A sign indicates pipeline construction as crews establish a worker encampment northeast of Hinsdale in Valley County, Montana. Photographed April 2, 2020. Credit: A.J. Etherington, MTFP

Environmental groups in Montana expressed tentative relief following reports that President-elect Joe Biden will rescind Keystone XL’s permit on his first day in office, but the embattled pipeline’s fate is far from certain. Presumably to pressure Biden in response to those reports, TC Energy has outlined new plans to build the pipeline entirely with union labor and to power it with renewable energy.

Dena Hoff, a farmer in Glendive who’s been working on the Keystone XL issue for years as a member of Northern Plains Resource Council, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about reports that Biden plans to pull the permit Trump issued for Keystone XL in 2017.

For now, she’s speaking about recent developments in the future tense, underscoring the many course changes that have accompanied Keystone XL since the project was proposed in 2008. “It would be nice to know that the work of millions of people is finally coming to fruition,” she said.

Hoff said she remembers when the Bridger Pipeline spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in 2015, contaminating Glendive’s water supply. Imagining a similar leak occurring with Keystone XL, carrying crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands, makes her uneasy. 

“We have no desire to see what bitumen with all of its accompanying chemicals [would look like] if it leaked from a 36-inch pipeline,” she said. In order to flow through a pipeline, oil from Alberta’s tar sands would have to be diluted with other materials.

Hoff noted that the water quality permit appeal made by Northern Plains Resource Council and the Sierra Club is, for now, still in effect. That appeal challenges the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to issue a water quality certification that’s required before pipeline construction can move forward on the 295-mile route through Montana. 

Multiple permits are at play. In addition to the cross-border permit that Biden can act on, several states must also issue permits. Nebraska and South Dakota have already issued water quality certifications, but Montana’s permit from DEQ is on hold while the appeal brought by Northern Plains Resource Council and Sierra Club earlier this month plays out before the state’s Board of Environmental Review.

“My guess is that one way or another, this isn’t going to be the end of the Keystone pipeline. They’ve been pushing this [project] forever, so they’re going to try to look for a way around, I’m sure.”

Derf Johnson, Montana Environmental Information Center.

“It would be nice if we don’t ever have to go through anything with DEQ on this issue,” Hofff said. 

The Montana Petroleum Association sees things differently. Alan Olson, the Helena-based organization’s executive director, focused on the project’s economic impact in his comments about Biden’s reported plans.

“We have an opportunity to put people to work. We have an opportunity to reduce oil imports from hostile nations,” he said. “I think decisions such as this are definitely bad for the economy in this country, and I certainly hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.”

TC Energy also has the support of Montana’s most prominent politicians in its favor. Neither of  Montana’s U.S. senators, nor its governor, are aligned with Biden’s plan to halt the pipeline.

“The Keystone XL Pipeline will create good-paying Montana jobs, boost our local economies, increase American energy security, and help keep energy prices down,” Gov. Greg Gianforte wrote in a Monday evening Facebook post. “I hope President-elect Joe Biden will reconsider his decision to jeopardize all of that.”

Sen. Steve Daines referenced energy independence, TC Energy’s pledge to operate the pipeline with net-zero emissions, and the jobs it would provide — including those for Bozeman pipeline contractor Barnard Construction Co. — in his Facebook post about the project

“This project has undergone extensive environmental and safety studies that have been approved by independent groups and the courts as well as garnered support from both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I will fight for this project every way I can.”

Sen. Jon Tester adopted a more measured tone of support for Keystone XL’s construction. 

“Senator Tester is encouraging the incoming Administration to meet with supporters and opponents of this project before making a decision on the permit,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to Montana Free Press. “He continues to support the responsible development of the pipeline as long as it is constructed with American steel, built to the highest safety standards, respects private property rights and includes significant consultation with impacted Tribes.”

Montana U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale could not be immediately reached for comment on Biden’s plan for the pipeline.

The $8 billion project to transport more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast has seen numerous legal challenges over the past dozen years.

“The Keystone XL Pipeline will create good-paying Montana jobs, boost our local economies, increase American energy security, and help keep energy prices down. I hope President-elect Joe Biden will reconsider his decision to jeopardize all of that.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte

At times it seemed the pipeline’s fate was all but sealed, as when the Obama’s administration rejected the Keystone XL proposal in 2015, or when President Donald Trump revived the project by executive order two years later.

Given so many reversals in the project’s trajectory, it is little surprise that Alberta-based TC Energy was ready for the incoming Biden administration.

The same day that news outlets reported Biden’s plan to nix the project, TC Energy announced an initiative to fully power Keystone XL operations with renewable energy by 2030 and to build the pipeline with union labor.

In order to achieve net zero carbon emissions on the project by the time the pipeline goes into service, the company said it plans to buy renewable energy from electricity providers where possible. To cover any gap, the company said it would purchase renewable energy credits or carbon offsets.

“This announcement comes after an extensive period of study and analysis, and as part of the company’s ongoing commitment to sustainability, thoughtfully finding innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while providing communities with reliable energy needed today,” the company’s statement read.

But for environmental organizations, those efforts aren’t sufficient to address the impacts of extracting, transporting and burning tar sands oil, which are reported to be some of the most polluting oil products coming to market

“That’s what you call putting seatbelts on the Hindenburg,” said Derf Johnson, a staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “This is an absolute disaster, and there’s nothing that they’re going to be able to do to assuage our fears if ultimately the tar sands are going to be burned and released into our climate.”

Johnson said in addition to the climate change impacts, he’a concerned about the environmental impacts that accompany tar sands extraction.

“It’s basically strip-mining for oil,” he said. “When you look at these aerial images of tar sand extraction, it looks like hell on Earth.”

While Johnson said MEIC “supports the president-elect 100%,” he added it would be premature to issue a death certificate for Keystone XL based on what’s happened in the past two days. 

“My guess is that one way or another, this isn’t going to be the end of the Keystone pipeline,” he said. “They’ve been pushing this [project] forever, so they’re going to try to look for a way around, I’m sure.”

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.