Laurie Cox owns a hotel in Midland, South Dakota — a town with a population of about 123. It’s located in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline, and as such hosts laborers and workers traveling from town to town for the project. We spoke with her about the day President Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit and what it means for her, her family, her community, and where they all go from here.
On January 20th, the men left for work as usual (Laurie stops herself here and says she’d like to say men and women, but every worker staying in her hotel were men this day). She chatted for a little with some friends about other projects they were working on, but admits she was nervously checking Facebook for updates on Biden’s executive orders. Shortly after, Laurie saw the men coming back, and “my heart dropped.”
“It’s done. We’re out,” they said.
“I tried to keep my composure,” Laurie tells us, holding back tears, “but these are guys who now have to go face their wives. They have to face the uncertainty that they don’t know where their next job is.” The best way Laurie could describe seeing the faces of these men and coming to her own realization about what was to come of her small business was that “it was like a death in the family.”
Laurie, who took over the Stroppel Hotel with her husband, Wally, just six months ago, told us she and other small business owners chose to make Midland and communities like it their home for a reason. “It’s a beautiful community,” she says, and Laurie believes God brought them here “for a time such as these.”
Laurie and Wally worked quickly, given the Keystone pipeline project was already in motion, to upgrade and remodel the place so the workers had reasonable living. “We responded to a need in the community. Us small business owners invested, but now we’re not going to see a return on it.” Their opportunity was ripped away “in a heartbeat. With no discussion, no nothing. If [Biden] can do this, what else does he have planned?”
The project cancellation and the immediate job loss that followed came as the project poured almost two billion dollars into reshaping itself to avoid this very situation: it was to be operated by solar, wind, and battery power, and eliminate all its own greenhouse-gas emissions from operation by 2030. Plus, TC Energy, its owner, pledged to hire a union workforce to finish construction, and made a deal last year with several indigenous tribes for nearly $800 million ownership stake.
Laurie feels these moves as well as what TC Energy and their contractors tried to do for small communities are going unnoticed. The company gave a donation to the Midland’s fire department, which she says was “incredibly large and impactful to our small community.”
When we spoke to Laurie, she was driving the nearly nine hours back to Midland from Swatara, Minnesota, where she was visiting Wally, who works on a different pipeline. She understands firsthand not only the sacrifices she made to own her small business, but for all who are touched by the oil and gas industries.
“We are not asking for subsidies or handouts. We want to provide the services that we have invested for and planned to provide,” Laurie wrote in a letter to Michels Corporation, the contractor for her husband’s pipeline, which she did in hopes of getting her story out there and bringing together other small business owners affected by the Biden administration’s move.
People misunderstand a few things about Americans like Laurie and Wally. What people like John Kerry don’t understand as he tells workers in industries like this to just go find other jobs (from his private jet, nonetheless), is that it’s not that simple. “My husband has thousands of dollars invested in his hand tools that he uses for specific jobs. So telling him ‘Oh, he just needs to go to solar, or go to wind’ — it’s a totally different set of tools [and skills].”
The other misconception is that pipeline workers don’t know what’s good for the land. Laurie’s family homesteaded in Kansas when she was growing up, and says “I think some people don’t realize that we are conservators of our own land. We’re not just using it and abusing it.”
We asked Laurie where she and communities like hers go from here: “It’s very uncertain. But what I do know is that me and my other business owners are just going to have to put our boots on and continue with the missions that we have in life. We will do whatever we need to get as creative as we can to try to find the demand and bring people back into our businesses. All we can do is the same thing that we do every day in rural communities: get up and face what we’re facing that day. If we’ve got snow, we address the snow. If we’ve got sunshine, maybe we’ll take a break,” Laurie chuckles at that thought. “But we will continue to do what we do out here, and that is protect each other and protect our investments.”
Laurie’s words, outlook, and character are a lesson for us all.
“If it’s what everyone says, and we can’t make a change, ok fine. But I’m going down with my message being heard.”