TC Energy announced last week that it was finally pulling the plug on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline extension. The project would have carried 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil from Alberta to Nebraska every day. The company’s announcement was a foregone conclusion after President Joe Biden rescinded a key federal permit for Keystone XL on his first day in office
The project’s 12-year history is a crash course in the importance of executive action on oil pipelines’ prospects. Keystone XL, originally proposed in 2008, was approved, canceled, then re-approved by previous presidents before Biden delivered its death blow. Former President Obama approved the southern leg of the pipeline in 2012, but a flood of activism caused him to reject the northern leg. Donald Trump overturned that decision early in his presidency and issued a presidential permit to ensure the pipeline would move forward after construction was halted by a U.S. district judge. It was that presidential permit that Biden rescinded earlier this year.
While Biden acted swiftly and decisively on Keystone XL, delivering a long-fought win to environmental and Indigenous activists, he’s been far more hesitant to use his executive authority to stop other major pipeline projects, including the Dakota Access Pipeline and Line 3 expansion.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, has a similarly turbulent history to Keystone XL. In 2016, Obama’s Army Corps of Engineers denied the pipeline a key federal permit to cross the Missouri River, halting the project in its tracks. Shortly thereafter, the Trump administration reversed this position, granting the remaining permits in its early days in office. In 2020, a U.S. district judge ruled that permitting for the pipeline was not conducted with sufficient environmental review. That decision was upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals in January, leaving it up to the Biden administration to decide if the pipeline could continue to operate while the environmental review was conducted.
But in early April, Biden’s Army Corps of Engineers announced its opposition to a shutdown of the pipeline, allowing it to continue to operate without a permit.
“It’s baffling that when it comes to the Dakota Access Pipeline, Biden’s Army Corps is standing in the way of justice for Standing Rock by opposing a court order to shut down this infrastructure,” said Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman in a statement, referring to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which sued to stop the pipeline. Hasslman pointed out that the Biden administration “has also promised to be more sensitive to concerns voiced by Indigenous leaders and Tribal governments.”
DAPL isn’t the only pipeline project that Biden has allowed to proceed. TC Energy’s announcement of Keystone XL’s demise comes as protests over Enbridge’s Line 3, another pipeline extension to transport tar sands oil, are heating up in Northern Minnesota. Police arrested more than 160 people in a protest action against the pipeline last Monday. Despite mounting public pressure, Biden has not taken a stance on the pipeline, which received a federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers last November. The contrast between the administration’s position on Line 3 and Keystone XL is stark, tribal attorney Tara Houska told Biden administration advisers last month: “You can’t cancel Keystone and then build an almost identical tar sands pipeline.” (Editor’s note: Houska was selected as a Grist 50 Fixer in 2017.)
Biden’s inaction on these projects doesn’t just threaten the treaty rights of the tribes that are fighting to stop them. It’s also in conflict with how he positioned his administration as being tough on the climate crisis during his early days in office. “We’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis,” Biden said in a speech at the White House during his first week in office. “We can’t wait any longer. We see it with our own eyes, we feel it. We know it in our bones. And it’s time to act.” Despite Biden’s claims of urgency, massive oil and gas infrastructure projects like DAPL and Line 3 continue to move forward.
Actor and activist Jane Fonda, a vocal opponent of the Line 3 pipeline, pointed out on CNN last week that Biden needs to do more to uphold his climate promises. “He’s done a lot of very good things. But not enough. Not bold enough. And not fast enough.” Fonda said. “The scientists say we have less than nine years to cut our emissions in half. Line 3 is going in the absolute opposite direction, and the news every day is telling us, emissions are going up, not down.”