Trump just approved the Keystone XL pipeline. Here’s what comes next.

Environmentalists, land owners, and tribes gear up to fight the controversial project — again.

Rows of pipe ready to become part of the Keystone Pipeline, from 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File
Rows of pipe ready to become part of the Keystone Pipeline, from 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File

On Friday, TransCanada — the pipeline developer behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline — announced that the Trump administration had granted a presidential permit allowing the pipeline’s construction to move forward. Hours later, President Donald Trump made a statement from the Oval Office, essentially announcing that any debate surrounding the project had been put to rest.

“The bottom line: Keystone, finished,” Trump said.

As TransCanada’s president and chief executive officer Russ Girling, who was present for the statement, noted immediately after, that’s not quite right: TransCanada still faces a few significant hurdles before it can officially begin construction on the Keystone XL pipeline.

More than anything, Friday’s action is likely to reignite intense debate over the pipeline, which has long pitted environmentalists, tribes, and some Midwestern land owners against the fossil fuel industry. And despite the fact pipeline opponents now face a fossil fuel-friendly administration, they have pledged to organize both in the streets and in the courtroom to prevent the pipeline from being completed.


“There are millions of Americans committed to making sure that the Keystone XL pipeline never gets built,” Bill McKibben, founder of, said on a press call on Friday. “This project is going to be fought at every turn.”

The presidential permit already faces a challenge in court, with environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council arguing that the State Department violated the National Environmental Policy Act by relying on an environmental study from three years ago, which they argue contains outdated information about the pipeline’s impacts on the environment and the economy. Primarily, the groups are seeking to dispute the fact that the three-year-old environmental study predicted oil prices would never fall below $100 a barrel throughout the lifetime of the Keystone XL pipeline. Oil prices have since fallen well below that, trading for around $50 a barrel currently.

“Approving the Keystone pipeline on the basis of an outdated environmental review is not only bad policy, but it violates the law,” Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project, said on a press call.

If that legal challenge fails, TransCanada will still need approval from regulators in Nebraska before they can proceed with constructing the pipeline along one of their three proposed routes. Trump, appearing to hear this news for the first time on Friday during his remarks from the White House, quipped that he would put in a call to Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) to ensure the pipeline’s swift approval. As Timothy Cama of The Hill pointed out, Todd Ricketts, Pete’s brother, is currently Trump’s nominee for deputy Commerce secretary.


But getting the pipeline approved to run through Nebraska won’t be as simple as a call to a friendly politician — Ricketts, in fact, has nothing to do with the decision, which is up to the Nebraska Public Service Commission, an independent board of five publicly-elected commissioners.

“He is so arrogant to think that a phone call to Gov. Ricketts would somehow grant and greenlight this project in our state,” Jane Kleeb, president of Bold Alliance, said on a press call. “Newsflash to President Trump, Gov. Ricketts actually has no role in the approval of the Keystone pipeline in Nebraska.”

TransCanada submitted an application for approval to the Public Service Commission on February 17. Since then, at least 40 groups have filed as intervenors in the case, hoping to argue against the construction of the pipeline. These include indigenous communities, like the Ponca Tribe in Nebraska, environmental groups, farmers, ranchers, landowners, and concerned citizens.

The commission has 210 days from February 17 to decide whether the project is in the public interest of the state — and has unilateral authority to deny the project. Even if the commission approves the project, Kleeb expects that decision to face numerous challenges in court, telling reporters that it will likely be two to three years before the pipeline question is resolved in Nebraska.

The pipeline will also likely face renewed opposition from environmental and social justice groups throughout the country — already, organizers have scheduled two separate actions in protest of the pipeline for Friday evening. Indigenous communities are also pledging to fight the pipeline, borrowing tactics from the protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota, which temporarily shut down construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. According to Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, at least two tribes have already announced their intention to hold physical space along the proposed pipeline route for “resistance spirit camps,” like the one at Standing Rock.


Opponents may borrow other tactics from the movement against the Dakota Access pipeline as well. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, suggested environmental groups may begin campaigns to pressure investors in the Keystone XL pipeline to divest from the project, or to pressure cities and communities to divest themselves from entities financially supporting the pipeline. In February, the city of Seattle voted to divest from Wells Fargo over the company’s financial support of the Dakota Access pipeline, and cities like D.C. and San Francisco have since considered similar divestment bills. It’s possible that those campaigns could gain momentum with another controversial pipeline edging towards completion.

In general, opponents of the pipeline are coalescing around a common refrain: this is not over yet.

“Back in 2010, 2011 and even in 2014, most experts thoughts that Keystone XL was headed for approval,” Kenny Bruno, coordinator of the Moving Beyond Oil Campaign, said. “They were wrong then, and if they think that Keystone XL is a done deal, then they are wrong again.”