The Keystone XL pipeline is useless. However the battle towards related initiatives is much from over.
After more than 10 years, the competitive Keystone XL pipeline was officially abandoned.
In a statement on Wednesday, Canadian developer TC Energy said that after reviewing its options with the government of Alberta, Canada – their partner in the $ 8 billion project – the company had decided not to move forward.
The decision ends the long battle over the proposed expansion of the pipeline that would have delivered more than 800,000 barrels of high carbon tar sand oil per day from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. Once there, the pipeline would have met the existing pipeline infrastructure to go further south to the oil refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Construction on the project has been halted since January when President Joe Biden, on his first day in office, issued an executive order revoking the pipeline's approval. In doing so, Biden has kept his promise to the climate activists who contributed to his election.
However, activists and experts say shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline is just a start. They also want the existing Keystone XL infrastructure to be removed and for Biden to cancel other cross-border fossil fuel expansion projects like the expansion of Line 3 of the Minnesota pipeline.
This is how the Keystone XL pipeline was finally defeated – and why climate and indigenous activists say their struggle is far from over.
A brief explanation of the Keystone XL pipeline
The Keystone XL pipeline has become an almost perfect example of how diverse stakeholders – indigenous communities, climate activists, scientists, policymakers, farmers, landowners and ordinary citizens – are engaging in the wider debate on climate change.
Canada-based TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) first proposed the 1,200-mile Keystone XL pipeline in 2008 to quickly move 830,000 barrels of tar sands (also known as oil sands) per day from the Canadian province of Alberta across the border into Steele City, Nebraska to pump. There, the Keystone XL extension would converge with the existing pipeline infrastructure and head south to Texas for further processing in oil refineries on the Gulf Coast.
A card of the proposed Keystone XL expansion.
Laris Karklis / The Washington Post via Getty Images
When the idea for Keystone XL first came up in the 2000s, the project made a lot of sense – the US economy was dependent on oil, and proponents of the pipeline claimed it was in the interests of both countries to find a way to get oil across efficiently transport the continent. With high oil prices and constant demand, Alberta's tar sands have easily brought in $ 200 billion in investment.
However, there are significant differences between oil made from Alberta's tar sands and conventional oil, which wore out quickly in the region.
First of all, extracting oil from Alberta's oil sands, which contain bitumen (tar), a dense type of petroleum, requires a lot of energy. Most of Canada's tar sands oil is trapped under boreal forests – only 20 percent of the oil is near the surface of the earth where it can be easily mined, meaning the forest must be cleared for the most intense mining.
Most of the oil is produced by injecting hot water 75 meters underground to liquefy the oil for pumping, which is why tar sand oil has a reputation for being one of the dirtiest types of oil.
Many tribal rights groups and people from communities along the proposed route argued that extending the pipeline would have catastrophic effects on Alberta's indigenous communities: much of the water used to extract oil from Alberta's tar sands comes from the Athabasca River. Studies have linked leaks from oil sands pipelines like Keystone XL to significant degradation in nearby land and water resources.
A major concern is sedimentation tanks, the product of toxic mining waste in the tar sands that can sicken communities and wildlife that depend on the land to survive.
"The land is our solution, the water is our solution, the air is our solution to meet our needs," said Jesse Cardinal of the Kikino Metis Settlement, director of Keepers of the Water, a collective of First Nations working towards the Sheltered the nearby Mackenzie River Basin, told me. Cardinal helped lead the Tar Sands Healing Walk, a grassroots movement that confronts people with the destruction of oil sands as a healing method.
Environmental groups took note of Indigenous resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline. After President Barack Obama's climate legislation suffered a severe defeat, the climate movement joined forces in 2011 to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline.
Inspired by the Indigenous-led opposition to the pipeline, several environmental groups organized two-week sit-in strikes in front of the White House in the fall of 2011, during which more than 1,200 people were arrested. The arrests have attracted heightened media attention at a time when there was relatively little national coverage of climate change-related issues.
James Hansen, dubbed “the father of global warming” in 1988 for testifying to Congress on the science of man-made climate change, took part in the White House protests. Hansen said at the time that the unchecked exploitation of Canada's oil sands was "game over" for the climate.
Faced with immense pressure from the anti-keystone movement, Obama canceled the pipeline in 2015. He defended his decision at a press conference, saying the pipeline would not make gas cheaper or improve US energy security. He added that approving the pipeline would ultimately undermine U.S. global leadership on climate change, which he believed was a red line for Keystone XL approval.
In January 2016, TC Energy filed a lawsuit against the US over the repeal of Keystone XL, seeking US $ 15 billion in damages under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for the company's arbitrary suspension of the project. The company then waited to try its luck with the next government – which turned out to be Trumps.
