Workers load a truck with equipment at a pipe yard for the Keystone XL pipeline in Oyen, Alberta, Canada, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. U.S. President Joe Biden revoked the permit for TC Energy's Keystone XL energy pipeline via executive order hours after his inauguration, the clearest sign yet that constructing a major new pipeline in the U.S. has become an impossible task.
Jason Franson–Bloomberg/Getty Images
June 10, 2021 4:37 AM EDT

TC Energy has ended its 16-year quest to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a controversial cross-border project that became a litmus test for climate activism and was blocked by President Joe Biden.

Calgary-based TC Energy said in a statement it had formally terminated the project after consultation with the government of Alberta in Canada. It had already suspended construction on the pipeline earlier this year, after Biden revoked a presidential permit for the project.

Keystone XL helped galvanize modern climate activism, uniting environmentalists in a battle against the project some described as a “climate dirty bomb.” It also shifted the course of American environmentalism from its roots battling nuclear power, toxic waste and chemical insecticides in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The protest over the Keystone pipeline was a massive development in the climate movement,” and the project’s cancellation “is a testament to the effectiveness of collective citizen action,” said Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University who is an expert on environmental activism.

Opposition to Keystone, he added, amplified action against climate change and “marked the end of the unprotested expansion of oil and gas infrastructure in the U.S.”

The TC Energy decision concludes a long struggle over the 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) pipeline designed to ferry more than 800,000 barrels a day of Canadian oil sands crude from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska.

The project had been buffeted by the political winds in the U.S., getting rejected by President Barack Obama in 2015 before President Donald Trump revived it two years later. Biden issued an executive order revoking the critical presidential permit for Keystone XL on his first day in office.

Environmentalists said the line would provide an outlet for heavy crude extracted in Alberta through particularly energy-intensive processes and burning it would exacerbate climate change. They mounted a decade-long campaign against the project, with battles fought in statehouses and federal courtrooms — and celebrity-attended protests from the Midwest to the White House.

“When this fight began, people thought ‘Big Oil’ couldn’t be beat,” said Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, who led the first sit-ins against Keystone XL at the White House in 2011. “But when enough people rise up, we’re stronger even than the richest fossil fuel companies.”

The fight against Keystone XL also presaged other battles over the construction of oil and gas pipelines from South Dakota to New York.

“The era of building fossil fuel pipelines without scrutiny of their potential impact on climate change and on local communities is over,” said Anthony Swift, director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Whole segments of Keystone XL, including one that crosses the U.S.-Canadian border, have already been built. Even without Keystone XL, two new pipelines are under construction that, once completed, will provide oil sands producers with more than enough capacity for crude exports.

Jane Kleeb, the chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party who has been one of Keystone XL’s most prominent opponents, said other projects should now be shut in the face of the climate crisis and concerns about water pollution. Activists have now turned their focus to Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 in Minnesota.

“We can not meet President Biden’s bold climate goals if we keep approving pipelines,” Kleeb said. “So in this moment, we ask President Biden to pause all other pipelines, like Line 3 in rural Minnesota, to show communities respect and to finally conduct the proper water, cultural resources and climate studies those pipelines never got under the reckless Trump administration.”

Republicans Respond

Republicans immediately pounced on the move, blaming Biden for the cancellation and contrasting the president’s opposition to Keystone XL with his administration’s approach to Nord Stream 2, a pipeline to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany. The Biden administration waived sanctions on the company building Nord Stream 2 last month.

Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, called it “devastating news for our economy, jobs, environment and national security — and it’s entirely President Biden’s fault.”

Business interests also lamented Keystone’s cancellation, saying it could discourage developers from pursuing other U.S. infrastructure projects subject to intensive permitting reviews. Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said TC Energy’s decision was the result of a policy error by the administration.

There is an “opportunity cost for thousands of American workers, some of which already have lost their jobs on this project, and the communities along the pipeline route that would have received millions in tax revenue to support their schools and infrastructure,” Durbin said. “This episode is also a black mark for our relationship with our close ally to the north, Canada, and will have repercussions for our ability to attract private investment for years to come.”

–With assistance from Robert Tuttle.

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