The on-again, off-again Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline has been struggling through round after round of environmental review for the past 10 years, and it looks like the bloodied, bruised, and battered fossil fuel project has finally suffered a knockdown blow at the hands of the US Supreme Court, no less. Whether or not it’s down for the count remains to be seen, but for now it’s back to square one for the developer, TC Energy. Wait, who is TC Energy?
Yes, Who Is TC Energy, & What Is It Doing With The Keystone XL Pipeline?
For those of you new to the topic, the Keystone XL pipeline is supposed to carry crude oil from Alberta oil sands fields in Canada down to the US.
Keystone XL was first proposed in 2008 at the tail end of the Bush administration, but it struggled through the environmental review process all throughout the Obama administration.
Dubbed a massive carbon bomb enabler by its opponents, the pipeline became the leading symbol of fossil fuel over-reach in the US, as high-profile activists and national environmental organizations lent their efforts to fierce opposition by Native Americans and other local stakeholders.
Because it crossed an international border, the pipeline needed review and approval from the US Department of State, which meant its developer would need to show a significant public benefit for the US.
However, the oil to be shuttled out of Canada through the Keystone XL pipeline was not intended for sale in the US. It was aimed at the Gulf Coast, destined for markets overseas. According to most estimates it would only create about three dozen permanent jobs after construction.
Long story short, it failed to pass the smell test and the State Department declined to issue a permit for the project in 2015. That left the developer, TransCanada, holding a $15 billion bag.
Wait, what is TransCanada?
Keystone XL Oil Pipeline Staggers To A Neutral Corner & TC Energy Enters The Mix
TransCanada continued to argue its way through the courts and it finally found its feet after President* Trump swept into office on the heels of a “sweeping and systematic” election interference campaign by a foreign government.
However, that didn’t let TransCanada off the hook. The legal battles — and the negative publicity — continued. The Native American Rights Fund lists the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota Oyate), the Fort Belknap Indian Community (Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) Tribes) under its coordination in a 2018 lawsuit.
In the runup to this week’s Supreme Court decision, Keystone XL remained one of the single most notorious fossil fuel projects of this generation, and it doesn’t help that oil pipelines are associated with massive spills (see Enbridge, Kalamzoo River) and other oil-related catastrophes (see BP, Gulf of Mexico).
Speaking of oil spills, not helping matters is the company’s existing Keystone pipeline. That leg of the project is located entirely within the US and did not need State Department approval, so TransCanada went ahead and built it. The pipeline was commissioned in 2010 and reportedly has suffered “dozens” of leaks since then, including a headline-grabbing 210,000 gallon leak in 2017.
Perhaps TransCanada decided that a change of name might at least make a difference in the court of public opinion. The company formally changed its name to TC Energy last year, in May 2019.
“Our new name TC Energy better reflects the scope of our operations and reinforces our position as a leading North American energy infrastructure company,” the newly minted TC Energy explained in a public statement.
“Whether they know us as TC Energy in English, TC Énergie in French, or TC Energía in Spanish, the communities where we operate can continue to count on us to follow through on our commitments and live up to our values of Safety, Integrity, Responsibility and Collaboration in everything we do,” emphasized Russ Girling, President and CEO of TC Energy.
That was before the COVID-19 outbreak. Barely a year later, TC Energy appeared to forget that thing about Safety, Integrity, Responsibility and Collaboration. The company ramped up its construction plans in April, bringing new workers into the US despite the risk of spreading the lethal virus in vulnerable communities.
Keystone XL: Down, Not Out (Yet)
Got all that? Good! All this is by way of saying: don’t expect TC Energy to throw in the fossil fuel towel like Dominion and Duke just did. Earlier this week, those two utilities formally cancelled the planned Atlantic Coast fossil gas pipeline after a years-long legal battle, and they re-affirmed a pivot to renewables and other clean tech.
TC Energy is dabbling in wind and solar, but pipelines are its core business, and it’s not likely to let go of Keystone XL just because the US Supreme Court is not cooperating.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court tidied up around the edges of a lower court ruling that would have brought the Keystone XL pipeline and several other projects to a screeching halt.
The Supreme Court ruling enables those projects to move along pending completion of their environmental reviews, except for the Keystone XL pipeline. Based on the ruling, TC Energy must stop work on the pipeline until it does the environmental review that TransCanada probably should have done in the first place.
CNN is among the news organizations forecasting that the ruling is a death blow to the project, considering that this is a presidential election year and Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pledged to rescind the Trump administration’s permit if elected.
CNN also took note that a leading pipeline opponent, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, won a major legal victory against the Dakota Access Pipeline earlier this week. The Atlantic Coast pipeline was also opposed by Native Americans on its route in North Carolina.
TC Energy itself seemed to give out mixed signals after the ruling. As reported by The Hill, the company remains “fully committed” to the project but will “evaluate our 2020 U.S. scope.”
However, read between the lines of the Supreme Court ruling and there does seem to be wiggle room for TC Energy to keep the project alive, at least in a catatonic state until the political winds blow more favorably out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For that matter, there are not that many lines to read between. The one-paragraph order reads in full:
“MONDAY, JULY 6, 2020 ORDER IN PENDING CASE19A10 53 ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS , ET AL. V. N. PLAINS RES. COUNCIL , ET AL.
“The application for stay presented to Justice Kagan and by her referred to the Court is granted in part and denied in part. The district court’s May 11, 2020 order granting partial vacatur and an injunction is stayed, except as it applies to the Keystone XL pipeline, pending disposition of the appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari, if such writ is timely sought. Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be denied, this stay shall terminate automatically. In the event the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the stay shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.”
That’s all she wrote, but that’s not the end of the story. Check out TC Energy’s vision statement, which as of this writing still holds out hope for a fossil-centric future.
To be precise, the company’s vision is to be “the leading energy infrastructure company in North America, focusing on pipeline and power generation opportunities where we have, or can develop, a significant competitive advantage.”
Hold on to your hats!
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Image: NASA, Athabasca Oil Sands (“These images from Landsat satellites show the growth of surface mines over the Athabasca oil sands between 1984 and 2016”).
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