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While the lame-duck Senate failed to approve the Keystone XL pipeline this week, Republicans vow to give the project the green light when they take control of the new Congress. The pipeline would carry so-called tar sands oil from Canada across the Dakotas and Nebraska to refineries in the southern U.S. Charles Michael Ray of South Dakota Public Radio reports the project still faces stiff opposition outside Washington.
CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: It's not only Congress and the White House that has a say on the Keystone pipeline.
CHRIS NELSON: I will call the meeting of the Public Utilities Commission to order. It is 1:30 p.m...
RAY: Here's another player - the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. This pipeline will not happen without a thumbs-up from state regulators along the proposed route. Commissioners in South Dakota approved the project in 2008. But that permit expired. Recertification is now needed, and that's not a speedy process.
CHAS JEWETT: And sure - delay, delay, delay, you know, as much as we can push it back. That's great for us.
RAY: Chas Jewett is one of more than 40 people weighing in on the pipeline state permit in a series of public hearings that resemble a court case. She's glad these hearings could add several more months to the overall approval process that has already taken about six years.
JEWETT: Since it's taking so long - this process - folks are starting to, you know, really be able to get to the meat of the issue, which is, you know, is this a good thing for South Dakota, and, you know, is it a good thing for the world?
RAY: But local supporters argue the pipeline is a good thing for the struggling rural economy. They cite desperately needed property tax revenue.
Steve Reed is with West Central Electric Co-op in Murdo, South Dakota. Reed says the pipeline would buy Co-op Electricity.
STEVE REED: This would be a long-term economic boost to the Co-op and its members - would help us replace aging infrastructure overtime and many other things.
RAY: The courts are also involved. The Nebraska Supreme Court is already considering a case dealing with the local permitting process. Andrew Morriss, Dean of the Texas A&M School of Law, says it won't likely end there.
ANDREW MORRISS: Look, if Congress passed the bill tomorrow - which they're obviously not going to do - and the president signed it the same day and all the federal regulators lined up to sign the permit, before the ink was dry, somebody would file a lawsuit.
RAY: Mark Cooper is a spokesperson for TransCanada, the company backing the Keystone XL pipeline. He remains optimistic that the pipeline will be built.
MARK COOPER: There's going to be some discussion. There's going to be people weighing in on both sides. But we feel at the end of the day, the facts remain that this is a project that is in the national interest of Americans.
RAY: But any construction of the Keystone pipeline will face one more hurdle - resistance from Native American activists who have occupied camps on the proposed route. Natives say they don't want this pipeline to cross land they consider sacred.
This crackling fire is keeping an old Army tent just above freezing. The frigid wind outside is blowing ribbons of snow across the open prairie. Lakota activist Leota Iron Cloud and others have lived at what they call the Spirit Camp continuously since spring. This site, near the Rosebud reservation, is in the path of the proposed pipeline. Iron Cloud fears an oil spill here could pollute local water resources. She and other native activists tie this struggle to the same fight over land rights their ancestors took up a century ago.
LEOTA IRON CLOUD: Personally, myself, I made a commitment to be here 'til the end. I hate to say this out loud or anything, but they're going to have to kill me in order to cross through here.
RAY: In recent days, tribal officials in South Dakota called the effort to push through the Keystone pipeline an act of war - strong language, highlighting deeply-entrenched positions that some here hold. They vow that whatever happens in Washington, they'll fight to keep the pipeline from crossing the open prairie of South Dakota. For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City.
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