Within hours of his inauguration on January 20, President Joe Biden walked into the Oval Office, pulled his chair up to the Resolute Desk, and signed a broad executive order to tackle the climate crisis, including a clause that revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction in the United States.
On paper, at least, the controversial project was dead. TC Energy, the pipeline’s owner, suspended operations on Keystone that day; opponents made celebratory announcements.
The Keystone XL, which is designed to deliver 830,000 barrels a day of crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to refineries in the U.S., has been declared dead before. In 2015 President Barack Obama rejected the initial permit application—but President Donald Trump reversed that decision. Along the way the pipeline has been repeatedly stalled by legal challenges.
In the face of Biden’s order, TC Energy has not yet announced whether it plans to concede and scrap the project, though it does seem likely. Conceivably it could decide to wait for more favorable political conditions that would allow it to resume construction. Its best option might be to seek compensation for its losses from the U.S. government. (The company did not respond to requests to comment on this story.)
If the pipeline were ever completed, its impact would resonate for generations, environmentalists have long argued, in the form of added carbon emissions from all the oil it would carry to market. But even if, as now seems more likely, the Keystone XL never carries any oil, its impact will still linger—in the form of assets stranded along its 1,200-mile path.
The result of a decade of stop-and-go progress is a patchwork of infrastructure strung over almost that entire route, from the starting point in Hardisty, Alberta, where a pumping station was completed in December, to the junction in Steele City, Nebraska, where the XL is supposed to join the existing Keystone pipeline that already runs to Texas. There are now more than 90 miles of Keystone XL pipe in the ground, a string of temporary work camps under construction, and roughly 48,000 tons of pipe sitting in yards all along the route. There is also a less material but still valuable asset: a chain of perpetual land easements, laboriously assembled by TC Energy lawyers, stretching nearly the entire length of the route.
After Biden’s order, all of that effort is in a state of suspension. What will become of it?
Pipelines are forever
One of the first sections of the Keystone XL pipeline was laid across Carol Hern’s ranch by the Red Deer River near Bindloss, Alberta, about 150 miles south of Hardisty. In summer 2020, cutting across rolling hills of prairie grass under wide-open skies, the pipe was put in well away from her house. “On our place, it’s in the perfect place,” she said.
“It’s just like when you have a cut on your arm and then when it heals you get a bit of a scar and it doesn’t really hurt your arm or anything. It’s just sort of an appearance thing. It’s sort of the same way on prairie land. It’s just that it was disturbed and put back,” Hern said, describing the project.
TC Energy’s pipe is laid mostly to the north of that start point in Alberta, though a short piece is in place on the border between Montana and Saskatchewan. There’s also an extra 27 miles of land that has been prepared for the next stretch of pipe. About a third of the pipes have been fully buried, leaving long stretches of open trench.
For some people, like horse breeder Arnold McKee in Oyen, Alberta, Keystone XL construction has been catastrophic from the start.
“Twelve years ago, most of us didn’t have a clue what was involved in the big pipes,” McKee remembered. He agreed to let both the Keystone and the Keystone XL cross his land, expecting minimal disruption, like the many small pipelines that string oil wells together in the area.
“When the construction started, it was totally unbelievable. It was a shock to our system,” McKee said, explaining his surprise at the destruction during installation of the original Keystone pipeline. Construction spooked three colts, who became tangled in new fences along the pipeline and died. The deep trench wafted dust for years before it healed, engulfing the ranch in dirt that filtered into hay bales and, McKee believes, caused fatal respiratory failure in seven of his mares. “When they announced they were going through with the XL line, I panicked,” said McKee, and he asked TC Energy to wait until the fall, when there would be less dust. But more pipe was laid, kicking up the soil again.
The property still has not been remediated, McKee said. Now, he wishes the company would remove the pipe and try to return the earth to its natural state. “This was all native prairie grass that they tore,” he said. “You can never rebuild that once it’s torn up, especially putting a pipe in the ground.”
Whether or not oil ever flows through any of that pipe, though, it will likely stay in the ground forever.
The United States and Canada are covered in a fine mesh of pipelines, some 3 million miles of them, that carry oil, gas, water, and waste from tanks and wells to homes and refineries every day. When their need fades, the lines are sometimes removed but are more often cleaned out, sealed at their ends, and left in place, out of sight and mind.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’ve only actually ever come across a situation once where a company removed a pipeline,” said Iain Colquhoun, Chief Engineer at the Canadian Energy Regulator. The process of abandoning pipelines in situ is environmentally safe, he said, though the old lines need to be monitored for erosion as the steel steadily rots; there have been some cases of leaks from improperly abandoned lines.
Leaving the pipe in place avoids disrupting the soil and landowners in its path a second time, and also saves companies the cost of cleanup and the liability of the long dig to take out the pipes.
However, such inaction can also create headaches for new construction projects. “You go to dig a pond or build a building on top of that and you’re in trouble,” explained David Howell, whose company, Pipeline Equities, salvages some pipeline.
He lives in Houston, where the quickly expanding city often gets tangled in nets of old oil infrastructure. “No one says anything about what happens in 40 years when the pipeline is no longer useful,” Howell said. “You just learn to live with it.”
