After more than 10 years, the embattled Keystone XL pipeline has officially been abandoned.
In a Wednesday statement, the Canadian developer TC Energy said that after reviewing its options with the government of Alberta, Canada — its partner on the $8 billion project — the company had decided not to move forward.
The decision ends the long battle over the proposed pipeline expansion, which would have delivered more than 800,000 barrels of carbon-intensive tar sands oil per day from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. Once there, the pipeline would have met with existing pipeline infrastructure to travel farther south to oil refineries in the Gulf Coast.
Construction on the project has been halted since January, when President Joe Biden issued an executive order revoking the pipeline’s permit on his first day in office. In doing so, Biden made good on his promise to the climate activists who helped get him elected.
Yet activists and experts say the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline is just a start. They also want existing Keystone XL infrastructure to be removed and for Biden to cancel other cross-border fossil fuel expansion projects, like the Line 3 pipeline expansion in Minnesota.
Here’s how the Keystone XL pipeline was finally defeated — and why climate and Indigenous activists say their fight is still far from over.
The Keystone XL pipeline, briefly explained
The Keystone XL pipeline became an almost perfect example of the various stakeholders — Native communities, climate activists, scientists, policymakers, farmers, landowners, and everyday citizens — engaging in the broader debate about climate change.
Canada-based TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) first proposed the 1,200-mile Keystone XL pipeline in 2008 as a way to quickly pump 830,000 barrels of tar sands (a.k.a. oil sands) per day from Canada’s Alberta province across the border to Steele City, Nebraska. Once there, the Keystone XL extension would converge with existing pipeline infrastructure, traveling south to Texas for processing in Gulf Coast oil refineries.
When the idea for Keystone XL was conceived back in the 2000s, the project made a lot of sense — the US economy depended on oil, and supporters of the pipeline claimed it was in both countries’ interest to find a way to transport oil efficiently across the continent. With oil prices high and demand steady, Alberta’s oil sands easily racked up $200 billion in investment.
But there are considerable differences between oil from Alberta’s tar sands and conventional oil, which quickly began to wear on the region.
For starters, extracting oil from Alberta’s oil sands, which contain bitumen (tar), a dense type of petroleum, takes a lot of energy. Most of Canada’s tar sands oil is trapped beneath boreal forest — only 20 percent of the oil is located near the earth’s surface, where it can be easily mined, which means the forest must be cleared for the most intensive mining.
The majority of the oil is mined by injecting hot water into wells 75 meters below ground to liquefy the oil for pumping, which is why tar sands oil has a reputation for being among the dirtiest types of oil.
Many Indigenous rights groups and people from communities along the proposed route argued the pipeline extension would have disastrous impacts for Native communities in Alberta: A lot of the water used to help extract oil from Alberta’s oil sands comes from the Athabasca River. Studies have linked leaks from oil sands pipelines like Keystone XL to significant degradation of nearby land and water resources.
A major concern is tailings ponds, the product of toxic waste from mining in the tar sands that can sicken communities and wildlife that depend on the land to survive.
“The land is our solution, the water is our solution, the air is our solution to meet our needs,” Jesse Cardinal of the Kikino Metis Settlement, director of Keepers of the Water, a collective of First Nations who have come together to protect the nearby Mackenzie River Basin, told me. Cardinal helped lead the Tar Sands Healing Walk, a grassroots movement to bring people face to face with the destruction of the oil sands as a way of healing.
Environmental groups took note of Indigenous opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. After then-President Barack Obama’s climate legislation suffered a stinging defeat, the climate movement coalesced around getting the Keystone XL pipeline canceled in 2011.
Inspired by Indigenous-led opposition to the pipeline, several environmental groups organized two weeks of sit-ins in front of the White House in the fall of 2011, leading to the arrest of more than 1,200 people. The arrests brought increased media attention at a time when there was relatively little national coverage of climate-change-related issues.
James Hansen, who has been called the “father of global warming” for his role in testifying before Congress about the science of human-induced climate change way back in 1988, attended the protests at the White House. At the time, Hansen said unchecked exploitation of Canada’s oil sands would be “game over” for the climate.
Facing immense pressure from the anti-Keystone movement, Obama finally canceled the pipeline in 2015. He defended his decision in a press conference, saying the pipeline wouldn’t make gas any cheaper or improve American energy security. He added that approving the pipeline would ultimately undercut US global leadership on climate change, which he’d previously said was a red line for approving Keystone XL.
In January 2016, TC Energy filed a lawsuit against the US for canceling Keystone XL, using the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to request $15 billion in damages for what the company said was the arbitrary suspension of the project. The company then waited to try its luck with the next administration — which turned out to be Trump’s.
