Photograph by Daniel Acker, Bloomberg/Getty Images
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Welders work on a joint between two sections of pipe during construction of a pipeline in the Keystone network in Prague, Oklahoma, in 2013.

Photograph by Daniel Acker, Bloomberg/Getty Images

Keystone XL stalls—again—along with other pipeline projects

Legal and financial snarls for three major pipelines are signs of a shifting landscape for fossil fuel infrastructure.

Within 24 hours this week, three major oil and gas pipelines were stymied—two by court decisions and one by economic pressures—in moves that represent a suite of successes for the indigenous and environmental activists long opposed to pipeline development.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a multi-billion-dollar project slated to bring natural gas down the Eastern seaboard, was canceled entirely on July 5. Then, on July 6, a court ordered that the already-in-use Dakota Access Pipeline, designed to shuttle oil from North Dakota to Illinois, halt operations and be emptied of the oil currently in the pipe by August. On the same day, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision to suspend construction on parts of the Keystone XL pipeline, part of a large network of pipelines whose purpose was to carry both Canadian- and American-produced oil to different distribution centers and refineries around the United States.

But even though Keystone XL construction is on hold again, this particular pipeline has seen its share of comebacks—and debates about the viability and advisability of building it are as contentious as ever.

“If we want to avoid exceeding the temperature limits set out in the Paris Agreement, we have to avoid building new fossil fuel infrastructure,” says Neil Swart, a climate scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada who calculated the carbon cost of the pipeline early in its existence.

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, most of the world’s countries agreed to try to limit planetary warming to less than 3.6°F (2°C ) above preindustrial temperatures. More infrastructure that enables the extraction, use, and burning of fossil fuels—as the Keystone XL pipeline would—only make that target harder to achieve, he says: “Scientifically, it’s not ambiguous.”

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Climate activist groups protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court during a case about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in February, 2020.

The landscape for pipelines has changed

What has changed since the inception of the Keystone XL pipeline and other high-profile pipeline projects, roughly a decade ago, is public opinion about climate change—and in particular about fossil fuel infrastructure. High-profile, well-organized campaigns like 2016’s Dakota Access protests, led by the Standing Rock Sioux, focused public attention on the tribal sovereignty issues with many pipeline projects, as well as the climate and environmental impacts.

Indigenous organizers and environmental groups developed sophisticated strategies that targeted weaknesses in the permitting processes for the pipelines and succeeded in shaking the legal foundation for construction at many projects across the country. The Dakota Access Pipeline, for example, was allowed to continue construction throughout its legal troubles and went into operation in 2017, but it couldn’t outrun the issues opponents raised. On Monday, a judge ordered that the pipeline be emptied while its environmental impacts be appropriately assessed. However, its developer has said they will not comply with the order.

“The landscape has absolutely changed,” says Christine Tezak, a pipeline analyst at ClearView Energy. “We attribute that to the permitting process getting harder and permits being more vulnerable upon judicial review. That arises from the fact that environmental, tribal, and landowner advocates have gotten much better at bringing their cases.”

Permitting issues, largely raised by indigenous and environmental groups, also took down the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which announced its demise on Sunday. And similar issues are at the heart of the current ruling preventing construction on the Keystone XL.

“It just flabbergasts me that TC Energy [the developer for Keystone XL] would try to take on the great Sioux nation here,” says Joye Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and a grassroots organizer who has opposed Keystone XL for years. “We’ve rebuilt our alliances since Standing Rock [the site of the Dakota Access protests]. There has been a healing, and we’re ready to fight.”

Keystone XL, the ‘zombie pipeline’

The fight over the Keystone XL (the XL stands for “export limited”) pipeline has stretched out over years since its initial proposal in 2008. Construction has stopped and started over and over again, prompting some to nickname it the “zombie pipeline.”

Most of the Keystone pipeline network, of which it is only one part, has already been built. The proposed 1,200-mile-long Keystone XL leg was slated to carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day (a little less than one percent of the current global daily use) away from Alberta's oil sands to a pipeline terminal in Nebraska, via Montana and South Dakota.

At first, Keystone XL seemed destined for easy approval. But in the early 2010s, its future became snarled in political and environmental controversy. Tribal groups opposed the project on environmental and cultural grounds; environmental groups questioned the permitting process, the potential impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts on ecosystems, and more. In 2015, President Barack Obama rejected the pipeline, citing a host of environmental concerns. Immediately after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, he revived it.

Activity again stalled in 2018 when a judge in Montana—who has overseen many of the challenges to the pipeline over the years—determined that the permits that Trump had granted allowing construction to resume violated several laws.

