Trump Restarts Keystone XL Fight, Not the Tar Sands Pipeline

The Trump Administration’s approval of the cross-border permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline marks the beginning of what is likely to be a long fight over the dirty energy project. Many obstacles remain for the controversial tar sand pipeline, starting with the legal vulnerabilities of the cross border approval itself. The State Department’s approval reverses a decision to reject Keystone XL that was reached following a rigorous, robust process with substantial public engagement. Keystone XL was a pipeline that would have transported 830,000 barrel per day of carbon intensive tar sands from Alberta through the United States breadbasket to the Gulf Coast where it could be refined and exported internationally. In additional to being bad policy, Trump's approval of Keystone XL simply doesn't meet the minimum requirements of our nation's environmental laws. In addition, the permit approval does not remove other barriers to Keystone XL. There is strong opposition to the project in Nebraska where the pipeline still does not have a route. And of course, Keystone XL faces strong headwinds from a global market turning away from high cost, carbon intensive energy sources like the tar sands. When President Obama rejected this dirty pipeline, his State Department reflected the pipeline was not in the American interest because it posted major risks to our water, land, public safety and climate. Trump's approval of Keystone XL doesn't make it a better project, nor does it clear the pathway for it to be built. 

Following Trump's approval, there are 4 key things to remember:

  1. Keystone XL still isn't in the national interest.
  2. Significant barriers remain for this pipeline to become operational.
  3. President Trump’s claims about the benefits of this pipeline—including promises he made to get a better deal for the American people—were false.
  4. The American people now oppose Keystone XL.

Keystone XL still isn't in the national interest

It's worth considering why the controversial tar sands pipeline was rejected in the first place. The pipeline would cross 1,073 rivers, lakes and streams—from the Yellowstone River in Montana to the Platte River in Nebraska. It would run within a mile of more than 3,000 wells that provide drinking and irrigation water in those states. In a report released last year, the National Academy of Sciences found that tar sands spills pose new and greater risks to waterbodies than historically transported oil—risks that our regulations and spill responders do not have the techniques to address. Much of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River is still suffering from a tar sands pipeline blowout that contaminated 38 miles of water in 2011 in what has become the most expensive onshore pipeline spill in U.S. history, with over a billion dollars spent on cleanup. More than 200,000 gallons of tar sands crude polluted the tiny community of Mayflower, Arkansas, when a pipeline blew out there in 2013. Rare accidents? Hardly. Between 2006 and the middle of 2015, there were nearly 3,800 pipeline blowouts or other incidents serious enough to require reporting to the U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And they spilled a cumulative 37.5 million gallons of oil and other hazardous liquids, 23 million gallons of which were never recovered.

The damage from tar sands is global. Because producing tar sands consumes so much energy, it also generates vast tons of the dangerous carbon pollution that is driving climate change. As a recent report by Oil Change International shows, emissions from planned tar sands expansion would exhaust 16% of the world’s total carbon budget for staying below 1.5°C. The State Department found that the emissions associated with the production, refining and combustion of the tar sands in Keystone XL would result 147 to 168 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide per year (equivalent to the emissions from as many of 35.5 million cars). Simply displacing conventional crude with dirtier tar sands, the project would result in up to 27.4 MMT CO2e of additional emissions. Tar sands projects are some of the most expensive, longest lived oil projects on the planet—building more will lock in high carbon production for decades to come at a time when the world needs to be transitioning away for high carbon fuel sources.

Significant legal, regulatory and economic barriers remain for the pipeline to become operational

President Trump has only removed one of many barriers remaining for Keystone XL. Even if these hurdles are cleared, the administration is certain to face litigation. In this detailed analysis, we discuss the numerous hurdles the Trump administration must still overcome. These include:

  1. While President Trump’s State Department pushed a nearly lightning speed approval process, that process must still meet the requirements of federal environmental law. These laws require objective consideration of the environmental impacts of the pipeline, none of which evaporated when President Obama left office. The climate and water impacts of the pipeline have been acknowledged by experts to be significant.
  2. A long and contentious battle in Nebraska regarding the path of the pipeline. There is no route in Nebraska and in-state opposition is united and growing. TransCanada must seek approval from state authorities—a process than can take 8-12 months. After that, they must still seek right-of-way access for the pipeline. Ranchers and Native Americans are ready to fight to protect the lands they have stewarded for generations.
  3. Federal Clean Water Act permits are still required. This pipeline will cross over 1000 water bodies, many of which are drinking water sources for millions of Americans. The National Academy of Sciences has raised significant concerns about tar sands oil, which sinks and is impossible to clean up when released in water.       
  4. The market case for Keystone XL has deteriorated. Even as Trump and TransCanada try to revive the pipeline, low oil prices and increasing public concern over the climate have led Shell, Exxon, Statoil and Total to either sell their tar sands assets or write them down. Major new tar sands projects haven't been approved for years—and there is a growing market recognition that high carbon, high cost, long lived tar sands projects are poor investments in a world transitioning to clean energy.                                

The coalition of Native Americans, ranchers, landowners, clean energy businesses, student activists, Nobel Laureates, scientists, environmental organizations, and many others are ready to draw a line in the sand again against this dangerous project.

Broken promises by President Trump

When President Trump signed the executive memo in January that brought Keystone XL back to the table, he said it going to be a construction job bonanza (“A lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs. Great construction jobs”). And that it was going to be built with U.S. steel (“I am very insistent that if we’re going to build pipelines in the United States, the pipe should be made in the United States.”). He also said we’d get 25 percent of TransCanada’s profits.

Let’s be clear: none of these promises are part of the “deal” Trump struck with this Canadian oil company. Read a summary here.

  • Instead of requiring the pipeline be built with U.S. steel, Keystone XL is not subject to President’s Trump’s “buy American and hire American” requirements. President Trump continues makes these claims, but they are in direct contradiction with the White House’s official position. Read here.
  • There is no special economic deal that has been struck with TransCanada giving American’s 25 percent of the company’s profits from future operation of the pipeline. The application from TransCanada to the State Department is nearly identical to the application they submitted back in 2012—no grand deals were struck for the American people.
  • President Trump promises Keystone XL is a job producer, claiming that between 28,000 and  42,000 jobs would be created by this pipeline. This is untrue. The pipeline will provide 1,950 construction jobs for two years and then only 35 full-time, permanent staff (and up to 15 temporary contractors).

The president and Congress should focus on real job creating opportunities, like repairing our bridges and roads and making our homes and businesses more energy efficient.  

The American people oppose Keystone XL

According to a new poll released by the Pew Research Center, support for Keystone XL has plummeted over 20 points. The sign of growing opposition in the Pew poll is starkest among Democrats and Democratically leaning independents who are now 76% against with only 17% supporting the pipeline. With this latest poll, there should be no question about what the Trump administration ought to have done: recognize this is really a pipeline that fuels corporate interests—not the American public interest—and reject the pipeline.

When President Obama rejected this dirty tar sands pipeline the last time, his State Department reflected that the pipeline was not in the American interest because it posed major risks to our water, land, public safety and climate. The same was true then, and it is equally true today.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

Danielle Droitsch

Senior Policy Analyst, Canada Project

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