Business & Policy Environmental Policy Keystone XL Pipeline: Timeline of Events By Liz Allen Writer College of William & Mary Northeastern University Liz is a marine biologist, environmental regulation specialist, and science writer. She’s previously studied Antarctic fish, seaweed, and marine coastal ecology. our editorial process Twitter Twitter LinkedIn LinkedIn Liz Allen Updated February 25, 2021 sharply_done / Getty Images Share Twitter Pinterest Email Business & Policy Corporate Responsibility Environmental Policy Economics Food Issues The Keystone XL Pipeline was first proposed in 2008 and intended to transport oil from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S Gulf Coast through a more direct line than what currently is in place, thus increasing the rate of oil transported to the U.S. for sale. The tar sands oil transported by the pipeline is thicker and more corrosive than crude oil, making the potential environmental cost of spills more extreme. The Obama Administration denied the pipeline in 2012 and again in 2015 after route modifications. The Trump Administration approved the project in 2017, but legal challenges held up the project for the remainder of Trump's presidency. The Biden administration revoked Trump's authorization of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2021. Keystone XL Pipeline Through the Years The Keystone XL Pipeline's environmental review and associated litigation have been ongoing for over a decade. Since the project was originally proposed in 2008, the pipeline's route has evolved. The main portion of the originally-proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, extending from Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, remains partially built. 2008 The TransCanada Corporation, now known as TC Energy, first announced the Keystone XL Pipeline project in June 2008 as an additional phase to the original Keystone Pipeline to provide a more direct route between Alberta, Canada, and the U.S. Gulf Coast. While the first phase of the Keystone Pipeline would connect Alberta and Steele City, the Keystone XL Pipeline would provide a shorter route and use a larger pipe, allowing oil extracted in Alberta to travel to the U.S. more quickly. The Keystone XL Pipeline would route tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, such as this one located just outside of Houston, Texas. Art Wager / Getty Images In September 2008, TransCanada applied for a Presidential Permit from the United States for the Keystone XL Pipeline's proposed U.S.-Canada border crossing. The U.S. Federal Government has limited authority to regulate the location of oil pipelines domestically, but energy and telecommunication facilities that cross international borders are considered to be within the President's constitutional authority due to their relevance to foreign affairs. Since 1968, this authority has been delegated to the Secretary of State. In order to issue a Presidential permit, the U.S. State Department must find the project to serve the national interest. Before making a National Interest Determination, or NID, the State Department must coordinate with local and state agencies, consult with tribes, and invite public comment. 2010 The Presidential Permit process also required the Keystone XL Pipeline project to go through the U.S. National Environmental Quality Act, or NEPA. Under NEPA, analysis of the Keystone XL Pipeline is conducted through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This report serves to document the anticipated environmental effects of the Keystone XL pipeline, specific ways the project would reduce or avoid environmental degradation, and an analysis of alternative options for the project to reduce the project's environmental impacts. The public is invited to comment on the draft EIS. Public comments and agency input are used to prepare a final EIS. In April 2010, the State Department published the Keystone XL Pipeline's draft EIS. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the report to be inadequate, which led the State Department to perform additional environmental analysis of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Keystone XL Pipeline was first approved by the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) in March 2010. Similar to the U.S.'s NEPA process, an Environmental Screening Report (ESR) of the project is required under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Despite receiving feedback from a number of tribes who described the project's outreach efforts as inadequate, the Board approved the project on the condition that the project continue to consult with aboriginal groups who expressed interest in the Keystone XL Pipeline project. 