Dismantling man camps and pump stations
In the online video, yellow sodium lights glinted off the cracked windshield as Oscar High Elk and Tiffanie Pieper drove their truck through prairie grass in South Dakota toward a construction site. As they slowly cruised the fence line, they filmed bucket loaders, piles of dirt, and temporary bunkhouses. As soon as they pulled up to the entrance, workers closed the gate.
The only pipe in U.S. soil is a short stretch at the border crossing between Monchy, Sasketchewan, and Malta, Montana. But TC Energy has reported site preparation and construction in the U.S. at 10 pump station sites and 11 “man camps” to house the 10,400 temporary workers that the company expects to employ.
High Elk and Pieper have been monitoring the construction as they protest it, driving by sites in South Dakota. Though the Keystone XL does not cut across any Indigenous reservation land, it skirts the edge of the Fort Peck, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud reservations, crossing their water sources—and intersecting with the muddied history of ignored land treaties. That has sparked strong resistance.
“My ancestors used these rivers as their main roads, their interstates,” High Elk said, explaining why he felt a calling to protest the threat he sees to waterways like the Cheyenne River.
Angeline Cheek, who lives on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, is an Indigenous justice organizer for the ACLU. She’s worried about the possibility of Keystone starting back up again; she vividly remembers Montana Department of Justice data from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota and Montana. Driven by the proliferation of man camps, serious violent crime increased 38 percent between 2006 and 2012 in communities near oil production. There were also reports of increased human trafficking and drug use.
The risk increases on Indigenous reservations, where crimes often fall through jurisdictional cracks. The Bakken oil boom drove a 75 percent increase in sexual assaults on women on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.
And now, there are three Keystone XL man camps for 3,800 workers planned within 55 miles of her reservation in Montana, Cheek says. That's more than a third of the Fort Peck Reservation's population within a short drive in the sparsely populated region. Even though Keystone has been shut down, the close proximity makes her nervous.
During a peaceful march against the Keystone XL in 2020, Cheek’s life was threatened by counter protesters. “I had a knife that was held to my neck,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Let’s kill these Indians. Scalp them. Yeehaw.’” She believes the pipeline will have left an indelible mark on her area even if it never gets finished.
If TC Energy decides to give up on the project, the company will cart away the work camps and salvage what scrap they can. TC Energy engineers have raised concerns about the safety of some of the pieces of pipe that have been prepositioned in yards along the route, sitting out in the elements for a decade now. However, there is likely still some value in the roughly 48,000 tons of steel.
But some pieces of the pump houses could remain in place. Enbridge is now in the process of abandoning the Line 3 pipeline that has carried crude oil from Alberta to Wisconsin since the 1960s, and the company plans to leave pump houses where they stand to use them as maintenance and storage depots. TC Energy could make a similar decision.
The company has not yet taken any action, however. “It doesn’t look like they’ve made an effort to shut down anything yet,” Tiffanie said after driving to visit some of the sites a week after Biden’s executive order. “To us, they could start back up working at any moment.”
The long arm of the land law
As much as a pipeline is made up of steel welded together by hundreds of skilled workers, it is also a feat of legal wizardry. Before the first shovelful of dirt can be dug, lawyers have to forge a path of easements that stretches from end to end, negotiating with every landowner along the way to establish a price and any extra terms in exchange for the right to use a strip of their property forever.
“That is a very valuable asset,” explained Brian Jorde, a lawyer representing farmers and ranchers in Nebraska who have resisted the Keystone XL pipeline so far. “Even if the pipeline was half constructed, that’s their property. They own it forever.”
To build this pathway, companies try to work quickly and quietly, offering landowners up front the carrot of a sum, sometimes a tidy one— as much as six figures, but also as little as a few hundred dollars—and the stick of eminent domain if they resist. So, many sign away a perpetual right of way without seeking legal counsel, worried that they’ll miss out on a deal and find themselves in court.
Jorde got involved in Keystone XL cases eleven years ago when he was approached by worried farmers and ranchers who wondered if there was another option. He filed lawsuits on their behalf, which are still in active negotiation. Jorde does not expect that to change. TC Energy’s string of easements is almost unbroken for the entire Keystone XL route, and they are unlikely to relinquish it.
On the East Coast, Dominion Energy and its partners are sitting on a similar asset along the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The project was aborted last summer as the financial viability crumbled after numerous legal delays, and many landowners expected that their land would be released from the easements. The company has made plans to dismantle roads it had constructed and to abandon the partially constructed pipeline in place, but it is so far holding onto the easements.
That has set expectations for the Keystone XL agreements.
“Listen, you don’t understand how powerful these easements are,” Jorde said. The company could sit on them for decades to wait for the right political and economic moment, and it could even sell the easements to another company.
“They’ve got billions in the project,” Jorde said, adding that he didn’t expect them to give up easily. “How old am I? Forty-four. Twenty years from now, am I going to be fighting this for the children and grandchildren of these landowners? Sure.”
A week into his presidency, President Biden signed a second executive order meant to catalyze action against “the existential threat of climate change.” He singled out the need to clean up abandoned oil and gas infrastructure.
“We're going to start to properly manage lands and waterways in ways that allow us to protect, preserve them—the full value that they provide for us for future generations,” the president said in a press briefing.