After a nearly decade-long fight over its construction—which grew to include three states, two provinces, several indigenous tribes, tens of thousands of activists, and two U.S. presidents—the Keystone XL pipeline seemed set to clear its final major hurdle on Monday morning.
By a vote of 3-2, the Nebraska Public Service Commission voted to allow the pipeline to pass through the state. The commission’s vote was the last significant regulatory approval that Keystone XL required before construction could begin. Montana, South Dakota, and the U.S. federal government already okayed the 1,100-mile-long project this year.
But—in a twist—the Nebraska commission’s vote might have merely opened a new chapter in the saga. While the commissioners approved Keystone XL, they also ordered that the pipeline take an alternate route through the state. The new route—which adds a 63-mile detour and parallels a preexisting pipeline—increases the cost and legal difficulties of an already expensive and delayed project.
The commissioners said they were forcing the new route because Keystone XL must “take advantage of any opportunity” to run along the preexisting pipeline corridor.
TransCanada, the pipeline’s developer, did not seem to celebrate the approval. Russ Girling, its president and chief executive officer, said in a statement that the company was “assessing how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project.” He also assured investors that the company was pursuing other improvements.
And as the day went on, environmentalists and indigenous groups opposed to Keystone XL sounded upbeat about the possibility of postponing its construction further.
“It’s complicated—indeed, wack—but the lawyers are sounding increasingly cheerful,” tweeted Bill McKibben, a writer and activist who first galvanized opposition to the pipeline. “Lots of room to fight.”
“By pushing Keystone XL onto a new route, the commission all but guaranteed more delays and hurdles for TransCanada to work through. We’ll be there with our allies pushing back on them every step of the way,” said May Boeve, the director of 350.org, a climate-activism organization. She also said that activists should prepare to peacefully assemble in the pipeline’s path.
Sarah Krakoff, a professor of natural-resources law at the University of Colorado, agreed that pipeline’s new route would probably complicate its completion. “I think at a minimum that this slows things down a bit compared to a straight-up approval. Given the recent massive spill in South Dakota, this might buy time to galvanize opposition,” she told me in an email.
Monday wasn’t the first time TransCanada made headlines this month. The Keystone pipeline—the longer and older sister project of the Keystone XL proposal—leaked more than 210,000 gallons of crude oil in South Dakota last week, leaving a spindly black splotch on the farmland and setting off a large cleanup effort. TransCanada said it caught the leak within about 15 minutes. (The Nebraska Public Service Commission is prohibited by law from considering the risk of oil leaks when approving pipelines.)
The scar of last week’s oil spill near Amherst, South Dakota, as seen by drone (TransCanada / Reuters)
The pipeline project commands so much attention largely because it has grown into a symbol of the climate fight.
In 2011, McKibben seized on the pipeline, arguing that taking global warming seriously would mean no longer issuing permits for any fossil-fuel infrastructure. A year later, James Hansen, then the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote in The New York Times that fully exploiting oil beneath the Canadian tar sands—as Keystone XL is meant to do—would spell “game over for the climate.”
President Barack Obama first blocked the pipeline in early 2012, saying it posed too much of a risk to the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Analysts said that he would likely approve the pipeline after his reelection. But his State Department slow-balled the approval process, and—in late 2015, a month before the UN negotiations on climate change in Paris—Obama formally blocked its approval.
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” he said at the time. “And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”
President Donald Trump reversed this decision in the first week of his administration, ordering the federal government to reexamine Keystone XL. “The regulatory processes in this country have become a tangled-up mess, and very unfair,” he told members of the press from behind the Resolute Desk. The government approved the pipeline’s passage within months.
Yet much has changed about the energy industry since the Keystone XL was first proposed in the late 2000s. Cheap natural gas has flooded the market, knocking down the price of oil and turning the United States into a net energy exporter. Canada has also improved the energy-export infrastructure around the Tar Sands, reducing the need for a new massive pipeline. While some analysts have wondered whether the Keystone XL might no longer make economic sense, TransCanada says that it has secured enough early reservations for the project to move forward.
The new route could change that. The Omaha World-Herald reported that some landowners along the route may not even know that Keystone XL now affects them. TransCanada will have to notify them and seek to persuade them to give up chunks of their land. And the company still must secure a permit to cross federal waterways in the United States—the same regulatory hurdle that nearly broke the Dakota Access pipeline last year.
And the climate fight itself has altered the energy market, too. Fossil-fuel infrastructure projects like Keystone XL can now unpredictably transform into national news stories: a new challenge for their investors and backers. By 3 p.m., McKibben was feeling triumphant enough to tweet a story from the National Journal.
“Insiders: Obama Will Approve Keystone XL Pipeline This Year,” it crowed, citing a poll of energy experts. The year it was published? 2011.