Havre Daily News: Tester discusses Keystone XL, vaccine roll-out, and Amtrak in rural press call

by Patrick Johnston

Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont. held a press conference Thursday to provide an update on his efforts on the national- and state-levels to address rural Montana issues, including the Keystone XL Pipeline, the state’s vaccine roll-out and Amtrak.

Tester said the Keystone XL Pipeline has been one of his biggest concerns since the Biden Administration effectively canceled it which he said he thinks is a bad move, an opinion he’s expressed to Biden in person.

“I’ve told President Biden directly that his decision to cancel this pipeline is wrong, and I’ve pushed him to reconsider,” he said.

He said his support for the pipeline and the jobs and tax revenue it would bring has been steadfast as long as it is made with American steel and is built to the highest safety standard.

He said he understands the objections of those opposed to the pipeline’s construction including environmental concerns that have been raised, but still supports the project and the cause of energy independence.

“On my farm, I have seen firsthand what climate change has done,” he said. “It is a serious issue. But we can’t pretend that we don’t need fuel to power our farm equipment or raise the food that feeds the country.”

He said the expectation that farmers will adapt to new energy sources immediately is unrealistic and many would be out of business before they can adjust.

However, he said, he’s very sympathetic to the concerns of the Native American tribes whose land the pipeline would cross and said they have very legitimate worries that have not been sufficiently addressed.

The pipeline will go under the river, above their main water intake, he said, and they want to know what is going to be done if there is a leak.

He said a leak could have significant damaging effects on the water of the tribe and the surrounding areas and TC Energy needs to sit down with the tribes and hear their concerns directly, which they haven’t based on what he’s heard from the tribes in question.

Though he didn’t want to give people false hope, Tester said, despite the actions of the Biden Administration, he is convinced the project is not dead in the water just yet.

Tester said he thinks both sides of the political aisle should come back to the negotiating table with a realistic view of the pipeline.

“This pipeline is not as big a deal as the left thinks it is, and it’s probably not as good as the right thinks it is,” he said.

Tester also said that there are many other infrastructure projects in Northern Montana that need to be worked on as well, including the St, Mary Diversion, which saw a catastrophic failure last year as a result of aging infrastructure, a failure that had been expected for more than a decade.

“The problem is a lot of this infrastructure has been around for a hundred years,” he said. “St. Mary’s is a great example, it’s been wore out for 25 years.”

He said St. Mary and is at the top of his list of infrastructure projects and said if there is an infrastructure bill, he’ll fight to get projects like that in it, especially other water infrastructure projects.

Tester also talked about the vaccine roll-out, vaccination being the only way things will get back to normal in Montana, he said.

He said he thinks vaccine hesitancy is still far too high and more needs to be done to address that issue.

He said he’s been pushing the Biden Administration to get the state more vaccine, and while he didn’t want to put the cart before the horse, he suspects the next few weeks will see significant results.

He said he suspects that Montana’s primary issue of insufficient vaccine allocation will be supplanted by the problem of not enough people wanting it, so that’s where his worry is for the moment.

Tester also talked about the U.S. Veterans Administration roll-out and said he and his colleague Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kans., had been pushing for the VA to receive more vaccine.

Tester is the chair and Moran the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.

Tester said their efforts appear to have paid off, with the recent announcement that the VA would be receiving an allocation of more than 500,000 doses this coming week, quadruple what they would normally have.

Tester said the Veteran’s Affairs Committee held a hearing this week to take stock of the VA’s progress and he said he was impressed by VA Acting Under Secretary for Health Dr. Richard Stone and his team at the hearing.

He also mentioned that he’s looking to get money set aside for rural hospitals and direct assistance to local governments in the COVID-19 relief bills making their way through congress.

Tester also talked about Amtrak and legislation he recently introduced to reinstate the service’s furloughed employees and restore the Empire Builder’s full services for the benefit of Montana at large, but the Hi-Line in particular.

He said he’s heard over and over again from people in the region that the effects of Amtrak service reductions have been devastating.

Montana is a big state, he said. and the Hi-Line needs to stay connected.

He said the rest of Montana’s congressional delegation is behind him on this and he hopes to see more support as the legislation makes it’s way through congress.

He said he also supports the restoration of Amtrak’s freight services and the recent efforts of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to reestablish passenger service in Southern Montana as well.

Tester also addressed bills in the Montana Legislature that appear to be trying to make voting in the state arbitrarily difficult, and said he’s very disappointed that these bills have support by Montana Republicans.

“I’ve got some pretty strong feelings on this,” he said. “I think democracies work best when you get a lot of people voting.”

He said Republicans swept the elections in Montana in 2020, and the push to get rid of things like mail-in ballots and same-day voter registration makes no sense.

Tester said in his days in the state Legislature both Republicans and Democrats worked together to make voting easier, but things have clearly changed.

“They’ve used excuses like, ‘the mail isn’t secure.’ That’s all baloney. ‘There’s fraud in these elections.’ That’s total baloney,” he said.

He said vote suppressors must be held accountable for their actions.