In the days following U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order reviving the campaign against and the hopes in favour of TransCanada Corporation’s intensely controversial Keystone XL pipeline, analysts began to focus on the array of obstacles that could still stop the project from being completed.
“Donald Trump took Keystone XL off the death bed, but the pipeline is by no means a done deal,” Business News Network reports. While “opponents of two controversial oil pipelines [Keystone and the Dakota Access Pipeline] face a long and difficult legal path if the U.S. government approves their construction,” the online news outlet notes, “several groups immediately said they would challenge in court any attempt to resume the projects, which have become hot-button political issues at the intersection of environmentalism, Native American tribal rights, and energy needs.”
BNN’s report by Reuters correspondent Joseph Ax suggests a tough road for opponents trying to stop the pipeline in court. “Even with presidential approval, TransCanada would need permits from other government agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to navigate federal waters and lands. Any of those permits could be legally challenged by opponents as improperly issued,” Reuters notes.
“If the agency issuing the permit has taken all the right steps and made a reasonable determination, it’s hard to overturn them,” said energy and environment attorney James Rubin. “The court can’t tell an agency what to do. It can only make sure that it did it right. It’s a review of the process, not the substance.”
On NRDC’s Expert Blog, Canada Project Director Anthony Swift and Senior Advisor Liz Barratt-Brown trace the “significant obstacles” facing Keystone, beginning with “the coalition of Native Americans, ranchers, landowners, clean energy businesses, student activists, Nobel Laureates, scientists, and many, many others who are ready to draw a line in the sand again against this dangerous project. They will be making their voices heard.”
They also counter BNN’s assertion that court approval is mostly assured, noting that the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) prevents decisions from being made on the basis of “fundamentally outdated information and in ignorance of material developments. And the world has changed dramatically since Keystone XL was proposed in 2008 and reviewed in 2014.”
When the U.S. State Department issued its environmental impact statement for the project, oil prices were expected to average US$140 per barrel and “generally stay above a floor of $100,” Swift and Barratt-Brown write. “They are now half that today, with substantial implications for the tar sands industry, which produces both some of the dirtiest and the most expensive crude in the world. No new tar sands projects have been green-lighted for construction for several years and some major oil companies—notably Statoil—are pulling out of the tar sands due to both costs and climate concerns.”
Beyond that, the Paris Agreement “will inevitably limit the development of high-carbon fuels,” they note. Alberta has put a lifetime cap on tar sands/oil sands emissions, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has raised serious concerns about spill response with diluted bitumen, and a predicted boom in oil-by-rail shipments after ex-president Barack Obama first rejected Keystone never materialized.
“Failures to consider these and other issues that are material to the question of whether the Keystone XL pipeline is in the United States’ interest will increase the risk of legal challenges to an approval of Keystone XL,” the NRDC researchers write, “while efforts to consider these issues in a transparent and credible manner will require more than the 60-day period that Trump’s executive memorandum allows.”
Meanwhile, many of the other groups that led the first successful campaign against Keystone are gearing up for the encore.
“It’s a dark day for reason, but we will continue the fight,” said 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben. “This is not a done deal. The last time around, TransCanada was so confident they literally mowed the strip where they planned to build the pipeline, before people power stopped them. People will mobilize again.”
“Indigenous peoples, landowners, and climate activists did everything in our power to stop Keystone XL and Dakota Access, and we’ll do it again,” added executive director May Boeve. “These orders will only reignite the widespread grassroots opposition to these pipelines and other dirty energy projects. Trump is about to meet the fossil fuel resistance head on.”
And on the fact-checking circuit that has already become a fixed response to Trump’s “alt-facts” universe, NRDC and the Washington Post are both second-guessing the former reality TV star’s assertion that Keystone will create “a lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs. Great construction jobs.” Post fact-check columnist Glenn Kessler awarded Trump three out of a possible four Pinocchios for the claim.
NRDC’s Josh Axelrod put the actual job creation numbers at 35 permanent, full-time staff, up to 15 contractors, and 3,900 person-years of employment (just the tiniest sliver of the 1.9 million full-and part-time energy efficiency jobs across the U.S.).
Kessler comes up with 1,462 person/years in Montana, 1,346 in South Dakota, 1,013 in Nebraska, and 129 in Kansas, with individual engagements averaging just 19.5 weeks over two construction seasons. “The figure could be pushed to nearly 7,000 construction jobs if you include indirect effects. The total number of direct jobs created, including construction, amounts to 16,000,” he writes. None of which supports Trump’s claim, “and in the context of the U.S. economy, this is not ‘a lot of jobs.’”
Trump is also talking about renegotiating the terms of the presidential permit for Keystone, and signed a separate order requiring that TransCanada complete the entire project with U.S. steel. He’s also hinted at demanding a 25% profit share for the U.S. government.
But before discussions get to that point, TransCanada is still checking in with the fossils it had originally lined up to ship their product on Keystone. CEO Russ Girling says he’s confident the U.S. Gulf Coast is still the place to send bitumen from the tar sands/oil sands. But CBC notes that “the economic environment has changed in the years since the pipeline was first proposed and there are now competing projects in the works, such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain project that can carry oil to markets other than the United States.”