Democratic 2020 contenders take aim at Trump-backed Keystone XL pipeline

Pipeline projects have become a flashpoint between Trump and some Democrats.

Opponents of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines hold a rally as they protest US President Donald Trump's executive orders advancing their construction, at Lafayette Park next to the White House in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2017.
Opponents of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines hold a rally as they protest US President Donald Trump's executive orders advancing their construction, at Lafayette Park next to the White House in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2017. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Rejecting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project could be the next environmental litmus test for Democratic candidates hoping to beat President Donald Trump in 2020.

At least two Democratic hopefuls — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) — have formally committed to opposing the Keystone XL pipeline should they be elected president, after calls to do so from indigenous tribes and other activists.

On Tuesday, the land and water protection group Bold Nebraska announced that Warren had become the first Democratic candidate to take the “NoKXL Pledge.” That pledge commits signatories to reversing Trump’s approval for Keystone XL and stopping the project entirely on “Day One” in office. Environmental organizations, tribes, ranchers, farmers, and other activist groups have all expressed support for the effort.

The pipeline project has strong backing from the Trump administration, so eyes are now on other 2020 contenders to see whether they join Warren and Inslee in the pledge, especially as environmental issues become increasingly important to voters.


“U.S. Presidents are not empowered to write up proclamations that give Big Oil a free ride, and bypass our nation’s bedrock environmental laws written to protect our water, land, clean air and a livable climate,” the NoKXL pledge reads.

Inslee, who has devoted his entire campaign to tackling climate change, also tweeted his support. “The Keystone XL pipeline is a disaster waiting to happen. Where do I sign?” the candidate asked shortly after Warren’s support was confirmed.

Keystone XL has been a source of contention for years. Owned by TransCanada, the proposed oil pipeline would connect terminals in Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska, going through Montana and South Dakota. The pipeline would notably go through Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills region, home to endangered plant species and an area that has been designated a National Natural Landmark.


Opponents say the pipeline poses significant risks to both public health and the environment, even as its backers argue that the project will provide necessary energy for the country.

Facing pressure from environmentalists, the Obama administration rejected the pipeline in 2015 following initial approval from the State Department. Among the reasons cited for the rejection were concerns about climate change.

But Trump has sought to undo this and push the project forward. After facing legal setbacks and repeated challenges from opponents, Trump in March issued a new permit allowing the pipeline to proceed.

While litigation over the pipeline is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, Keystone XL naysayers see Democratic opposition as one of their best chances for halting the project permanently. And that sentiment extends to other pipelines as well.

In addition to Keystone XL, the pledge supported by Warren and Inslee also calls for revoking the permit for the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which runs from North Dakota through several states, ending in Illinois. Indigenous protestors have long argued that the pipeline poses outsized risks to water sources.


Activists are moreover scrutinizing other pipelines, including Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline, which currently runs from Alberta to Wisconsin, with a new route proposed that has generated opposition in Minnesota.

Fracked gas pipelines in Appalachia are also a source of concern, as are plans to expand liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. Groups like Bold Nebraska say they want presidential candidates to stand against all of these efforts.

Polling shows that Americans consider climate change one of the most important issues facing the country, with many saying they worry about global warming and want to see a president pursue climate action.

The Trump administration’s support for fossil fuels and the ongoing rollback of many key environmental regulations have bolstered some Democrats. Many 2020 contenders have expressed support for the Green New Deal resolution, a plan to rapidly decarbonize the economy, and a number have released their own sweeping plans to address climate change.

Not all Democratic 2020 hopefuls, however, would move to ban fossil fuels. Some, like former Vice President Joe Biden, have given mixed answers when pushed about the role they expect energy sources like oil and gas to play in the coming years. On the other end of the spectrum is Inslee, who has pushed to be completely free from oil and gas in 15 years, with coal phased out in a decade.

Regardless of their differences, virtually all Democratic candidates have called for net-zero U.S. emissions by mid-century. Opposing major pipeline projects puts some muscle behind that commitment, indicating that more Democrats could follow in the steps of Warren and Inslee.

UPDATE: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) quickly became the third candidate to sign on to the NoKXL pledge on Wednesday. Mark Hefflinger, communications director for Bold Nebraska, told ThinkProgress that the momentum is promising.

“We’re confident that all of the other candidates will take this pledge to stand with family farmers, Tribal Nations and citizens concerned about the climate risks of the KXL and DAPL pipelines,” Hefflinger said.