President Biden’s decision to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline has a touch of the theatrical about it. Signing the cancellation order on the first full day of his administration, the president drew applause from environmentalists and boos from a number of labor unions. Native American governments praised the action but the premier of Alberta, Canada, was quick to give it a bad review.
The high drama speaks to the symbolic aspects of the Keystone XL project. First proposed in 2008, the pipeline was planned to carry Canadian crude oil from the province of Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. It would have crossed the border in Montana.
The Keystone XL pipeline drew early opposition from indigenous people in Canada and Native American leaders in the U.S. It was also opposed by ranchers whose land would be crossed by the project.
In 2011, climate movement activists raised objections to Keystone XL, citing the carbon contained in Canadian tar-sand deposits. There were protests outside the White House aimed at pressuring President Barack Obama to reject the permits for the project. By that November, facing re-election, Obama had called for a delay to allow for additional review, and in 2015, he rejected it.
In 2019, President Donald Trump granted Canadian developer TC Energy a permit to build the $8 billion project.
It was expected to employ 11,000 people in the U.S. this year. Those jobs are now gone. Officials in the Biden administration have suggested that workers may be retrained to build solar panels and other green energy infrastructure. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said they’re “very eager to see those workers continue to be employed in good-paying union jobs, even if they might be different ones.”
Not everyone sees that as a realistic possibility, especially for workers already in the prime of their careers. One member of Pipeliners Local Union 798 told Fox News, “You spend a lifetime fine-tuning your skills and if you go start another job you’re starting at the bottom. I doubt that these politicians would like it if someone told them to go start over and find a different job.”
Biden’s decision signed away potential tax revenue as well as jobs. The state of Montana had estimated that it would collect $63 million per year in revenue from the pipeline project.
Yet it is clear that the United States will continue to be dependent on fossil fuels for decades, and the Keystone XL project is only one of several planned pipelines. Biden has not made a decision about the others.
One project is the Dakota Access Pipeline, which drew protests at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota during the last year of the Obama administration. The other is Line 3, a pipeline that is also planned to bring crude oil from Canada to the U.S., crossing the border in Minnesota. Gov. Tim Walz has given his approval.
The Biden administration is under pressure from environmentalists and indigenous leaders to cancel those pipeline projects along with the Keystone XL, but labor groups are pushing hard to preserve the projects and their high-paying jobs. The argument for and against one is the same as for the others. There’s no moral high ground in canceling Keystone XL alone.
Perhaps the costly decision was more a political statement, a high-profile repudiation of Biden’s predecessor, than an environmental one.