New Environmental Review Ordered for Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone XL pipeline has once again been brought to a halt by a federal judge.

A view of one of the early major protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, the DC Keystone XL Oil Pipeline Hearing Rally on October 7, 2011. Photo: Elvert Barnes, CC

Late on November 9, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris of Montana ordered a block on the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction permit, pending a new environmental impact analysis.

The $8 billion pipeline, originally proposed in 2008, will if finished transport up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian Albertan crude oil over a 1,184-mile (1,900 kilometer) path through a group of U.S. states on to the Gulf Coast. The project was the brainchild of TransCanada of Calgary.

The pipeline was attacked in previous lawsuits by Native American Tribes and Environmental Groups as being a high risk to their sacred lands and aquifers, as well as violating property rights. Those originally concluded with the Obama administration ordering a halt to the construction in December 2016. When Donald Trump took over the White House, he reversed that order. Trump called the pipeline critical for maintaining “energy independence” even as he simultaneously obliterated multiple environmental protection orders for oil and gas exploration in regions such as U.S. National Preserves and on other federal lands.

Since then there have been several attempts to get the pipeline stopped, arguing multiple times that environmental issues were not properly considered in authorizing the pipeline to go through. The most recent of these challenged plans for re-routing the pipeline which had not properly considered the environmental impacts of those changes.

This time the court ruling is a potentially big one for the Trump administration. Judge Morris wrote that the State Department had not properly investigated the full potential of oil spills along the entire route. The Judge also said the government had not addressed a variety of new environmental issues which were new since 2014, the time of the last environmental review.

The order asked for a revised look at environmental issues on oil spill modeling throughout the route, plus the impact of the new route on sacred lands of the Native American tribes affected. Based on past history with the courts, these items were more related to the re-routing changes and might not be tough hurdles for the government to address.

What is potentially more challenging are two major new subjects the court has ordered be reviewed. The first of these is to consider potential greenhouse gas emissions from the project in combination with another Canadian oil pipeline which is now heading into the U.S. in addition to this one. The second is to consider the economic viability of the new pipeline in view of new lower oil prices than were present when the original studies were commissioned. The combined greenhouse gas emission concern will raise the risks higher than originally imagined for the Keystone XL project. The economic viability analysis may further suggest that the project profits being much lower would make it harder for the company operating the pipeline to maintain and monitor it.

The Trump administration has so far not responded publicly as to whether it wants to appeal this latest decision. If it does not, the environmental and economic reviews required by this ruling could take as much as a year to complete.