Then, late last year, that same judge said construction could begin again, and in early April, it did —just as coronavirus was spreading across the United States. Millions of people had been ordered to shelter in place; demand for oil had plummeted. But Montana’s governor named the project “essential,” granting it permission to move forward during the pandemic. Soon afterward, workers laid down a length of pipeline in the dark brown soil at the Canada-Montana border.

Tribes including the Rosebud Sioux and the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux, whose lands nearly abut the proposed construction pathway, feared that workers sent to the region could bring COVID-19 to the native communities. “It’s really upsetting that they would start construction,” Angeline Cheek, a Hunkpapa Lakota and Oglala Sioux activist who lives on the Fort Peck reservation in Montana, said at the time.

Simultaneously, questions reignited about the pipeline’s climate and environmental impacts—its effect on endangered species such as the whooping crane, its role as a conduit for huge volumes of fossil fuels, and its potential long-term effects on tribal water and land.

Many of those controversies continue to play out in court: Only a few weeks after construction resumed, the Montana judge issued a ruling that blocked construction on the hundreds of places along the pipeline where it would have to cross water or wetland. On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld that decision, requiring the developer to apply for individual permits for any water crossing along the route.

Now, according to TC Energy spokesman Terry Cunha, no sites in the U.S. are currently under construction, though pipeline work continues on the Canadian side of the border. “Following yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, we are reviewing our U.S. 2020 construction schedule,” he wrote in an email.

Keystone XL’s climate impacts

One of the original objections to Keystone’s construction has grown only more urgent with time: The concern that its completion would exacerbate the climate crisis by encouraging and enabling more production and burning of climate-warming fossil fuels.

“If Canada proceeds [with expanding oil sand mining in Alberta], and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate,” wrote famous NASA climate scientist James Hansen in 2012.

Critics like Hansen have long been concerned that the Keystone XL’s existence will encourage further development in Canada’s oil sands, which cover thousands of acres and hold vast deposits of thick, sticky bitumen, a kind of oil that is mixed in with dirt, sand, and water.

The tar sands are the one of the largest known deposits of oil on Earth. All in all, geologists estimate that they hold some 1.8 trillion barrels of oil—about as much as humans have extracted from other sources over the past century. Of those, about 170 billion barrels are viable, according to the Canadian government. If all that oil were extracted and burned (which is unlikely, under current political and economic scenarios), global temperatures would likely rise by about 0.05°F (0.03°C )—a small number, but enough to matter in the overall climate-change picture.

Since 2012, an avalanche of science has reinforced that burning more fossil fuels increases the risks of climate change. In 2018, the IPCC warned that just 2.7°F (1.5°C )of warming, less than the Paris Agreement target of 2.7°F, would have devastating impacts for the planet (See the climate consequences for your city in 2070, if no serious actions are taken to stop warming).

Many locations around the globe, from the Arctic to eastern Europe to the south Atlantic, have already surpassed that 2.7°F target. Still others—some within the U.S., like New Jersey—have passed 3.6°F.

Locked in to burning more fossil fuels?

Getting oil out of the tar sands is expensive and inefficient. Massive government subsidies funding infrastructure development—like drilling operations and pipelines—helped make the region’s oil economically viable and encouraged production.

But more production is directly in conflict with climate goals, according to many economists, scientists, and environmentalists. They posit that any infrastructure, like pipelines, that make more oil available will “lock in” future climate emissions at a time when all efforts should be to avoid them.

A completed Keystone XL, says Peter Erickson, an economist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute, would lead to an extra 150 million tons of CO2 and other gases building up in the atmosphere each year—the equivalent of nearly 30 coal-fired power plants. (To reach its climate goals, Canada is aiming to cut its emissions by 175 million tons of CO2 a year by 2030—just barely offsetting their oil sands climate costs.) Those annual additions would potentially linger for decades.

“If you build something that’s meant to last a long time, it often does last a long time,” says Erickson. “A pipeline is a perfect example. Once you build, there’s very little financial incentive to stop using it.”

Globally, a 2015 analysis showed, 80 percent of the world’s known coal reserves and 30 percent of the oil would have to stay in the ground in order to have any chance of keeping on track with the Paris goals. For Alberta’s oil sands, 85 percent of the known reserves should stay in the ground, meaning production should start ramping down quickly if climate goals are to be met.

If stringent goals were set and carbon emissions were priced, the economics of the oil sands would collapse, and production would likely decrease quickly after 2030 or so, says Mark Jaccard, an economist at Simon Fraser University.

For Swart, the concept of not building the pipeline is both symbolic and practical. “It’s not just a question of, what are the exact consequences for this one project,” he says, “but if everyone in the world followed our lead, what would happen?”