Pipe Dreams: Why Trump’s Dakota Access and Keystone XL Plans Don’t Add Up

by Jesse Coleman

January 27, 2017

Trump wants to speed the approval and construction of the oil pipelines by canceling environmental reviews — a blatant attempt to circumvent federal law to benefit fossil fuel companies.

© Jonathan Alcorn / Greenpeace

On Monday, Donald Trump signed a set of presidential memoranda aimed at boosting the country’s most infamous and flailing oil pipeline projects, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the Keystone XL (KXL).

But the pipelines have already been stalled by Indigenous water protectors and a massive global resistance ignited by the threat these projects pose to sacred sites, drinking water, and the climate. That resistance isn’t going anywhere

Trump’s actions do not make the pipelines inevitable.

Presidential memorandum are similar to to Executive Orders, they carry the weight of law and guide the actions of the government. However, the orders can’t overturn existing laws. From a legal perspective, no one really knows how effective these orders will be. They appear to have been written without consulting the agencies they affect.

Both the DAPL KXL memos attempt to skip environmental review processes mandated by federal law.

The KXL memo invited TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, to reapply for a crucial permit that was denied by the Obama administration. TransCanada accepted that invite yesterday. Called the “Presidential Permit,” it is actually granted by the Secretary of State. The permit is needed because KXL crosses the border between Canada and the U.S.

In an interesting twist, this may not go the way Trump’s team hopes.

The likely Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil. As a condition of his appointment, Tillerson has promised to recuse himself from any decision involving Exxon for one year. Keystone XL, which would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Exxon has massive tar sands holdings and it is entirely possible Exxon’s tar sands would flow through the KXL pipeline. If that is the case, Tillerson may have to recuse himself from the KXL decision, leaving no clear process for approving the permit.

NRDC points out that the Keystone XL faces a slew of other legal, economic, and permit hurdles.

  • Tar sand oil is expensive to mine and exploit, making the pipeline much less financially attractive than it was when it was proposed.
  • The company behind the pipe still needs Clean Water Act permits.
  • The state of Nebraska still needs to approve a route and permit for the pipeline. And the state has seen very wide ranging and well organized opposition.
  • The pipeline’s permit in South Dakota is also being challenged.

Trump’s orders are equal part brazen crony capitalism and a confusing morass of legal conflicts.

Trump also has significant financial ties to the Dakota Access Pipeline, whose CEO contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s campaign for president. Trump might  also be personally invested in two major companies building DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66.Trump spokespeople have claimed he sold these shares but have provided no evidence.

The DAPL memo orders the Secretary of the Army (a Trump political appointee named Robert Speer) to ignore the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act “to the extent permitted by law.” The document also attempts to cancel a review of the environmental and social impacts of the pipeline’s proposed route, called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), currently underway. But legal experts believe that the law will not permit Trump to skip environmental reviews completely.

And ironically, Trump has ordered a hiring and funding freeze at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has the crucial role of approving the the final EIS for these pipelines, which means Trump’s attack on EPA science might slow the pipeline approval down.

People power can still stop these pipelines

The Standing Rock Sioux, whose water and sacred lands are threatened by DAPL, have already filed a legal challenge and will be taking Trump’s to memo to court.

And a growing mass movement is standing with Indigenous leadership to stop these zombie projects for good. People across the world are not only taking on the government permits the pipelines need,  these pipelines, they are also challenging the banks financing construction.

One of the biggest underwriters of the Dakota Access Pipeline is Citibank. Citibank actually has rules governing what kinds of projects the bank can fund. Projects that trample Indigenous treaties and rights, while endangering the lives and drinking sources of hundreds of thousands of people, are clear violations of Citibank’s own policies. Cutting off funds for these projects can stop the pipeline cold — regardless of the Trump team’s hamfisted attempt to undermine the laws of the U.S.

Send Citibank a message right now: tell it to stand by its principles and cut off funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Jesse Coleman

By Jesse Coleman

Jesse Coleman is a researcher with the Greenpeace Investigations team. His focus is on front groups, fracking, and the oil and gas industry. Jesse's work has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Colbert Report, Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, and NPR.

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