Friday was a bad day for Republicans, but President Donald Trump wasn’t having any of it.
As members of his political party awkwardly tried to explain how their signature healthcare plan had failed to get enough votes in a Republican-majority House of Representatives, Trump took other steps to salvage his reputation as the country’s “deal maker.”
He turned his attention to the Keystone XL pipeline, an issue of passionate concern among his most conservative allies, the North American oil lobby. As House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered the heavy news that the healthcare bill was dead, Trump reassured TransCanada CEO Russ Girling that Keystone XL was once again very much alive.
“You’ve been waiting a long, long time,” Trump told Girling as he confirmed the State Department’s permit to proceed. “It’s a great day for American jobs, and a historic moment for North America, and energy independence.”
The announcement was just the kind of thing that Trump's conservative backers would want to hear. Defeats on key issues, including those that Trump was elected to fix, are understandable so long as big-ticket items -- like a dicey $7 billion pipeline expansion that was stymied by his predecessor -- were still being tackled.
Environmental organizations announced immediately that they would fight the pipeline’s go-ahead.
“We’ll use every took in the kit,” vowed Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Greenpeace is confident the project will never move forward. “[Despite] this approval, Keystone XL and the financial institutions that choose to support it will face widespread opposition in Canada and the U.S. to ensure this pipeline doesn’t get built,” Greenpeace Canada Climate Campaigner Mike Hudema said. He noted that the pipeline doesn’t yet have approval through Nebraska, something Girling confirmed to the president.
Trump’s response was vintage: "I’ll call Nebraska,” he said.
But despite the president’s confidence that he can smooth the pipeline’s route past geographic and political obstacles, the project still faces some formidable challenges.
The first is the environmental impact assessment that gave former President Barack Obama the leverage to halt the project. Pipeline opponents would likely argue in court that a new assessment would need to be done before the pipeline could go ahead. Combined with other standard regulatory procedures, the process could take years, especially if it ends up in court.
Then there’s the work that TransCanada must still do to attain access through Nebraska lands. Much of the route cuts across private property, requiring the oil company to negotiate and dialogue with hundreds of landowners who may be affected by the route. Refusal to allow passage may result in eminent domain claims, a move guaranteed to politicize the pipeline debate even further.
State permitting agencies will have a say in the process, too. While Trump is promising faster approval for infrastructure projects like Keystone XL, he may not have direct say in how state agencies operate: State regulatory commissions have their own requirements and schedules, and they may require the pipeline company to meet certain specifications before it can proceed with construction.
On Friday, Trump said the project would not only “lower costs for American families,” but also “reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create thousands of jobs.” The Trump administration said the 830,000 barrel-a-day pipeline would create 28,000 jobs.
But according to a 2014 State Department study, that number is closer to 3,900 temporary construction jobs and just 35 permanent positions.
These lower job figures raise the question of whether the pipeline, which would cross through the country’s fertile breadbasket, is worth the environmental investment. According to data extracted from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the following map, there were just under 9,000 pipeline accidents in the last 30 years across the United States
The Ponca Tribe in Nebraska, which also has tribal territories in South Dakota and Iowa, is among several organizations along the route that is opposing the project. Tribal chairman Larry Wright said the tribe has a say in whether the pipeline crosses its land, and that up to now, “There has been almost no consultation with [the] tribe. “
The tribe filed a petition to intervene in proceedings before the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which is due to review the proposed pipeline route. In a statement released last week, the tribe noted that all of the proposed routes would cross the tribe’s “congressionally-designated territory and jurisdictional area." The tribe says it is concerned about a potential spill and the well-being of its historical sites, which could be damaged or disturbed during construction.
“Our Nation has serious concerns about the safety and environmental impacts of this pipeline,” Wright said.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe from South Dakota, as well as the Indigenous Environmental Network, also weighed in on the issue. The Rosebud Sioux voiced its opposition to Keystone XL in 2014, calling the proposed pipeline route across its land “an act of war.” In the tribe’s most recent statement released Friday, Tribal Council Member Wayne Frederick said members are “extremely disheartened by the current decision to approve this dead project" and called on President Trump to “[respect] our existence or expect our resistance.”
Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said indigenous members feel their well being is being threatened. “Indigenous people are rising up and fighting like our lives, sovereignty and climate depend on it – because they do.”
Other national and regional organizations, including the League of Conservation Voters, Oil Change International and the Environmental Advocates of New York also issued strong statements, vowing to fight the federal government’s actions.
“It isn’t game over; it’s game on,” said Stephen Craftsman, executive director of Oil Change International.
“Keystone’s approval is not a one-off. It’s part of a larger scheme the fossil fuel industry hatched to make Americans more dependent on their product. They are cornering consumers into reliance,” Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, a nonprofit based in the Empire State, asserted in a statement released to TriplePundit.
“This pipeline is all risk and no reward, and we will continue to fight it every step of the way,” summarized Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for the League of Conservation Voters’ governmental affairs.
Environmental and community organizations are urging supporters to stop doing business with the banks funding the project, as they did with the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Unfortunately, the Keystone XL battle doesn’t just promise to ensnare oil companies, advocacy organizations and the Trump administration in what could easily become years of protracted legal fights, but also taxpayers on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.
The Canadian government is looking to Keystone XL to reboot the Canadian economy, which was hit hard by diminishing oil sands revenue and job losses. It needs a Keystone win if it is going to invest its support in a project that some say will take the country further away from its Paris climate goals.
As with the healthcare rewrite, the Keystone XL resurrection has some formidable challenges to meet before it can proceed – and it’s far from evident at this point that Trump can fulfill his promises any time soon.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.