Trump uses executive action to revive Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines

The biggest victories of the environmental movement under Obama are now in jeopardy.

President Donald Trump shows his signature on an executive order on the Keystone XL pipeline, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump shows his signature on an executive order on the Keystone XL pipeline, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump signed executive memoranda Tuesday allowing two controversial oil pipelines — Keystone XL and Dakota Access — to move forward.

Delaying and stopping the development of those pipelines were among the environmental movement’s biggest victories over the past few years. Both projects attracted years of protest and civil disobedience, and Tuesday’s move is expected to be seen as a slap in the face to the broad coalition of Americans who oppose increased fossil fuel infrastructure.

“More people sent comments against Dakota Access and Keystone XL to the government than any project in history,” co-founder Bill McKibben said in a statement. “The world’s climate scientists and its Nobel laureates explained over and over why it was unwise and immoral. In one of his first actions as president, Donald Trump ignores all that in his eagerness to serve the oil industry.”

Keystone XL, a TransCanada project, would bring heavy crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. If constructed, the 1,700-mile pipeline will transport 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day — responsible for 181 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year. There were several protests against the pipeline, which came to symbolize the disregard for the environment in the name of oil production.


More recently, a months-long protest by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to order a full Environmental Impact Statement for the Dakota Access pipeline. The tribe alleges that the pipeline, set to run under the Missouri River, endangers their sole water source. Construction on the pipeline, which runs 1,172 miles from North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields to a distribution hub in Illinois, is nearly complete.

The executive memoranda — a similar document to executive orders, often used interchangeably at the discretion of the White House — are expected to be seen as particularly insulting to Native groups, whose rights have been routinely trampled by the U.S. government. Dakota Access’s delay in December was seen as a major tribal victory.

The first memorandum simply calls for TransCanada to resubmit its application for the Keystone XL pipeline. The expected new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon, will be able to approve the permit.

“We’re going to renegotiate some of the terms, and if they’d like, we’ll see if we can get that pipeline built,” Trump said, according to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, who attended the signing.

The second memorandum directs the Army Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner” requests “to contruct and operate” the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was not immediately apparent how that would work with the Army Corps’ environmental impact statement process, which has already begun.

The president “ignored a question about what he has to say to Standing Rock community,” Dale tweeted.

Whatever mechanism Trump uses, there will be lawsuits, environmental groups said, including Earthjustice, which has been representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Already on Tuesday, protests were planned for outside the White House.


“In the case of the Dakota Access pipeline, Trump’s actions are an affront to the Tribe and its Treaty rights especially since once again the tribes were not consulted before this action was taken,” Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen said in a statement. “This move is legally questionable, at best.”

He also said Trump was fanning the fires of opposition to his presidency. “Four days after taking the oath of office, and three days after millions across the country and world marched in protest of his administration, President Trump appears to be ignoring the law, public sentiment and ethical considerations,” he said.

Shannon Buccino, director of the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told ThinkProgress last month that any order reversing the Dakota Access decision would open the administration up to legal challenges. “[The administration would] have to justify that decision, they can’t do it arbitrarily,” she said.

The action also raises significant concerns over safety in North Dakota. There are still roughly 1,000 people at the protest camps near Standing Rock. They are unlikely to stand down, but Energy Transfer Partners, the company developing the pipeline, has already proven itself to be dead set on moving forward, protesters or no.

There have been continued clashes between pipeline opponents at the site and law enforcement, even since the project was delayed.

Environmentalists and anti-pipeline advocates had hoped that the project would be delayed long enough to no longer be economically viable.


The Keystone XL pipeline, meanwhile, has been off the table since November 2015, when President Obama announced that the project’s permit — required by the State Department, because it crosses the international border — would not be approved. The administration determined that the project was not in the country’s best interests. The decision led to a NAFTA challenge and a lawsuit from TransCanada, who said the administration was acting politically.

Critics say Trump is acting directly on behalf of wealthy oil and gas companies that supported his candidacy.

Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelsy Warren gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Trump campaign. Secretary of Energy nominee Rick Perry formerly served on the board of Energy Transfer Partners. And oil billionaire Harold Hamm, Donald Trump’s energy adviser and an ally of EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt, is planning on shipping oil via the Dakota Access line.

Trump himself is also invested in both Energy Transfer Partners and a company that will eventually own 25 percent of the completed pipeline. After years of supporting Keystone XL, it was revealed during the campaign that Trump was also invested in TransCanada.

Trump has argued that the pipelines will bring additional jobs and revenue to the United States.

Keystone XL is expected to create 35 permanent jobs.

This article has been updated with comments from Earthjustice.

Correction: Consistent with announcements from the White House, this article originally referred to the documents as executive orders. They are executive memoranda.