Keystone XL starts — and stops — under Trump
In January 2017, just days into his presidency, President Donald Trump issued an executive order inviting TC Energy to reapply for a presidential permit for Keystone XL to cross the Canadian border. He also promised a speedy process, just over a year after Obama had said the pipeline extension wasn’t in the national interest.
A few months later, the State Department granted the permit.
But Obama’s reasons for canceling Keystone XL — it wasn’t in America’s national interest, and it conflicted with US leadership on climate change — were still valid, and activists (and much of the public) were still paying attention.
“Before Obama’s decision, pipeline companies and the oil industry assumed every pipeline would get approved regardless of how poorly conceived the project was,” the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Anthony Swift told me.
After Obama’s decision, it became more difficult to justify Keystone XL to the public.
“Public scrutiny around Keystone XL and the permitting process has shifted the expectation that pipelines would be rubber-stamped on its head. Now the public does want to see a robust analysis and a confirmation process that does make it difficult to move such pipelines forward,” Swift said.
Because oil spills from tar sands pipelines are commonplace, scientists and activists argued that a “robust analysis” to examine the risks to water resources and the communities that depend on them should be conducted before the Keystone XL project goes forward.
In 2016, the National Academy of Sciences released a study that said diluted bitumen (which composes the majority of tar sands oil) differed from the other types of oil traveling through US pipelines in a way that makes it more susceptible to hazardous leaks. In 2017, 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from the existing Keystone pipeline in South Dakota.
“Any fact-based environmental review reveals reasons policymakers should not grant permits to fossil fuel expansion projects like Keystone XL in a world that is trying to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change,” said Swift.
But the need for an environmental review didn’t stop the Trump administration from trying to rush through Keystone XL.
In January 2020, Trump’s White House made a last-ditch attempt to fast-track Keystone XL and similar projects across the country by limiting implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to conduct assessments of the environmental, economic, and social impact of its actions before getting started on any project.
But in July 2020, the Supreme Court killed any hope of completing Keystone XL under the Trump administration, siding with environmental groups from Montana who argued that the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting process for the Keystone XL pipeline should undergo a full environmental review because it would cross bodies of water.
Biden killed the pipeline for good — but demand for it had already weakened
Demand for oil, which had already been declining for some time, was hit hard in 2020 by falling investment, severe storms that hurt production, and the coronavirus pandemic. And in recent years, Alberta’s oil sands industry, once booming with money, has had trouble attracting investment.
“With falling oil prices, both because of the pandemic and generally down since 2014, the industry is under a real squeeze, and we’ve seen a lot of players exit the market,” Sven Biggs, Canadian oil and gas programs director at Stand.earth, an environmental grassroots organization, told me back in March.
“ConocoPhillips, Shell, Statoil from Norway, [and] the Koch brothers have sold their stakes in the tar sands and moved on, which means there’s less need for these pipelines than previously expected,” Biggs added.
TC Energy had a difficult time attracting private investors to Keystone XL — it was only capable of putting shovels to the ground in the project with the help of a subsidy from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who approved more than $1 billion in public funds in the spring of 2020 to help the project.
So when Biden pulled the plug for good on Keystone XL, climate concerns and falling investment in Alberta’s oil sand led experts to believe that Keystone XL was dead.
But for many Indigenous groups, climate activists, and people from communities impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure, the fight is bigger than Keystone.
“The Keystone XL pipeline was never about any single pipeline. It’s about establishing a litmus test rooted in climate science and climate justice for government projects and infrastructure,” Kendall Mackey, manager of 350.org’s Keep It in the Ground campaign, told me in March.
The next big battle — to stop the Line 3 pipeline expansion — is already here
Keystone XL is dead, but the Indigenous-led fight to halt the Line 3 pipeline project is already here. The battle has been heating up since December when Enbridge, the Canadian multinational responsible for the project, began construction.
If completed, the roughly 340-mile pipeline expansion project will transport 1 million barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta across much of northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin.
Enbridge says the project will create thousands of jobs and pump billions of dollars into Minnesota’s economy. The company also told Vox via email that it has done everything required under the law to receive approval for the pipeline and ensure it operates safely.
But Indigenous activists are calling on Biden to cancel Line 3 like he did Keystone XL because they say it poses a significant risk of oil spills that could destroy precious water resources, wetlands, and ancestral lands. According to one report, opening Line 3 will have the equivalent climate impact of bringing 50 new coal plants online.
The intensity of opposition to the pipeline reached a crescendo earlier this week as thousands of protesters converged on Minnesota. Close to 200 people were arrested.
And now that TC Energy has finally ditched Keystone XL, the pressure is on for President Biden to ax Line 3.