A sign indicates pipeline construction as crews establish a worker encampment northeast of Hinsdale in Valley County, Montana. Photographed April 2, 2020. Credit: A.J. Etherington, MTFP

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is allowing Canadian pipeline company TC Energy to begin construction this month of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in Montana, categorizing the pipeline as an “essential” project exempt from his statewide stay-at-home directive, despite the acknowledged threat that hundreds of out-of-state pipeline workers pose to state efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

At press time, there is one recorded case of COVID-19 in remote eastern Montana’s Roosevelt County. The counties Keystone XL is slated to traverse have yet to report any cases. Current U.S. maps of COVID-19 cases show that these counties are currently the largest uninfected area in the Lower 48 states.

Officials in Valley County, where Keystone XL would cross under the Missouri River shortly after entering Montana from Canada, are working hard to keep it that way.

On March 28, Valley County officials ordered that all new arrivals to the county are subject to a 14-day quarantine, retroactively including pipeline workers who arrived as early as March 26. Bullock ordered a similar state-wide quarantine policy for new arrivals to Montana on Wednesday, April 1.

Valley County Health Officer Dr. Anne Millard said during an April 1 livestreamed Q&A that the 14-day quarantine applies to pipeline workers only when they are on personal time.

“I can’t stop the TC Energy folks from going to work, but when they are not working they really should be in their rooms and staying there,” Millard said.

Valley County Public Information Officer Todd Young clarified Monday, April 6, that while the county can’t stop pipeline workers from working during the county-imposed quarantine, TC Energy says the company is quarantining its workers in Montana for two weeks before allowing them on job sites.

Bullock’s March 26 directive defining those allowed to work during the pandemic contains broad exemptions for health care, human services, and “essential infrastructure” workers. The directive says essential infrastructure “shall be construed broadly to avoid any impacts” on those industries. It specifically allows for construction, public works construction, maintenance operations, utilities, power generation, production of raw materials, oil and biofuel refining, transportation, petroleum and fuel, and mining.

A footnote to the directive references a March 19 U.S. Department of Homeland Security memo providing federal guidelines for work considered essential. That memo includes “workers for crude oil, petroleum and petroleum product storage and transportation, including pipelines,” and those “supporting new and existing construction projects, including, but not limited to, pipeline construction.”

The governor said in a Friday, April 3, press conference that he has “had conversations with everyone from the premier of Alberta to conversations with individuals at TC Energy,” and that he shares local concerns about an influx of out-of-state pipeline workers.

Bullock spokesperson Marissa Perry told the Associated Press on March 30 that “TC Energy holds a tremendous responsibility to appropriately manage or eliminate this risk and we will continue to monitor the plans for that response.”

Asked why Bullock’s directive allows for construction of Keystone XL if it poses specific concerns regarding transmission of the disease, Perry said in an email Friday that the governor adopted the DHS guidelines in whole so as “not to single out specific projects, in order to maintain consistency and treat industries equitably.”

According to the DHS memo, its list of essential infrastructure is advisory, and not a federal directive or standard. 

“Individual jurisdictions should add or subtract essential workforce categories based on their own requirements and discretion,” the memo reads.

“The governor continues to evaluate the measures TC Energy is putting in place to ensure they are effective in managing risk — and will seek additional measures if necessary to protect the health and safety of the community,” Perry said.

Since President Donald Trump resurrected Keystone XL soon after entering office, multiple lawsuits by environmentalist and indigenous rights groups have attempted, sometimes successfully, to block construction in the courts.

“We have a rest home here, and in Carter County, and it just doesn’t make sense to me that we would be exposing these people to increased risk without their knowledge, without their consent.”

—Baker farmer Wade Skikorski

Plaintiffs won an injunction in Montana federal court in 2018 that halted pipeline construction, but the Trump administration effectively overruled the courts last June, and construction was allowed to resume. A lawsuit by the same plaintiffs with the same goal and before the same judge was introduced in March, and is awaiting a ruling.

Keystone XL’s potential threat to the human health has long been a cornerstone of the anti-pipeline movement, with activists often highlighting potential impacts to drinking water, as well as sexual violence associated with temporary influxes of pipeline workers, but human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus has added a new angle of concern. 

In another lawsuit against the pipeline filed in 2019 by the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, plaintiffs filed an order on March 17 asking the courts to stop construction of Keystone XL due to the threat posed by the coronavirus to Native Americans on the proposed route.

“Additionally, in light of the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, the transient nature of the construction workers constructing and living in these man-camps pose serious and immediate public health and safety threats to the Tribes,” the filing said.

TC Energy responded to the filing by stating that the tribes failed to raise concerns about the coronavirus during public comment periods in 2014 and between Oct. 30 and Nov. 18, 2019. The first cases of what would become known as COVID-19 were reported to the World Health Organization by the Chinese government on Dec. 31. Montana officials announced the state’s first COVID-19 cases on March 13.

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Wade Sikorski’s family has been farming since 1911 in Baker, where an on-ramp to Keystone XL will allow for the export of fracked oil from the Williston Basin to refineries and ports to the south. While Sikorski says oil has been good to Baker and the rest of Fallon County, he says he’s observed an intensification of severe weather during his lifetime that he attributes to climate change, and he opposes the Keystone XL pipeline for the sake of protecting the family farm from the impacts of climate change. 

He says the coronavirus is a whole new reason to oppose Keystone XL. He’s observed pipeline construction before, and the continuous movement of people within communities that it requires. He says a TC Energy representative told him at a company event in early March that somewhere between 600 and 800 pipeline workers will be in Baker for construction.

“We have a rest home here, and in Carter County, and it just doesn’t make sense to me that we would be exposing these people to increased risk without their knowledge, without their consent,” Sikorksi said. 

“It’s a pretty substantial risk that they would be taking if the virus started running rampant through here,” he said.


This story was updated April 6, 2020, to include a quote from Valley County Public Information Officer Todd Young clarifying the relationship between Valley County’s quarantine directive and a TC Energy worker quarantine policy.

Hunter Pauli is a Seattle-born, Missoula-based freelance investigative reporter and a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism.You can follow Hunter on Twitter.