Completion of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline is still far from a done deal, despite the Trump administration’s approval of a key permit on Friday that reversed a decision by the Obama administration.
Soon after the State Department granted TransCanada a permit to build a pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border, Trump sat smiling in the Oval Office beside the president of the Canadian company. He declared it a “great day for American jobs.”
But it’s still anything but clear when work can begin on uncompleted sections of the pipeline, which is designed to carry crude from the oil sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission still must issue a crucial permit so the pipeline can cross state boundaries, and that decision may not come until September.
Farmers, landowners and Native American tribes are battling the pipeline, as are national environmental groups and climate activists. They’ve pledged to deploy a variety of strategies – including litigation and civil disobedience – to derail the pipeline, as they did during the Obama administration.
“This project is going to be fought at every turn,” said Bill McKibben, an author and environmentalist who participated in a media call Friday with other pipeline opponents. This time, said McKibben, opponents will be helped by depressed oil and gas prices, which make the pipeline less financially viable than before.
Polls also show declining public support for the pipelines such as Keystone and Dakota Access.
“ “Game on,” said McKibben, founder of the anti-carbon campaign, 350.org and author of “The End of Nature” and other books. “The fight will be very real and very intense.”
Following seven years of protest, President Barack Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015, stating it would undermine the U.S. commitment to reducing carbon emissions. On Friday, the State Department issued a document concluding that the pipeline serves U.S. interests, by improving access to a “dependable source of oil.”
The presidential permit was signed by Tom Shannon, a career diplomat. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recused himself because of his previous position as CEO of Exxon/Mobil, one of the companies with a financial interest in the pipeline.
Canada’s oil sands are located in a sub-artic boreal forest and require extensive use of energy to extract them. Because of low energy prices, two European oil companies have abandoned their production projects in the region, and Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon have reduced their holdings.
Before Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline permits, more than 97,000 activists signed a “pledge of resistance,” vowing to risk arrest in civil disobedience to stop the pipeline, according to CREDO Action, a digital activist networking organization based in San Francisco.
With Trump’s election, organizers are now evaluating whether to encourage these pledge signers to engage in civil disobedience.
“We saw what happened with the Dakota Access (pipeline) protests,” said Josh Nelson, deputy political director for CREDO. “Authorities there ready to use pretty extreme force on Native Americans and water protectors who were peacefully putting their bodies on the line.”
For now, Nelson and his group hope to focus activist attention on upcoming meetings of the Nebraska Public Service Commission. “We will put heavy pressure on them,” he said. “They will receive more public comment than any state commission has ever received.”
Trump campaigned for president on a pledge to restart the Keystone pipeline and build it with U.S. steel. He since has relaxed that requirement after learning that TransCanada had already purchased steel from companies headquartered outside the United States, including Russia, India and Italy.
Fossil fuel interests applauded the administration’s announcement. “This critical infrastructure project has been studied longer than any pipeline project in U.S. history,” said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. “Moving forward, we strongly urge the individual states, which stand to benefit from the Keystone XL pipeline, to approve this important project.”
But Kenny Bruno, an anti-tar-sands campaigner, said the battle will go on, noting that experts once predicted that the pipeline would be completed years ago.
“They underestimated the resourcefulness and the dedication of landowners and the tribes along the route,” he said. “They underestimated the energy of a rejuvenated climate movement around the country.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth