U.S. Court Delays Keystone XL Pipeline Construction by Ordering Environmental Review

Diana Best of Greenpeace USA says many obstacles remain to the completion of Keystone XL

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Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

On August 16, a federal judge in Montana ordered the U.S. State Department to do a full environmental review of a revised route for the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline; a move that could further delay the project, contrary to the wishes of the Trump administration. For years, environmentalists, tribal groups, and ranchers have fought the $8 billion, 1200-mile pipeline to carry heavy crude to Nebraska from Canada’s tar sands. As the tension in Canada has become more and more focused on the TransMountain tar sands pipeline expansion, Keystone XL has been receiving much less scrutiny, and many have assumed that Keystone is a done deal, given that both the Trump administration and the government of Justin Trudeau are enthusiastic supporters of the project. But this new U.S. federal court ruling has challenged that assumption.

Now here to discuss all of this with us is Diana Best. Diana is a senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace USA, based in Denver Colorado. She is currently leading Greenpeace’s Hold the Line work, aimed at halting the political and social influence of the oil industry during the Trump administration. Thanks for joining us today, Diana.

DIANA BEST: Thanks for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So Diana, let’s start with the federal court decision this past Wednesday. In practical terms, what do you think this means for the Keystone XL project?

DIANA BEST: Yeah, so I think it cannot be said enough what a big deal that there is. And I think you heard that from landowners in Nebraska. Absolutely thrilled with this decision.

Essentially what happened is last November the Public Service Commission, which is a commission of five elected members in Nebraska, approved a brand new alternative mainline route to the Keystone XL pipeline. This is something that had never been reviewed. It did not have an Environmental Impact Assessment done. And so they approved a pipeline permit that essentially had not been investigated at all. So this is really seen as a big victory, that now the State Department actually does need to go back and look at what the impact of this new alternative route will be, not only to landowners but also the environment, as well as those living downstream and potentially impacted by pipeline spill.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So Samir Kayande, an analyst with Calgary-based RS Energy Group, told Canada state broadcaster the CBC that this setback could be minor. He’s reported to have stated that, quote: “It seems to be kind of having to do with technicalities involving the permits themselves, so I can’t imagine that, provided the federal agencies that are responsible for permit conditions actually get their act together and do the permits properly, it seems to me that they should be able to resolve these issues. It might be a bit of a delay.” How do you respond to Mr. Kayande’s attempts to downplay the significance of this development?

DIANA BEST: Yeah, I think it’s first worth noting that this is almost a decade-long project. They have been trying to build this pipeline for almost a decade. And it has faced consistent legal, regulatory, ground opposition, opposition from indigenous communities, from landowners, since it was first proposed. And that is going nowhere.

So first, this is not the only-. This is not the only ruling that we’re waiting on. There’s actually a challenge to this new alternative route in Nebraska, the Nebraska Supreme Court. That is in the process right now. There’s going to be oral arguments that are heard in October. And if, in fact, the Supreme Court sides with landowners and sides with people, and says that this is not a valid and legal permit, then the company could be forced to go and reapply with the Public Service Commission in Nebraska. So we’ve already seen a judge’s ruling on one of, one of the challenges to this permit on the federal level. There’s still a very important state level challenge that’s going to be heard in the Supreme Court there in the fall.

The second thing I would say is that, you know, all along we’ve heard that ranchers and landowners and those that are living along the pipeline route have major concerns about this pipeline. That is not going anywhere. In fact, Bold Nebraska, one of the leading groups that’s been fighting this pipeline since its beginning stages, recently came out with an analysis this week that says they estimate that more than 50 percent of new impacted landowners along that new alternative route have not signed easement agreements with the company. So even if the permits go clear and free, and all of this is done, there’s still a major hurdle of actually getting landowners to agree to allow this dangerous and dirty pipeline to go through their property. If they can’t get those easement agreements, then we move into an eminent domain issue, which of course is not popular in the state of Nebraska. It leads to a lot of litigation, sort of political challenges, and so on.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And eminent- just for the sake of our viewers who aren’t familiar with that term, eminent domain is basically the government’s power to confiscate- and I’m simplifying here- but to confiscate private property for the public good.

DIANA BEST: Exactly. And one of the slogans of Nebraska landowners is ‘no eminent domain for private gain.’ Why should people lose their own private property for a company that’s just trying to build a pipeline for their own profits?

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So thus far you’ve been talking, Diane, about the legal aspects, the legal obstacles to the development of this project. In February of this year, Greenpeace USA published an investor briefing in which it outlined a number of other obstacles, including financial economic obstacles, to the completion of this project. Could you talk to us a little about the nonlegal obstacles, particularly the financial challenges involved in making this a viable project?

DIANA BEST: Definitely. So I think it’s worth noting that TransCanada, the company that’s proposing to build the Keystone XL pipeline, has yet themselves to even make a final investment decision on this. This was something we were told by the company we’d hear from them at the end of 2017. That was delayed and pushed to the first quarter of 2018, this year. We still haven’t seen a final investment decision. And just recently they’ve said we’re still waiting on making a final investment decision. That could be sometime at the end of this year, or into 2019. So this isn’t even a surefire thing for the company proposing this project. I think that is an incredibly important thing to review when you’re looking at, you know, what is the, the confidence level in this project that’s felt not only by the company, but the bankers, investors backing that.

I think this project, and I think it’s best put by an analyst, financial analyst who was quoted in a Platts article this week, when he said, quote: “It will be expensive, troublesome, litigious, and politically toxic as it proceeds.” So there is a real wide range of opinions on this project. I think it’s absolutely prudent for bankers and investors who are looking or potentially backing this project to look hard at the risk still on the horizon.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So finally, Diana, in October of 2017, the same company that’s building, or proposing to build the Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada, announced the termination of another major tar sands pipeline project, the Energy East project which you mentioned earlier, which would have run from Alberta all the way to the Eastern coast of Canada. Do you think that there’s a connection between the abandonment of that project and the Keystone XL pipeline? And particularly, do you think that basically TransCanada decided back in 2017 that it had bitten off more they could chew, and it could not feasibly pursue both the TransCanada East Energy Project and the Keystone XL project at the same time because of the extent of public opposition to these two projects?

DIANA BEST: I mean, I think you’ve absolutely named the fact that every single one of these pipelines continues to face tremendous amounts of opposition, not only from people on the ground, but people all over the country and all over the continent who are really standing up because of climate concerns, because of spill concerns, and risks to water, risks to public health and safety.

So I think that ground resistance and that swell of opposition to these new projects absolutely has a heavy toll on the companies trying to propose these. We’re seeing delay after delay. We’re seeing litigation. We’re seeing political uncertainty in the backing of these projects. So, you know, we’ve already seen some proposed tar sands pipeline projects already canceled. Energy East is a perfect example of that. You have to look no further than Kinder Morgan, who recently bailed out of their project and sold the TransMountain expansion pipeline project to the Canadian government.

So I do think there’s something to be said that is the reward worth all of the risk and all of the delay and the public scrutiny, and everything that comes along with proposing these dangerous and dirty new tar sands pipelines?

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been speaking to Diana Best of Greenpeace USA about an important new decision in Nebraska relating to the Keystone XL pipeline. Thank you very much for joining us today, Diana.

DIANA BEST: Thank you for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.