incident," said Cooper.


Cooper said significant pipeline incidents are extremely rare and the existing Keystone pipeline that runs through South Dakota has transported almost one billion barrels of Canadian crude oil since 2010. He said TransCanada provides training to first responders and conducts major emergency response exercises with local, provincial, state and federal agencies.

Cooper also said TransCanada has spent an average of $900 million per year over the past three years on pipeline integrity and preventative maintenance programs. He said the Keystone XL, in particular, has gone through eight different independent reviews of safety and potential environmental impacts that have found no significant threat to the environment.

Nelson declined to make any prediction on whether the PUC will approve the Keystone XL pipeline permit again, but Bartling and Cooper were confident it will pass.

While she expects it to pass, Bartling hopes the environmental concerns are addressed before the PUC decides to issue another permit to TransCanada.

"I'm hoping, as it comes to fruition, that every safety precaution is taken to ensure that the pipeline is safe and that things will be covered extensively should there be a leak," Bartling said.

Cooper said the Keystone XL pipeline will have 59 special conditions and several other spill prevention and mitigation measures to provide more environmental protection for groundwater and aquifers. This includes increasing inspections and the number of shut-off valves and burying pipe deeper in the ground.

Even if some of these safety concerns aren't met and TransCanada's widespread advertising campaign fails to sway opponents of the pipeline, Bartling said the state's House of Representatives lacks a strong enough Democratic caucus to to prevent the permit.

"I think we're just too small of a caucus to block anything," said Bartling. "But if there are some issues that come up before us as a Legislature, I hope that everyone with an opinion or a viewpoint would be heard and taken into consideration before a vote."


Cooper and TransCanada hope increased awareness of the pipeline in South Dakota will help people realize the Keystone XL is a small addition among a web of oil lines in the U.S.

"We know that this is one single pipeline, just over 1,100 miles, among a sea of some 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the United States, but it's taken on a life of its own," Cooper said.

What To Read Next
Get Local