Legal challenges await Keystone XL pipeline after Trump grants permit

The Keystone XL transnational pipeline received a long-sought presidential permit Friday as the Trump administration granted a green light to the $8 billion Canadian tar sands oil project. But hurdles still remain before construction can begin — starting with route approval in Nebraska, and promises from opponents to fight the pipeline on the ground and in the courts, specifically the legality of relying on a 2014 environmental review.

The permit allowing construction at the U.S.-Canada border in Montana was issued Friday, March 24, by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon Jr. An executive order from President Donald Trump four days after taking office directed the department to conduct an expedited review of the project.

Once completed, Keystone XL would carry up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil 1,179 miles from Alberta, Canada, through Montana and South Dakota, to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would then connect with already constructed Keystone pipelines that would move the oil to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.

In a statement, Russ Girling, TransCanada president and CEO, said the permit approval was "a significant milestone," and added "We greatly appreciate President Trump's Administration for reviewing and approving this important initiative."

At the White House Friday morning, Trump said the permit approval "is part of a new era of American energy policy," and Keystone is "just the first of many energy and infrastructure projects that my administration will approve," promising additional announcements soon. Under his direction, the Army granted in February a final easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which could begin carrying oil within days.

As for Keystone XL, Trump said, "It's going to be an incredible pipeline, greatest technology known to man or woman. And frankly, we're very proud of it." Despite Trump's repeated insistence that Keystone and new pipelines would be built with American steel, the White House confirmed earlier this month that Keystone will not, since it was considered already under construction.

TransCanada has pursued the presidential permit — required since it crosses an international border — since September 2008. Since then, the controversial project had undergone a series of reviews, environmental impact statements and a political gauntlet that led former President Barack Obama to refer to the pipeline as a "campaign cudgel" in rejecting the permit in November 2015.

Patrick Carolan, executive director of Franciscan Action Network, told NCR he was "very disappointed" but not surprised that Trump granted the permit, and took it as further indication that the president doesn't care about climate change or the environment.

"This pipeline is detrimental to the earth and our water and will not create the abundance of jobs it claims … As people of faith, we will not stop fighting for climate justice and access to clean water for all," Franciscan Action Network said in a statement.

Rallies against the decision were expected to take place Friday evening outside the White House in New York City.

Advocates for the pipeline have argued it would create jobs and further American energy security. The latest State Department report estimated the project would create 42,100 temporary construction jobs, but once operational would require just 50 employees, only 35 of which would be permanent positions.

Beyond miniscule long-term jobs prospects, Keystone opponents have said the project will exacerbate climate change, in that tar sands oil emits greater amounts of greenhouse gases than crude oil, and sends a signal of continued fossil fuel reliance at a time when the global energy systems need to shift toward renewable sources.

In addition, they raise concerns about the threats the pipeline poses to indigenous communities along its route, and the effects a spill could have on the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the country's largest underground freshwater deposits that rests beneath eight states.

Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network told journalists on a teleconference March 24 that the route comes within 200 yards of the Rosebud Sioux tribal land and crosses water systems for multiple Sioux tribes and 15,000 non-native people in South Dakota.

The pipeline has yet to have a route approved through Nebraska, where a five-member public service commission hold jurisdiction. Jane Kleeb, president of the anti-Keystone Bold Alliance, said she anticipates numerous legal challenges ahead from ranchers and landowners, and that the process could take two to three years to play out.

The Nebraska pathway was among the "significant legal and regulatory barriers" identified by other environmental leaders on the call; another regarded the State Department's reliance on a 2014 environmental impact statement in issuing the permit.

Anthony Swift, director of the Canada project of the National Resources Defense Council, said the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act requires decision-makers to act on the best information available and to give the public opportunity to engage in the process.

"The world has changed dramatically since the January 2014 review was published," he said. The '14 environmental report Swift said didn't factor in oil prices falling below $100 a barrel (currently under $50 a barrel) and couldn't take into account new findings, such as a 2015 report from the National Academy of Sciences that indicated current spill response inadequate for dealing with sludgy tar sands oil.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said their lawyers are reviewing the State Department report and could challenge it in court within days.

"We will defeat this pipeline in the courts and in the court of public opinion," Brune said during the press call.

A February Quinnipiac survey found 51 percent of American voters opposing a restart of both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, with 38 percent supporting them.

When Obama denied the permit in November 2015, he said did so in part because approving the tar sands oil pipeline would "undercut" U.S. leadership on climate change as it headed into the Paris climate negotiations a few weeks later.

As a result of the rejection, TransCanada brought a $15 billion trade lawsuit against the U.S. under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. (It suspended the suit Feb. 28.) Chloe Schwarbe, the faith economy ecology program director for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, said that suit is a sign of the "fingerprints of corporate influence" on the permit approval.

"This case is emblematic of the other kinds of cases that we see around the world," she said, where corporations use trade agreements to bypass environmental protections and concerns of local communities to move projects like Keystone forward.

"The Trump Administration is putting corporate profits over the rights of people and the environment on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border," Schwarbe told NCR.

Carolan of Franciscan Action Network said he expected Keystone to take a central role in the People's Climate March on Washington, set for April 29, Trump's 100th day in office. The march will be the third environmentally focused rally in two months, with the Native Nations March occurring on March 10, and a scientists' march in D.C. scheduled for Earth Day (April 22).

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here