2011 A supplemental draft EIS was published by the State Department in 2011. While the EPA noted improvement in this version of the report, the agency once again found the EIS to be inadequate. Nonetheless, the State Department moved forward with the publication of the final EIS in August 2011. Public criticism of the Keystone XL pipeline project began to mount at this time. Much of the public's outrage was over the pipeline's planned route over — and in some places through — one of the world's largest underground sources of freshwater: the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala covers most of the state of Nebraska, where about two-thirds of the aquifer's volume is stored. View of Nebraska's Sand Hills, under which the Ogallala Aquifer lies. marekuliasz / Getty Images Shortly after the publication of the Keystone XL pipeline's final EIS, Nebraska governor Dave Heineman called on President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reroute the pipeline to avoid the Ogallala, citing disagreement with the analysis in the final EIS. In November 2010, the Obama administration announced its decision to officially delay the Keystone XL pipeline to perform additional review of the pipeline's proposed route through Nebraska. 2012 On February 1, 2012, President Obama officially denied the Keystone XL Pipeline's application for a Presidential Permit. The following May, TransCanada re-applied for a Presidential Permit with a modified pipeline route to avoid the Sand Hills Region of Nebraska, one of the most sensitive areas overlying the Ogallala Aquifer. The amended project also removed the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was designed to run from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf Coast area. TransCanada instead applied for approval of this southern section separately. This stretch of the pipeline, known as the Gulf Coast Pipeline, was ultimately approved. It began operation in 2014. 2013 The project's new Presidential Permit application re-initiated the NEPA environmental review process. In March 2013, the State Department published a draft EIS analyzing the Keystone XL Pipeline's modified route. For a third time, the EPA filed an objection to the report, citing insufficient information was provided. In their comment letter, the EPA specifically called for further analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline's route through Nebraska. While the revised pipeline route avoided Nebraska's Sand Hills, the pipeline would still be placed above portions of the Ogallala Aquifer. Based on the remaining environmental threat the revised pipeline route presents to the Ogallala, the EPA found this iteration of the project's EIS to not adequately analyze alternative routes that would avoid the Ogallala entirely. Shortly after the publication of this environmental report, Republicans brought a bill to the floor of the House of Representatives aimed to fast-track the pipeline's approval. The legislation, known as the "Northern Route Approval Act", would circumvent President Obama's power over the Keystone XL Pipeline project, prevent the EPA from applying restrictions to the project, and eliminate the environmental protections garnered by the Endangered Species Act. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House by a vote of 241-175. This bill was never brought to the Senate floor. U.S. Representative Lee Terry (R-NE) discussing the Keystone XL Pipeline during a 2012 news conference. Terry sponsored the 2013 legislation aimed to circumvent President Obama's decision-making authority over the Keystone XL Pipeline. Alex Wong/Staff / Getty Images 2014 In February 2014, the Start Department published the Keystone XL Pipeline's final EIS, re-opening the project for public comment. While the State Department must normally issue a decision on whether a project "serves the national interest" within 90 days of the report's publication, this timeline was extended after the State Department received over 2 million public comments on the final environmental report. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress continued to exercise its power over the Keystone XL Pipeline. In November 2014, a bill similar to the 2013 Northern Route Approval Act was once again approved by the House. The legislation failed to pass the Senate by one vote. 2015 In November 2015, the Keystone XL Pipeline's Presidential Permit was denied once again by Secretary of State John Kerry. In his November 6 remarks, Kerry said the Keystone XL Pipeline did not serve the national interest based on the negligible impact the pipeline would have on U.S. energy security, gas prices, and the economy. Kerry also pointed to the toll the pipeline would have on local communities, water supplies, and cultural heritage sites as further justification for his decision. With President Obama's support, Kerry's decision halted the Keystone XL Pipeline project for the remainder of President Obama's presidency. President Obama announcing his decision to deny the Keystone XL Pipeline's Presidential Permit. Mark Wilson/Staff / Getty Images 2017 Four days into his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive action expediting the environmental review of "high priority" infrastructure projects. Two days later, TransCanada re-applied for a Presidential Permit with the Department of State for the Keystone XL Pipeline. The proposed pipeline route was the same as the revised route analyzed by the State Department in 2014, with only minor alterations resulting from local property ownership agreements. The route avoided Nebraska's Sand Hills, but would still go over portions of the Ogallala Aquifer. In March, State Department approved the Keystone XL Pipeline's Presidential Permit. Lawsuits immediately held up the project. In