A Trump White House, with the stroke of a pen, could reverse the Obama administration’s course on the Keystone XL oil pipeline and put the once-shelved project on a fast track to completion.
Analysts said the key to President Obama’s rejection of the pipeline last year was a George W. Bush-era executive order giving the State Department a say in energy projects that cross international boundaries. Voiding that executive order would return the decision to energy regulators, who have been far more amenable to Keystone.
“I predict this pipeline will get finished and be in full operation in the next 18 to 24 months,” said Brigham McCown, who served as first acting administrator of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in 2005 and 2006. “Once President Trump says, ‘Make this happen,’ I think you’ll see the government swing back and make that happen.”
Under a Trump administration, it’s likely that little would have to be done in terms of studying Keystone, which would deliver more than 800,000 barrels of oil from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The State Department and other federal agencies have conducted an exhaustive analysis of the project.
Among other things, the State Department review concluded that the pipeline would have virtually no impact on climate change because the Canadian fuel likely would find its way to market via other means if Keystone is rejected. Mr. McCown said some additional federal review may be needed, and states through which the pipeline will pass may have to reaffirm specific routes, but by and large, Mr. Trump can make Keystone a reality with relatively little effort.
TransCanada, the company proposing the project, said in a statement last week that it remains committed to Keystone, though officials with the Canadian firm wouldn’t say specifically whether they are expecting the next president to approve the project.
Leading oil and gas industry organizations are optimistic that Mr. Trump — who has signaled strong support for U.S. fossil fuels, including coal — will greenlight Keystone quickly.
“Projects like the Keystone XL pipeline will help deliver energy to American consumers and businesses in one of the most efficient ways and with the latest technological advancements,” said Michael Tadeo, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.
For the outgoing administration, the approval of Keystone would be a blow to the president’s legacy on energy and the environment. Coupled with Mr. Trump’s pledge to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, an approval of Keystone would send a crystal-clear message that American energy and climate policy will go in a different direction over the next four years.
On Keystone, Mr. Obama spent his first six years in office delaying a decision on the project. White House officials have consistently hid behind the seemingly endless State Department review process.
In February 2015, the president vetoed legislation that would have approved the pipeline, saying Republicans in Congress were trying to make an end run around the administration. But even then, Mr. Obama said his veto was not a rejection of Keystone on the merits, and he vowed to make a final decision after the State Department completed its review.
Finally, after one of the most intense environmental public relations campaigns in history, Mr. Obama formally rejected Keystone in November 2015, immediately after the State Department recommended that the project not be approved. The president’s decision was more of a big-picture statement on the U.S. commitment to fight climate change rather than any specific objections to Keystone itself. In remarks explaining his rationale, Mr. Obama said other countries were looking to see whether the U.S. would continue investing in fossil fuels.
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” he said in a Nov. 6, 2015, address. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”
Mr. Trump, using the pipeline as an example of his claim that the administration was standing in the way of jobs, made the proposal a centerpiece of his energy pitch to American voters. He highlighted the more than 40,000 jobs that Keystone construction and operation would create — a figure pulled from State Department analyses.
“If I am elected President I will immediately approve the Keystone Xl pipeline. No impact on environment & lots of jobs for U.S.,” Mr. Trump tweeted in August 2015, just weeks after announcing his bid for the White House.
On the technical side of the equation, the 2004 executive order, Mr. McCown said, was meant to establish inside the State Department an office to coordinate all aspects of cross-border pipeline approval, a process that typically spans numerous departments and agencies.
“This current administration has used this same executive order to do the opposite — to delay,” he said. “The only reason the State Department was to have a role was to simply coordinate getting it done. Obviously, they don’t have the expertise [on pipelines]. They were just simply there to be the herder of cats, if you will.”
Although they are shaken by the Republican’s victory, environmentalists say the clean energy tide is irreversible and Mr. Trump’s attempts to breathe new life into oil projects such as Keystone and renewed coal mining ultimately will fail.
“The markets and the American people are moving this nation beyond dirty fuels to clean energy, and Donald Trump can’t reverse that tide,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said last week on the heels of the presidential election.