By Evan Halper and William Yardley
LOS ANGELES TIMES
WASHINGTON – The hotly contested Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects that President Trump brought back to life with the stroke of a pen Tuesday may still never get built – but for Trump, that isn’t necessarily the point.
The projects have become among the country’s most potent symbols of the clash between an oil and gas industry seeking to maintain the old order of energy production and the movement against climate change pushing for a different direction.
Trump used the two proposed pipelines to send an unmistakable message during his first week in office: Energy companies and their projects are back in favor.
When the Obama administration rejected Keystone in 2015 after years of protests and tens of millions of dollars spent by all sides, champions of renewable energy celebrated a key victory. The decision against the project came right before President Barack Obama signed a landmark accord to fight global warming with dozens of other heads of state at a Paris summit.
More recently, the Dakota Access project became a national rallying point not only for environmental groups, but for Native American tribes who said that it threatened grounds they hold sacred. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has set up a camp to protest the pipeline, and the battle over it has become violent at times, with protesters clashing with police.
As the fight drew increasing national attention last year, the Obama administration dealt the project a potentially devastating blow that once again sent a strong message of opposition to fossil fuel projects. The Army Corps of Engineers denied the pipeline a crucial easement and announced that it would look for alternatives to its planned route under Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River.
Days before Obama’s term ended, the Corps announced that it would start an extensive environmental review that could add months – potentially years – to the permit process and open the project to more public comment, creating new opportunities for opponents to block it. Trump’s decision to revive the prospects for both projects comes as his administration jettisons much of Obama’s climate policy – including U.S. participation in the Paris accord – and promises to work aggressively to curb regulations that inhibit drilling and mining.
As the Trump administration moves swiftly to change direction, it also issued a gag order to the staff at the Environmental Protection Agency, which took a lead in Obama’s fight against climate change. EPA officials have been instructed not to interact at all with the news media and to freeze all contracts and grants.
Trump’s directives on the pipelines may pay political dividends. The angry opposition to the announcements comes mostly from places and groups that have never supported Trump. By contrast, the moves are likely to be well-received by workers in Rust Belt communities who backed Trump in the election and now see him delivering on his promise to work for more jobs in Middle America.
The decision on the Dakota pipeline instructed the Corps to “consider” whether it can grant final approval for the project. It does not immediately clear the way for construction to resume, but strongly tilts that way, telling the Corps to consider skipping further environmental review.
On Keystone, Trump emphasized the jobs aspect of the project by insisting that the pipeline be built exclusively with U.S. steel, which he said would generate still more jobs.
That demand may or may not be feasible. If it raises the pipeline’s cost, it could prove the death knell for a project that may no longer be financially feasible. The price of oil has plunged over the last couple of years to levels far below what Keystone’s designers had envisioned.
The order that Trump signed Tuesday invited TransCanada, the firm that developed Keystone, to submit a new application for a permit for the pipeline. It directed administration agencies to swiftly review that application and issue a new decision within 60 days.
During the nearly eight-year delay when the project languished before Obama rejected it, fighting Keystone became a rallying point for the environmental movement, which demanded that public officials stop backing big, invasive infrastructure projects that feed the world’s oil habit.
On Tuesday, TransCanada declared that it would seize the new opening for its project, which is designed to ship 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the Canadian tar sands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
In a statement, the company vowed that the pipeline would create thousands of jobs and boost the U.S. economy, representing “the safest, most environmentally sound way to connect the American economy to an abundant energy resource.”