Keystone XL starts – and stops – under Trump
In January 2017, just days after his presidency, President Donald Trump issued an executive order asking TC Energy to reapply for a presidential permit for Keystone XL to cross the Canadian border. He also promised a speedy process, just over a year after Obama said the pipeline extension was not in the national interest.
The State Department granted approval a few months later.
But Obama's reasons for canceling Keystone XL – it was not in America's national interest and it ran counter to US leadership on climate change – were still valid, and activists (and much of the public) still paid attention.
"Before Obama's decision, pipeline companies and the oil industry assumed that no matter how poorly designed the project would be approved," said Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
After Obama's decision, Keystone XL became more difficult to justify in public.
“The public scrutiny of Keystone XL and the permitting process has postponed the expectation that pipelines will be turned upside down. Now the public wants a solid analysis and verification process that makes it difficult to move such pipelines forward, ”said Swift.
With oil spills from tar sands pipelines being the order of the day, scientists and activists argued that a "robust analysis" to examine the risks to water resources and the communities that depend on them should be carried out before the Keystone XL project moves forward.
In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences published a study that found that diluted bitumen (which makes up the bulk of tar sand oil) differed from the other types of oil carried by U.S. pipelines in ways that made it more susceptible to dangerous conditions Makes leaks. In 2017, 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from the existing Keystone pipeline in South Dakota.
"Any fact-based environmental review shows why policymakers shouldn't approve fossil fuel-expansion projects like Keystone XL in a world trying to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change," said Swift.
But the need for an environmental review hasn't stopped the Trump administration from rushing Keystone XL.
In January 2020, Trump's White House made one final attempt to expedite Keystone XL and similar projects across the country by restricting implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to conduct environmental impact assessments, their economic and social impacts Actions to be taken before starting a project.
But in July 2020, the Supreme Court dashed any hope of the Keystone XL completion under the Trump administration, and sided with Montana environmental groups who argued that the Army Corps of Engineers' approval process for the Keystone XL Pipeline should undergo a full environmental assessment because it would cross bodies of water.
Biden finally killed the pipeline – but demand for it had already weakened
Oil demand, which has been declining for a long time, was hit hard in 2020 by falling investment, severe storms affecting production, and the coronavirus pandemic. And in recent years, Alberta's oil sands industry, once booming with money, has struggled to attract investment.
"With oil prices falling, both from the pandemic and generally since 2014, the industry is under real pressure and we've seen many players leave the market," said Sven Biggs, Canadian Oil & Gas Program Director at Stand .earth, an ecological grassroots organization, told me about it in March.
"ConocoPhillips, Shell, Statoil from Norway (and) the Koch brothers have sold their stake in the tar sands and have moved on, which means that these pipelines will be used less than previously expected," added Biggs.
TC Energy struggled to attract private investors to Keystone XL – it was only able to run the project with the help of a grant from Alberta Prime Minister Jason Kenney, who approved more than $ 1 billion in public funding in the spring in depth 2020 to support the project.
When Biden finally pulled the plug on Keystone XL, climate concerns and declining investments in Alberta's oil sands led experts to believe Keystone XL was dead.
But for many indigenous groups, climate activists, and people from communities affected by fossil fuel infrastructure, the battle is bigger than it is for Keystone.
“The Keystone XL pipeline was never about a single pipeline. It's about establishing a litmus test based on climate science and climate justice for government projects and infrastructure, ”Kendall Mackey, manager of 350.org's Keep It in the Ground campaign, told me in March.
The next big battle – stopping the expansion of Line 3 of the pipeline – is already here
Keystone XL is dead, but the Indigenous-led fight against the Line 3 pipeline project is already here. The battle has been heating up since December when Enbridge, the Canadian multinational responsible for the project, began construction.
When completed, the approximately 340 mile pipeline expansion project will transport 1 million barrels of tar sand oil per day from Alberta through much of northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin.
Enbridge says the project will create thousands of jobs and pump billions of dollars into the Minnesota economy. The company also emailed Vox that it had done everything legally required to obtain approval for the pipeline and make sure it was operating safely.
Protective police arrest environmental activists at Line 3 pumping station near Itasca State Park, Minnesota, June 7, 2021.
Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images
But indigenous activists are urging Biden to remove line 3, as he did at Keystone XL, because they say it poses a significant risk of oil spills that could destroy valuable water resources, wetlands and ancestral lands. According to a report, the opening of Line 3 will have the same impact on the climate as the commissioning of 50 new coal-fired power plants.
Opposition intensity to the pipeline peaked earlier this week when thousands of protesters gathered in Minnesota. Almost 200 people were arrested.
And now that TC Energy has finally given up on Keystone XL, President Biden is under pressure to cancel Line 3.