Keystone Forces Corn Farmer Quandary

The new Republican Senate’s fist move is legislation to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. The bill was introduced today despite the pipeline’s dubious benefits and heated opposition. If passed, Canadian tar sand oil will be pumped through South Dakota.

The machinations of pipeline approval also open a window into the craven politics that have come to define the agriculture lobby as whole.

Passage of Keystone was a core campaign issue for South Dakota’s newly elected Senator Mike Rounds. So much so that he co-sponsored today’s legislation. Rounds and the South Dakota Republican Party used rail delays for farmers hoping to get their grain to market as their main pretense to approve the pipeline. They also conveniently confused Bakken oil from North Dakota with Canadian tar sands oil which would have little impact on rail car shortages.

Farmers have a lot to fear from new pipelines from spill and leakage to seizure of their land under eminent domain. So did farm leaders agree with Rounds’ misguided assertion about rail delays at the time?

Dennis Jones, a farmer near Aberdeen, S.D., and co-founder of the South Dakota Corn Growers, said that rail equipment has been “hijacked by big oil,” and farmers can’t move their corn to either the Pacific Northwest for export or to closer destinations to feed ethanol plants.

“We need to get ag products back on the track and get fertilizer here, and move the mountains of grain that should have been shipped by now,” Jones said.

He spoke at a news conference near Aberdeen on Tuesday morning with other farmers and co-op managers, and will testify at a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday before the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads.

Jones said the longer-term solution to help farmers is approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline so that most North Dakota oil could be transported by pipeline instead of by rail.

At the time they agreed hook, line and sinker. That was in April. Now past the November election when Rounds was declared the victor, the corn growers’ tune has changed.

The amount of rail capacity the Keystone XL would free up would be “a blip on the radar,” added Keith Alverson, president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association President.

Why the huge gulf in statements? I suspect Rounds’ early big lead and his vocal pummeling of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Waters of the U.S. rule had a lot to do with it. Rounds did little else to campaign for the corn farmers’ vote.

Rounds offered tepid support at best for one of South Dakota’s biggest ag products saying corn ethanol’s role was only as an oxygenate – not a ringing endorsement. And Rounds proudly took money from interests looking to upend the corn ethanol mandate. Meanwhile his challenger called for a dramatic increase in the blend of corn ethanol to 30% in U.S. gas tanks and was the only one to offer an agriculture policy plan.

American water quality is declining due to agriculture pollutants. Regulation is an increasingly viable option. For those reasons defeating the EPA rule has become agriculture’s main quest. So much so that they’re willing to jump in bed with declared enemies and let campaign lies slide.


About the author

For over fifteen years I’ve investigated and written about America’s worst polluters from the gas fields of North Dakota to the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve been a Senior Advisor for the Environmental Working Group and a Senior Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. As a freelance journalist, I’ve written for Politico, the Washington DC City Paper, the Huffington Post, Grist, Civil Eats and the Food and Environment Reporting Network.


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