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Tina Casey headshot

A New Black Eye for Keystone XL Pipeline: COVID-19

By Tina Casey
Keystone XL Pipeline

The COVID-19 crisis has brought a new wrinkle to the off-again, on-again saga of the notorious Keystone XL pipeline — and more reputational headaches for its lead developer, TC Energy. The Donald Trump administration is supporting the once dormant project as a job creator. However, the very nature of those jobs has raised concerns that Keystone XL could spread COVID-19 in vulnerable communities where healthcare resources and sanitary infrastructure are already sparse.

That puts TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) in an awkward position, as it seeks to burnish its reputation on climate change, safety, and relations with indigenous communities.

Adding fuel to the fire, the clock is ticking. TC Energy indicated that construction was beginning on a leg of the pipeline earlier this week, only to announce yet another delay.

The Keystone XL pipeline is more than an environmental issue

The issue of community health is not a new one for the Keystone XL pipeline. The project became notorious during the Barack Obama administration mainly for its potential to create significant environmental impacts on a local, regional and global scale, including pipeline leaks and greenhouse gas emissions.

Keystone XL also drew attention to civic impacts that can occur with a sudden influx of temporary construction workers.

A review of a similar project in 2009 suggested that careful planning can reduce or eliminate the impact of pipeline projects on local law enforcement, emergency response, healthcare, housing and other social concerns.

However, as the Keystone XL pipeline wended its way through the approval process, local opponents and environmental advocates continued to raise concerns over the potential for civic as well as environmental impacts, including the taking of private land by eminent domain and the disruption of sensitive environmental and cultural areas.

In addition, the oil and gas boom in nearby North Dakota has demonstrated that significant community impacts can occur when companies fail to plan ahead for temporary workers.

Keystone XL: The COVID-19 effect

The COVID-19 crisis has made physical, onsite activism and protests difficult and dangerous, and that seemed to provide an opportunity for TC Energy to push forward with construction.

Early last week, the Canadian province of Alberta — the source of the tar sands-based oil that will flow through the pipeline if completed — provided TC Energy with $7.5 billion in credit guarantees and other financial support, enabling the construction to push forward immediately.

However, the battle continues in court.

Among the legal organizations seeking to block the project is the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which submitted a filing for the the Fort Belknap Indian Community and Rosebud Sioux Tribe earlier this year.

NARF argued that the Keystone XL pipeline would cross Rosebud mineral estates held in trust by the United States. “Federal agencies have a duty to prevent mineral trespass and protect Indian lands and tribal mineral estates,” the group argued.

NARF requested that construction be suspended while the case is heard.

As the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated in March, the organization also requested a delay over community health issues related to the new threat. “With this construction, workers will descend on the communities along the pipeline’s proposed path,” NARF said in a public statement on April 3, referring to the pipeline’s route through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

NARF cited Fort Belknap President Andrew "Andy" Werk Jr., who explained: Fort Belknap has declared a state of emergency on the reservation because of the extremely dangerous COVID-19 pandemic and its threat to the health and well-being of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribal members.”

“We are very concerned about TransCanada bringing in outside construction workers from all over to build this pipeline within an hour from our reservation,” Werk added.

Cooler heads may prevail

Though construction workers may be deemed essential, it is difficult to make the case for expediting construction of Keystone XL at a time when global oil prices have collapsed and estimates of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 range from 100,000 to 250,000 and up.

Officials in states along the Keystone XL route are also beginning to take the COVID-19 threat more seriously, though so far none have publicly called for a halt to construction.

In particular, the news out of South Dakota seems to support the case for a delay of several weeks, if not several months. On April 3, USA Today reported that South Dakota is preparing for a peak of 5,000 hospitalizations in June, with up to 70 percent of the population infected and the potential for up to 18,000 deaths.

Against this backdrop, on April 2 news surfaced that TC Energy has decided to delay the start of construction at a Keystone XL site in Montana, pushing it back to an undisclosed date later this month.

It remains to be seen whether or not that delay will extend any further.

TC Energy’s website certainly suggests that the company should be willing to suspend Keystone XL construction, at least until the outbreak is under control.

“Even though the energy landscape is changing, our facilities are in place for generations and we are unwavering in our commitment to sustainability,” TC Energy proclaims, referring to workplace and community safety, water and wildlife conservation, greenhouse gas emissions, and Indigenous groups, traditions and lands.

All of that appears to be so much hot air, considering that TC Energy seems intent on adding more workers — and more risk — to an already grave situation.

Image credit: Jason Rojas/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey