South Dakota Hotel Owners Describe Effects of Keystone XL Cancellation

February 19, 2021 15:58, Last Updated: February 23, 2021 17:43
By Bowen Xiao

This is part three of a series exploring the effects of President Joe Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

MIDLAND, S.D.—“My husband just called me … he just got fired,” said Laurie Cox, her voice trembling ever so slightly as she put on a brave smile. But it was impossible to ignore her now-crestfallen demeanor.

Cox is the owner of a hotel in Midland, South Dakota, a quaint town with a population of about 100. She had just finished talking about how business was booming late last year, when she had befriended people working on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Workers would return from their shifts from a handful of nearby pump stations to unwind at the hotel since it was just a short drive away. Cox recalls having dinner together with the workers and lively chats night after night; many of them became close with her pet dog—a cute canine named Heidi.

Her husband, Wallace Cox Jr., was an industrial mechanic who had been setting pumps in Minnesota before he was laid off on Feb. 10. He was also scheduled to work on the Keystone XL pipeline—specifically on pumps in Montana this coming summer.

The hotel’s picturesque scene crumbled almost instantly after President Joe Biden shut down the pipeline on Jan. 20 through an executive order. The cancellation was among one of his first moves as president.

“The workers staying here all came to me and said, ‘Well, that’s it—we’re done, we’re going home,'” Laurie told The Epoch Times, as she described the scene following the news. “As he was signing that executive order, they were getting the layoffs.”

Laurie Cox, owner of the Stroppel Hotel and Mineral Baths, sits for an interview in Midland, S.D., on Feb. 10, 2020. (Screenshot/NTD)

“My heart sank,” she added. “I tried to hold back everything because they’re packing up. They have to go face their families, start their lives all over again, get back onto the out-of-work list, and try to figure out their next assignment.”

By the time most of the workers had left the hotel, Laurie had really started thinking about the full effects of the pipeline shutdown. She didn’t just lose the workers staying at her hotel, but also those who would have stayed in the future.

She tried to choke back the tears as her hotel slowly became emptier and emptier.

“It felt like it was the death of a family,” she said. “These workers really became part of the community that we have, not just here in Midland, but in Philip, Murdo, Kadoka. We’re far and few between here.”

“Even the dog Heidi would sit here and wait for them … she knew what time it was when they would come back to the hotel,” she added. “She would walk them up to their rooms, or she would sit and have dinner with them.”

Their hotel, The Stroppel Hotel and Mineral Baths, sits roughly in the middle of four Keystone work sites in the area. The executive order affected several other communities and towns within a 45-mile area.

Wallace, who is a member of a carpenter’s union, traveled back to Midland from Minnesota soon after he was fired, in order to help with the hotel business.

Laurie Cox, owner of the Stroppel Hotel and Mineral Baths, with her dog Heidi in Midland, S.D., on Feb. 10, 2020. (Screenshot/NTD)

He told The Epoch Times he was let go “due to uncertainties of upcoming political policies.”

As soon as he heard that Biden had signed the order to shutdown the Keystone XL pipeline, his first thought was, “I knew it!” Then came a rush of phone calls from his buddies at the union wondering if anyone knew of any work opportunities as they discussed what to do next.

“For my family, I needed to figure how to change gears and what our future holds,” he said. “My work is focused on refineries, power plants, hydro-dams, and paper mills—all appear to be on Biden’s chopping block.”

There are limited opportunities in small rural towns such as Midland, Wallace said, as he described the pipeline project as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for extra revenue for all our businesses to accumulate for the future.”

When asked if he had any message for the Biden administration, he said he wanted to tell the president to “reconsider his course on the American oil and gas industry.”

The Keystone XL pipeline was a massive project that was expected to generate $3.4 billion in U.S. GDP growth, including millions in state and local tax revenue, according to the U.S. Chamber Global Energy Institute. The pipeline would have generated millions of dollars of economic opportunity for South Dakotans.

Laurie estimates that counting all the different kinds of trades involved, there were at least 100 workers at each pump station. Anyone who had rental homes along the route, or who owned hotels were “pretty much full” because of the influx of workers.

Miles of unused pipe for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline sit in a lot outside Gascoyne, N.D., on Oct. 14, 2014. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
A drawing framed inside the Stroppel Hotel and Mineral Baths located in Midland, S.D., on Feb. 10, 2020. (Screenshot/NTD)

One worker who had been staying at their hotel told Laurie he was going to Sioux Falls to find work; the city is more than a three-hour drive from Midland.

Most of the laid-off workers will likely reach out to their unions and ask to be added to an out-of-work list.

“Imagine how lengthy those out-of-work lists are now,” Laurie said.

Regardless of whether you were against or for the pipeline, people have to acknowledge the void in these communities now, she said.

It had been more than three weeks since the workers left the area when Laurie spoke to The Epoch Times. She said she’s anxious about the future, recalling fondly what the hotel had been like just a month earlier.

“To me, it was the perfect energy that this hotel was meant to be, where people felt like it was that home away from home—and that’s what I always wanted it to be,” she said. “It wasn’t just the hotel room that they had to go back into after work, but more of a ‘Here we are together out on this project and we can sit and rest.'”

Bowen Xiao is a New York-based reporter at The Epoch Times. He covers national security, human trafficking and U.S. politics.

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