You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Cancel All the Pipelines

Without congressional action, the Biden administration’s planned Day One revocation of the Keystone XL permit will be an important but temporary victory.

Biden celebrates after being declared winner of the 2020 election.

Some good news can’t wait. On Sunday, the CBC reported that canceling federally issued permits for the Keystone XL pipeline will be part of President-elect Joe Biden’s Day One agenda. In theory, the pipeline could be dead by Wednesday afternoon, when prior presidents have been prepping for inaugural balls. (The balls have been canceled this year.)

Like the dissolution of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline last summer, Keystone XL’s imminent demise is a major victory for Native and environmentalist organizers, who’ve stood against the controversial pipeline extension since the beginning. But it’s also a symbol of a larger set of dilemmas. With Representative Deb Haaland soon to become secretary of the interior—the Laguna Pueblo citizen will be the first Native official to lead the department—there’s a good chance other permit-bearing projects will soon join Keystone XL on the chopping block. Yet for all of these, and the Keystone cancellation as well, the strange life cycle of the Keystone pipeline points to a need for broader and more long-term policies.

There is no shortage of other pipeline projects Biden and his Cabinet ought to consider canceling. In Minnesota, water protectors such as the Giniw Collective have spent the winter months risking arrest by physically blocking the Line 3 Pipeline, which is slated to cut through the reservation of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and narrowly miss the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s lands. In Oregon, the Jordan Cove Pipeline is currently mired in environmental-review limbo, no thanks to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which in May declined to review requests from tribes and the state that claimed the pipeline would disturb the local natural ecosystems as well as culturally important sites for the neighboring tribal nations. And in the Dakotas, the Dakota Access Pipeline—the project that incited the Standing Rock movement in 2016—continues to ferry close to half of all oil produced in North Dakota, even as further environmental impact reviews remain uncompleted.

Reports of the Keystone permit cancellation revealed plans that Biden has otherwise kept fairly close to the chest in the lead-up to his inauguration. Although the president-elect has voiced his broad desire to pursue a climate-friendly energy policy, details have been scant in terms of how he hopes to accomplish this. But with the Keystone news, there are now a number of signs suggesting Biden’s plans won’t stop with a single revoked permit.

For instance, the Bismarck Tribune noted on Monday that while Biden has yet to issue a public comment on his plans for DAPL, Vice President Kamala Harris was among the Democratic legislators to sign an amicus brief in the spring of 2020 to revoke a crucial permit regarding the pipeline’s environmental impact. Harris and dozens of other lawmakers made the request to a federal judge hearing a lawsuit brought against the pipeline’s backers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The pipeline cuts underneath the Missouri River, upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, creating a potential health threat to the tribal nation’s citizens. (The “man camps” used to temporarily house pipeline construction workers also remain a constant concern, due to the connection between worker camps and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Crisis.)

This good news for Indigenous communities and environmentalists should be tempered with a broader point: These sorts of projects shouldn’t simply be a partisan ping-pong match. Keystone XL has been an on-and-off operation since its introduction. Before the results from the 2014 midterm elections went into effect—the Republican Party won a majority in the Senate—the chamber voted against approving the pipeline. Two months later, under Republican control, the Senate approved it. This prompted President Obama, after vetoing the Senate bill, to shut down the pipeline in November 2015; the following year, as his term concluded, he made a similar decision on DAPL. Yet the moment Trump took office, his first actions included executive orders that expedited the permit approval process for both pipelines. Now, Biden will flip the switch back to “off.”

It would help to have broader policies discouraging new fossil fuel infrastructure; after all, at this point in the climate crisis new gas or oil investments are generally a bad idea. As Alleen Brown wrote for The Intercept in November, the incoming administration has various options to flex its power over fossil fuel infrastructure as a whole, even with limited control of Congress. The best of these is the Financial Stability Oversight Council. The council, created in the wake of the mortgage crisis, is chaired by the secretary of the Treasury Department and is tasked with assessing economic risks and issuing resulting regulations. These regulations could start with a mandatory stress test for banks, focusing on the financial effects of climate change. The council could also enact policies making fossil fuel investments more costly or even limiting the amount that banks can invest in the industries. But like the permits, these regulations could be subject to change with a new treasury secretary.

It doesn’t require a deep knowledge of land-use applications and environmental review processes to grasp that, even after the permits are pulled, Keystone XL is not yet wholly dead. Starting his term by revoking the Keystone permit is an excellent way for Biden to indicate that he’s serious about his campaign’s climate commitments. But unless Congress can deliver legislation that further cements these plans—a tall task given that West Virginia senator and ardent pipeline proponent Joe Manchin will stand as the deciding vote on such bills—we’ll be left with temporary wins via executive order. It’s a step in the right direction, but it will ultimately mean little if we just spin right back around on Inauguration Day in 2025.