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Trump is greenlighting the Keystone XL pipeline — but there are still key hurdles left

The pipeline that refuses to die is back.

On Friday morning, the Trump administration granted approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial oil project that had been halted under President Barack Obama after years of grassroots protest and fierce opposition from climate activists.

That, by itself, isn’t enough to ensure the pipeline gets built. The State Department has simply allowed the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline to cross the US-Canada border. The company behind the project, TransCanada, still needs to secure permits and approval in Montana, South Dakota, and especially Nebraska — where local environmental activists have vowed to fight the project every step of the way.

Even so, this is a big step for TransCanada. Two years ago, the pipeline — which would help transport 830,000 barrels of oil per day, mostly from Canada’s oil sands, down to refiners in the Gulf Coast — looked moribund. It’s now much closer to revival.

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

Because Keystone XL crosses the US-Canada border, it requires a permit from the State Department declaring that the project is “in the national interest.” That’s how Obama managed to block the pipeline — after years of pressure from climate activists, he argued that the project, which would help bolster oil sands production in Canada, would undercut America’s “global leadership” on climate change.

But then Donald Trump became president, pledging to boost the fortunes of the oil industry. And, in one of his first acts, he issued an executive order urging TransCanada to apply for a new permit and ordering the State Department to approve it as expeditiously as possible. And, today, the State Department did just that.

"This is a significant milestone for the Keystone XL project," said Russ Girling, TransCanada's CEO, in a statement. The company also said it was dropping a suit against the US government under Chapter 11 of NAFTA, an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism that allows companies to sue foreign governments and bypass local courts in disputes.

The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t done just yet

The pipeline still faces further hurdles, however. Environmentalists and landowners have long been battling the pipeline in Nebraska, citing concerns that a leak from the pipeline could harm either the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region or the crucial water supplies in the Ogallala aquifer. TransCanada has already rerouted the pipeline’s proposed path away from these areas, in collaboration with Nebraska’s governor, but it’s likely to face further resistance in the months ahead.

As Bloomberg reported, environmentalists are already gearing up to challenge the pipeline every step of the way. That includes suing the State Department in federal court, arguing that the agency approved the pipeline too hastily and relied on outdated information from past Obama-era analyses.

Failing that, the main battle will shift to Nebraska’s Public Service Commission, which has to determine whether the project serves the public interest. TransCanada submitted an application to the PSC last month, and the commission now has 210 days to weigh public comments and hear concerns. According to the Associated Press, opponents have filed dozens of petitions asking the PSC to hear their detailed case against the project.

“This decision is far from the final word on Keystone XL,” said May Boeve, executive director of, one of the key climate groups opposing the pipeline, in a statement. “The same communities who defeated this pipeline before — Indigenous leaders, landowners, farmers, and grassroots activists — are ready to fight again.”

In a statement Friday, the company simply said: “TransCanada will continue to engage key stakeholders and neighbors throughout Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota to obtain the necessary permits and approvals to advance this project to construction.”

Further reading: 9 questions about the Keystone XL pipeline you were too embarrassed to ask