President Trump trumped the public and environmental review putting Keystone XL tar sands pipeline on fast track. He did this releasing a memorandum on his “working day two” that invites Trans Canada to reapply for the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and fast track a decision on the project, ignoring the findings and analysis of the National Interest Determination process and requiring State to rely on an outdated environmental review. To be clear, he did not issue an Executive Order.
Implementing Trump’s memo could reverse a major Obama administration decision in 2015 to reject the pipeline as not in America’s national interest which happened after a thorough scientific and public review. The review to reject the pipeline was conducted by the State Department under Executive Order 13337 (which has its roots in cross-border permitting stemming back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant) and landmark environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act. Trump’s order invites TransCanada to re-submit an application for Keystone XL and then directs the Secretary of State to reach a permitting decision within 60 days. The memorandum goes further by asking that the review already completed from the company’s first application from 2012 (which formed the basis of the pipeline’s rejection by the Obama administration) satisfy the review requirements.
It is unclear how the State Department will administer this memorandum but there are a number of red flags inherent in the Trump memorandum.
Trump order requires the use of an old and outdated environmental review
The Final Environmental Impact Statement was completed in 2014, three years ago, with much of its underlying data going back further than that. Effectively the president is asserting that an application made in 2012, five years ago, should still stand and meets the review requirement. This is in the face of, for example, a pivotal National Academy of Sciences report released after the Keystone XL decision that found that tar sands oil presents unique and heightened challenges to first responders in the case of a spill. Most alarmingly, the NAS report found that tar sands oil’s propensity to sink in waterways makes clean up extremely difficult and that our spill response tactics are not up to the task of handling tar sands spills. This issue was never considered in the review process and as far as we can tell won’t be considered under the Trump order expediting review. It is far from the only issue that has emerged since the pipeline was rejected in 2015.
Moreover, the market has changed dramatically since Keystone XL was first proposed in 2008. State’s environmental review of Keystone XL assumed that oil prices were unlikely to fall below $100 a barrel—and indeed likely to average $140 a barrel over the next twenty years. With oil prices less than half that level, the market demand for tar sands oil—both some of the dirtiest and most expensive oil in the world to produce—has declined. Major oil companies are pulling out of the tar sands and it’s been years since a new tar sands project has been greenlighted for construction. All of these issues have a dramatic impact on the risks and benefits of this project. Ignoring them will surely invite litigation.
Trump order would give special treatment to a foreign oil cCompany
The president has invited a foreign company with a troubling safety record to apply for and receive within 60 days—an incredibly expedited time frame—a permit for a massive infrastructure project that will cover five states, cross over a thousand rivers and streams, and impact thousands of acres of land, all without going through a public review process. Additionally, it is important to remember that TransCanada is a company that—by pushing a law that circumvented the normal process in Nebraska for considering a route—now has no route through Nebraska. The president didn’t recognize this basic fact in imposing such a tight deadline.
Trump order would undo a major component of the Obama Legacy on climate
Keystone XL underwent extensive review, spanning multiple years primarily because of missteps by TransCanada and Republican led efforts at accelerating approval through acts of Congress. In November, 2015, Keystone XL was rejected as not in the national interest. The Obama administration undertook this review in collaboration with 10 federal agencies, millions of Americans, and dozens of tribes. The decision was based not only on its climate impacts but that it also did not offer the tangible benefits for energy security, jobs creation, and lower energy prices touted by TransCanada.
If anything, broader national security and economic concerns played a key role in its rejection.
Keystone XL was never a good idea and it still isn’t. The following are key arguments against the pipeline that not only hold true today but are – if anything – more relevant than ever.
Keystone XL is an export pipeline that doesn’t lower gas prices
President Obama himself confirmed Keystone XL was an export pipeline.
“Understand what this project is. It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else.”
According to the National Interest Determination completed by the Obama administration, Keystone XL “would have a limited benefit for energy security.” The evidence is now clear this pipeline is mainly intended for export through and out of the United States. This pipeline does not increase our energy security. Texas refineries that will receive tar sand oil from Keystone XL will refine this heavy oil and ship it internationally. The pipeline will not lower gas prices for Americans and could actually increase gas prices in the Midwest. Why is this? Because right now, tar sands producers fetch a lower price for their land-locked product. If Keystone XL gets built, it will enable Canadian oil producers to get their tar sands oil to a global port, fetch a higher price as a result, and increase gas prices for American drivers. The National Interest Determination confirmed this conclusion.
Keystone XL is and was never a jobs producer
President Trump said that the pipeline would create 28,000 jobs. But the pipeline is anything but a jobs producer. TransCanada, the company who has proposed this project, told the U.S. State Department that the pipeline would create only 35 jobs after it was built. (Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement: Executive Summary: pg. 20). Putting this job figure in context, the Department of Energy reports that in the last year the economy has created 230,000 new clean energy and efficiency jobs, accounting for 10% of the nation’s job growth.
Keystone poses a major risk to water
As cited above, we now know that tar sands sinks in water. The pipeline would cross 1,073 rivers, lakes and streams—from the Yellowstone River in Montana to the Platte River in Nebraska—along with tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, including those in the famed Prairie Pothole Region that makes up 10 percent of the waterfowl breeding habitat in the Continental United States.
Building the pipeline would pose major climate risks
The oil flowing through Keystone XL poses significant climate impacts. Approving this pipeline would add the equivalent of 35.5 million vehicles to the road. Building this project would lock in the dirtiest oil production in the world well beyond 2050. The difference between conventional oil running through this pipeline and tar sands is equivalent to 5.8 million passenger vehicles. The State Department and the EPA confirmed after extensive review that tar sands oil is worse for the climate that conventional oil. From the tar sands mine or drilling operation to the automobile gas tank, tar sands greenhouse gas emissions are 81 percent greater than those of conventional oil. The Obama administration also acknowledged the pipeline would likely accelerate the pace and expand the scale of carbon-heavy tar sands development in Alberta. In fact, Keystone XL is a necessary ingredient in the oil industry’s pursuit of its aggressive plans to expand tar sands production. Because of these facts, President Obama found that this pipeline would undermine U.S. climate leadership. He made this announcement on the eve of the Paris accord negotiations, believing that US action in advance of the meeting would be another way to show the world that the industrialized world was serious about tackling climate change. Putting this pipeline on a fast track would send the world the wrong signal about our willingness to take action.
The decision to reject Keystone XL was based on a robust process
The Obama administration came to understand the issues raised above through a robust and intensive public and scientific process. In expediting review, however, President Trump referred to an “incredibly cumbersome, long, horrible permitting process” that exposes his negative view of gathering public input and data on the impact of major projects, a core principle of democratic governance.
There was unprecedented public engagement in the Keystone XL pipeline review process totaling 3 million submissions, engagement with 10 federal agencies, and dozens of native tribes. Dozens of scientists and energy security experts engaged as well. Landmark laws that are considered the foundation of our environmental protection such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were the bedrock to ensuring the review did its job.
For President Trump to set aside the entire public and environmental review process in this instance sends the wrong message to Americans all across the United States. It says their voices are not important. Projects like Keystone XL affect millions of people. It affects their livelihood, their property and businesses, and their drinking water, air and climate. The American public deserves a fresh public and environmental review before finding, as the Trump administration seems poised to do, that it is in the National Interest. If that is done, it will be clear that this project continues to be all risk and no reward for the American people.