Keystone XL Pipeline Died In 1968, But Thank You Anyways, Daryl Hannah!

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Ever since yesterday morning, the Intertubes have been buzzing with news that President Obama announced the official demise of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and since this is CleanTechnica, of course we’re going to bring you some cool insider-y news about that: the President told ya’ll the controversial project was dead more than two years ago, and nobody was listening except perhaps Daryl Hannah and a few other folks.

fork Keystone XL

Keystone XL Pipeline Actually Died In 2013…

President Obama really did drop his bombshell on the Keystone XL pipeline two years ago, on June 25 2013 to be precise. Here’s the CleanTechnica review:

The much-anticipated President Obama climate change speech on Tuesday at Georgetown University easily topped 6,000 words, but one of them really stuck out for us: Keystone. That’s because, of all the disastrous fossil fuel projects that have clouded the American landscape with increasing regularity, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is the only one that the President mentioned by name. So, did President Obama just carbon-shame the notorious Keystone project into a corner, or is there still a possibility that the pipeline will be built?

Go ahead, check out the President’s climate change speech for yourself and see. Okay, so if you’re in a hurry, I’ll give you a hint: the Keystone reference comes near the end, after a long discussion about how American ingenuity has solved stuff like smog and acid rain without plunging the US into a permanent state of economic malaise, and he then he praises some major US companies — GM, Nike, and Walmart — for transitioning to clean energy, and then right after that he says this about Keystone XL, which happens to be a project proposed by the Canadian (read: foreign-owned) company TransCanada:

Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear:  Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.  (Applause.) The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

I don’t know, maybe back in 2013 we were reading too much into that comparison between US and foreign companies –after all, it was a little subtle. But speaking of the State Department, if you really want to nail the beginning of the end for the Keystone XL pipeline, go back to February 2013, when former Senator John Kerry was appointed Secretary of State.

…Or Make That 1968, But Who’s Counting?

For those of you new to the Keystone topic, the Secretary of State is important because unlike domestic oil pipelines — of which there are many — the Keystone XL oil pipeline would have crossed the border between the US and Canada. Domestic pipeline projects need to pass the usual state and federal environmental reviews, but a cross-border project requires an additional layer of review by the State Department leading to a Presidential permit.

That all goes back to a 1968 executive order — yes, that would be a few decades ago — requiring cross-border projects to undergo the aforementioned review, including pipelines as well as bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure. Here’s the money quote from the State Department:

To issue a permit, the Department must find that the border facility would serve the national interest. The Department consults extensively with relevant federal, state, and local agencies, and invites public comment in arriving at this determination.

Did you catch that thing about national interest? Among other things, the State Department review process includes an environmental review:

…in considering an application for a Presidential permit, the Department must take into account environmental impacts of the proposed facility and directly related construction. Environmental impacts may be direct, indirect, or cumulative.

So… indirect counts, too. In case you are wondering, yes, the State Department did undertake an environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline. The review began before Kerry took the helm at the agency, and it was already under a cloud of suspicion because the consultant doing the review was paid for by TransCanada.

To make matters worse, shoddy work by the consultant resulted in a polite but definitive smackdown by the US Environmental Protection Agency in April 2013, which resulted in an internal investigation by the State Department later that year. Oh, right, and we almost forgot that the Interior Department had a few bones to pick with the review as well.

Keep in mind that the State Department is required to consider the input of other federal agencies in its “national interests” finding and you can see where this is going.


The Kerry Connection

The consideration of the US role in international climate action consideration also factored into the demise of the project. By 2014, hints were already dropping that approval of the Keystone XL pipeline would undermine Secretary Kerry’s efforts to promote the US as a strong international leader on climate action.

As for Kerry himself, for some insight into why you could cite February 1, 2013, as the day Keystone died, consider that Kerry is a strong believer in the efficacy of environmental activism by ordinary people. With his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, he co-authored the 2007 book This Moment on Earth, which underscores the critical role that individual environmentalists can play.

Thank You, Daryl Hannah

That brings us right around to Daryl Hannah (here’s her website, btw), who may have read This Moment on Earth before she chained herself to the White House fence with other Keystone protesters on February 13, less than two weeks after Kerry assumed his post at the State Department.

Hannah was just the tip of an activist iceberg that has included thousands of individuals from the general public, including Native Americans and other local citizens who would have been directly affected by the risks and impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline right-of-way, who kept the pressure on the Obama Administration to follow through on the promise implicit in Kerry’s appointment to head up the State Department.

So, when we say thanks to Daryl Hannah, that’s a bit of shorthand. The rest of you know exactly who you are.

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Image: Fork by Mike Carbonara via, creative commons license.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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