March, environmental groups filed a lawsuit alleging the State Department's approval of the pipeline violated NEPA, the environmental review process required under U.S. law. While the Trump Administration claimed the environmental review process conducted under the Obama Administration met the requirements of NEPA, the case's plaintiffs said this old analysis lacked new information and was "an arbitrary, stale, and incomplete environmental review" of the Keystone XL Pipeline, making the State Department's recent approval of the pipeline an arbitrary reversal of the Obama Administration's 2015 decision to deny the project a Presidential Permit. A federal judge ruled the State Department's approval of a Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline violated U.S. environmental laws. This decision came on the heels of another court ruling requiring additional environmental review of the pipeline's route through Nebraska. 2019 In March 2019, President Trump himself issued a new Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, circumventing the rulings made against the permit issued by the State Department in 2017. In July, conservation groups filed another lawsuit against the project, this time aimed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lawsuit alleges the Army Corps violated NEPA and the Clean Water Act when it issued a permit authorizing the Keystone XL Pipeline to be constructed through most of the waterways along its route in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The plaintiffs specifically highlight the Keystone XL Pipeline's approval through Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12), a streamlined version of approval under the Clean Water Act for utility line projects - including pipelines - that would have minimal adverse effects on the environment. The Nationwide Permit was issued, as designed, without the substantial environmental review required by NEPA. According to the plaintiffs, the use of Nationwide Permit 12 to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, as well as an unlimited number of other similar projects, allows the Army Corps to treat large interstate pipeline projects as individual projects, avoiding proper analysis of cumulative environmental effects. A federal court ruled the Army Corps could not authorize the Keystone XL Pipeline under NWP 12 until the pipeline's effects on endangered species were assessed. The court's decision rescinded the Corps 2017 approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, further delaying the project. Stacks of pipeline ready for installation in North Dakota. Getty 2021 On his first day in office, President Biden officially revoked the Keystone XL Pipeline's Presidential Permit issued by President Trump. In his Executive Order, Biden cited the State Department's 2015 finding that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the U.S. National Interest. Environmental Impact The most significant effects of the Keystone XL Pipeline would come from the pipeline's associated greenhouse gas emissions and oil spills. Greenhouse Gas Emissions According to the most recent environmental report analyzing the project's impacts, the Keystone XL Pipeline would release the equivalent of about 260,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during construction and over 1.3 million metric tons per year once built. These estimates do not include the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the subsequent use of the oil. If the oil transported by the Keystone XL Pipeline replaced an equal amount of crude oil originating from other sources, and therefore did not increase the total number of barrels of oil consumed globally, the pipeline would still release the equivalent of between 2 and 33 million metric tons of carbon dioxide relative to not installing the pipeline and continuing to rely on current sources of oil. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions is largely due to the type of oil the Keystone XL Pipeline would transport, which releases more greenhouse gases than traditional, lighter forms of crude oil. Overall, the State Departments' 2014 analysis of the project estimated the Keystone XL Pipeline would result in the release of over 25% more greenhouse gases than not building the pipeline. Oil Spills Based on oil spill data from 2010 through October 2019 presented in the State Department's 2019 final EIR, TransCanada's existing pipelines cause large oil spills (releasing between 1,000 and 10,000 barrels of oil) at a rate of 1.7 times the industry average. The effects of pipeline oil spills vary greatly based on the size and location of the spill. On land, a large oil spill can travel up 5,000 feet (0.9 mile). On a river, an oil spill could travel up to 40 miles downstream. The Keystone XL Pipeline would cross 23 major rivers, putting an estimated 1,100 miles of major rivers at risk of being affected by an upstream oil spill. In addition, the type of oil transported by the Keystone XL Pipeline is more likely to dissolve in water, leading to long-term contamination. Overall, the 2019 environmental report estimates a Keystone XL Pipeline oil spill would occur within 150 feet of a stream every five years. 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