Only a few months ago, climate activists celebrated the dawn of a “new era,” with three major victories in cases involving oil and gas pipelines.
After energy companies canceled the proposed Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline in July, court rulings dealt setbacks to the contentious Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines. Both have sparked protests from climate and Indigenous groups and remained sticking points in climate policy.
Climate activists hope the ascendance of President-elect Joe Biden, who has called for a transition away from the oil and gas industry, will now put an end to the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, first proposed in 2014 by a subsidiary of the Dallas, Texas-based company Energy Transfer Partners, is a 1,172-mile underground crude oil pipeline which would run from North Dakota, passing just a half mile from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, through South Dakota and Iowa to a terminal in Illinois.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted the pipeline’s construction under the Obama administration in a win for the pipeline’s opponents after months of heated protests. But only days after assuming office, President Trump signed an executive memorandum, instructing the Army to expedite the environmental review and approval process.
Today, the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes remain in a protracted legal battle over the pipeline, with its fate still uncertain after a hearing earlier this month in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The subject of the hearing was whether a lower court had erroneously concluded that federal regulators’ approval of the project failed to satisfy the National Environmental Policy Act.
The Keystone XL project, originally proposed by the Canada-based energy company TC Energy in 2008 as an expansion of its existing pipeline system, is a 1,179-mile-long pipeline that would transport 830,000 barrels of Alberta tar sands oil per day to Gulf Coast refineries. Along with the executive order he signed almost immediately after taking office to clear the way for Dakota Access, Trump also reversed Obama’s 2015 decision to reject the Keystone pipeline.
Although it’s received less national attention, climate activists also have their eyes on Enbridge Energy’s plan to replace a 337-mile segment of its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline crossing through Minnesota. The state’s environmental regulators recently issued several key permits for the project, moving it closer to construction. If Line 3 continues moving forward, climate activists hope a Biden administration would intervene.
Climate activists say the clearest path for Biden to stop Dakota Access, Keystone XL and Line 3 and deliver on his promise to deliver a transition off fossil fuels would be to issue an executive order requiring all fossil fuel projects to undergo a “climate test,” mandating that federal agencies consider a project’s contribution to climate change and essentially use it as a litmus test for any permitting decisions.
“It’s common sense that Biden must stop all of these toxic and unnecessary pipelines and transition to a 100 percent renewable regenerative economy that puts our communities first,” said Kendall Mackey, Keep It In The Ground campaigner for the global climate advocacy group 350 Action. She added that the group hopes to see “a full reversal of Trump’s approach to permitting.”
Although some pipeline proponents seem to be holding out hope that Keystone XL will move forward, climate activists have expressed confidence that Biden will follow through on his pledge to environmental groups to take executive action on day one in office to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.
“With construction activities for the Keystone XL well underway in both the U.S. and Canada, we expect the ongoing permitting process to continue on its normal course,” said a spokesperson for TC Energy in an emailed statement.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney suggested that the Keystone XL was a critical part of reinvigorating the U.S. and Canada’s economies and strengthening relations between the two nations amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gary Mar, former Alberta representative in Washington and current CEO of the Canada West Foundation think tank, similarly told Canada’s Global News that Biden’s interest in bilateralism suggested he might allow Keystone XL to move forward, especially if he could do so in exchange for achieving other policy priorities in the case of a politically divided Senate.
But Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and founder and president of the progressive political advocacy group Bold Nebraska, said she wasn’t worried that Biden would sacrifice taking aggressive climate action, no matter what happened with Congress.
Climate activists also said they felt hopeful about Biden’s positions on the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines, neither of which he has taken a public stance on. (Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has publicly opposed Dakota Access).
Clara Pratte, the Biden campaign’s Tribal engagement director, said the Biden transition team was working hard to be “ready to go on day one.”
Catherine Collentine, associate director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said taking action on the three pipelines would serve as a way for Biden to make good on his climate platform and realize a mandate for action.
“No matter which project you’re looking at, the facts point to the projects being not only not needed, but a climate disaster, and the risks are unacceptable,” she said.
Janet MacGillivray, executive director of the Indigenous-led organization Seeding Sovereignty, said Biden’s consistent “grounding of decisions in science” should naturally steer him toward opposing major fossil fuel projects.
When asked about Biden’s position on the three pipelines, the Biden campaign declined to comment on Dakota Access and Line 3, but cited a statement issued in May by its policy director opposing Keystone XL.
“Biden strongly opposed the Keystone pipeline in the last administration, stood alongside President Obama and Secretary Kerry to reject it in 2015, and will proudly stand in the Roosevelt Room again as President and stop it for good by rescinding the Keystone XL pipeline permit,” the statement said.
Even as they expressed optimism, climate and Indigenous activists also said they were more than ready to hold the Biden administration accountable if it failed to take a strong stance against the pipelines and the continued development of fossil fuel infrastructure.
Over the next four years, said Mackey of 350, she expected the climate justice movement to “push the Biden administration to be bolder than any other administration has been on climate.”
Patrick McNully, climate and energy director at Rainforest Action Network, said there should be a “climate test” for all of Biden’s Cabinet picks. A strong climate Cabinet could help safeguard against a weak follow-through on Biden’s climate commitments, he suggested.
Both McNully and Kleeb said Biden’s choice for Secretary of the Interior would be critical. They also both named New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, who would make history as the first Indigenous secretary if selected, as a strong candidate. The Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats have also named Haaland as their top pick for interior.
“The tribes have been treated as ornaments for too long,” said Kleeb, who said she believed having a Native American head of the Department of Interior was critical for respecting tribal sovereignty and “making sure that they have full sovereign rights to say yes or no to energy projects.”
Biden’s openness to engaging with Indigenous leaders once in office will also represent an important test of his climate justice commitment, activists said.
Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a member of the Standing Rock Nation Sioux Tribe, stressed the importance of Biden’s working directly with Indigenous communities in regard to climate and energy policy.
“I hope that they’re really listening to the people that are around and live around these projects, because they’re the ones that are going to be impacted the most—and that’s scary,” said Three Legs, who is climate justice and divestment organizer for Seeding Sovereignty, an Indigenous-led activist group.
Pratte, the campaign’s tribal engagement director, said that it prioritized including Indigenous voices in policy conversations, especially around environmental justice, and would continue to do so once Biden was in office.
McNully said he felt confident that if Biden failed to shut down Keystone or Dakota Access, climate and Indigenous activists would not hesitate to mobilize. Some already have.
On Nov. 10, three activist groups, Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective, 2KC Media and 7th Defenders, shut down what they called an illegal pre-construction site near Maurine, South Dakota, for the day to remind Biden and Harris of their promise to stop Keystone XL.
A spokesperson for TC Energy denied that there had been any type of illegal pre-construction site and said that it was “unfortunate that groups continue to make false and inaccurate claims against our project.
The spokesperson said that TC Energy had signed a definitive agreement allowing the Indigenous-led company Natural Law Energy to make an equity investment of up to $1 billion in the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Only days after the Keystone XL protest, 250 Indigenous “water protectors” and environmental activists rallied at Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s home on Nov. 14 to demand he stop Line 3—“or we will!”
“We know that people are watching and people are ready to continue to call for the Biden administration to make true on the campaign promises that they have put forth on the strongest climate action plan that has ever been put forth by a presidential ticket,” said Collentine.
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