The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Keystone XL pipeline seems like a done deal for Trump. But it's not.

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with Paulina Firozi


Four days after sustaining a 210,000-gallon leak from one of its other pipelines, TransCanada got the greenlight from a Nebraska public works commission to build its controversial Keystone XL pipeline through the state's borders.

Meant to deliver Alberta’s tar sands oil to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, the Keystone XL became a flash point of protest and activism during the Obama administration as indigenous and environmental groups sought to convince the president to use federal authority to halt the pipeline from being built.

The environmentalists won, convincing then-President Obama to turn down TransCanada’s application to build a pipeline through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, citing climate-change concerns.

Then President Trump was elected, and TransCanada’s fortunes turned. One of the new president’s first actions was to sign an executive order to revive the controversial project. 

That kicked the decision to Nebraska, the only state yet to approve the pipeline route. On Monday, the Nebraska Public Service Commission approved the project in a 3-to-2 vote. Read more about the decision from The Post's Steven Mufson here.

There are still unresolved legal issues revolving around the pipeline. The route the Nebraska commission approved is not the one preferred by TransCanada, requiring the company to get new right of way contracts with landowners. Given the pipeline’s new path, environmental organizations vowed a new round of lawsuits, too. 

But the ultimate fate of the pipeline probably won’t rest on the vagaries of the next presidential election or courtroom decision. To paraphrase yet a third commander in chief: It’s the economy, stupid. 

The energy business in the United States has changed significantly since the Keystone XL was first proposed nine years ago, taking a back seat to the political battles surrounding the pipeline and making them  ultimately less relevant.

In June, the Wall Street Journal reported that TransCanada is struggling to line up customers to purchase the oil. Back in 2008, when the Calgary-based company first asked for a permit to pipe oil across the U.S.-Canada border, the price of a barrel of oil surpassed $130. 

But after the boom in hydraulic fracturing flooded the market with cheap natural gas and depressed the price of a barrel to less than half that today, interest in buying the thick and relatively difficult-to-refine bitumen from Alberta dried up.

In a statement earlier this month, TransCanada said while it anticipated "commercial support for the project to be substantially similar to that which existed when we first applied for a Keystone XL pipeline permit," the company acknowledged it needed to find "new shippers" for the oil in the Gulf after "reductions in volume commitments by other shippers."

Even when Trump signed the executive order seeking to revive Keystone, he struck an uncharacteristic note of cautious optimism.

“If they’d like,” Trump said of TransCanada in January, “we’re going to see if we can get that pipeline built. A lot of jobs.”

TransCanada said it won’t decide until December whether to go forward with the project.


-- Not enough on elephant trophies: Environmental groups have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration over the decision to allow hunters in Zimbabwe to import trophies elephant hunting, charging that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act with the move.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Natural Resources Defense Council’s suit filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia follows the public outcry over the Trump administration’s move, which prompted the president to put the decision on hold.

“Putting trophy imports ‘on hold’ isn’t enough,” Elly Pepper, deputy director of Wildlife Trade for the Natural Resources Defense Council said as a statement, per the Washington Examiner. “Elephants are in crisis now. If we don’t force the administration to completely revoke its decision, President Trump could quietly start allowing these imports as soon as he stops facing criticism on Twitter.”

A senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity told The Post’s Darryl Fears that Trump’s reversal “while appreciated, shows how arbitrary this deplorable decision was… These incredibly imperiled creatures need a lot more than vague promises.”

Michael Doyle at E&E News has more on how Trump's about-face could be a "legal misfire:" "It's extraordinary for an administration, let alone a president, to immediately put on hold an agency decision that had gone through routine procedures including final publication in the Federal Register... Potentially, a legal challenge could be mounted by hunting proponents claiming that the reversal violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act. Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association cited this same law in a 2014 suit challenging the earlier import ban." 

Indeed, Trump’s decision has sparked ire from hunting groups. Fears writes that Safari Club International urged its members fight back against “hysterical anti-hunters and news media outlets” that “went into overdrive, attacking everyone in sight, including the Trump administration, SCI and even the National Rifle Association of America.”

-- Funding for the EPA and Interior: The Senate Appropriations Committee introduced a spending bill Monday proposing to slash nearly $150 million from the Environmental Protection Agency next year, according to The Hill. The spending bill would dole out a total of $32.6 billion for the Interior Department, EPA and related agencies, which is about $1.2 billion above a previously passed House plan and $300 million more than the current spending levels, per E&E News.

The EPA, which sees the steepest cut in the bill, would receive $7.9 billion in funding, $149.5 million below the current funding level. Interior would get $12.17 billion, slightly less than presently and a small boost from the House bill. There would also be $3.6 billion set for wildfire suppression, per the reports.

The Senate bill rejects the steep spending cuts the Trump administration sought, with restored funding for the popular Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other programs restored. But language in the package would strip Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf and halt the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from granting similar protections for the lesser prairie chicken.

-- Pruitt’s promises: Scott Pruitt took office on a promise to bring the agency “back to the basics” and has succeeded in rolling back or stalling a handful of environmental regulations as what Politico calls “the most unorthodox EPA administrator in decades.” “We’re only 10 months on the job and eight years from today, Americans will be impressed with how President Trump and Administrator Pruitt were able to protect the environment and American jobs,” an EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told the publication. Here’s Politico’s analysis of Pruitt’s claims compared to what he’s accomplished so far.

-- Zinke and Zinke: Ryan Zinke’s wife, Lolita, played a key role in planning events for the interior secretary during the first few months of the administration, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. New documents, acquired by advocacy group Western Values Project through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveal details of Lolita Zinke’s input, which include inviting a list of her own guests to a Young America’s Foundation town hall forum in California and forcing Interior staffers to scramble "to overhaul travel logistics on a trip in Alaska after they learned Lolita Zinke wanted to attend a dinner with the state’s governor, Bill Walker (I), rather than return to Washington as planned."

-- Sunlight: The Affordable Energy Coalition, a new group pushing back against Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to bolster coal and nuclear plants, has announced the members of its group, per Axios. The coalition so far includes the Advanced Energy Economy, the American Wind Energy Association, BP, the Electricity Consumers Resource Council, Energy Storage Association, Industrial Energy Consumers of America, and the free-market R Street Institute.

"The DOE grid proposal would raise costs for millions of American families and make it harder for American businesses to compete," Michael Steel, a spokesman for the coalition, told Axios.

The latest on Puerto Rico:

  • Whitefish Energy is halting its work in Puerto Rico because the small company says it is owed more than $83 million by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. The Montana-based company’s CEO told CNN the payments weren't made even after repeated requests.  "It may have not been the best business decision coming to work for a bankrupt island," Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski told CNN. "We were assured PREPA was getting support from FEMA and there was money available to pay us for 100% of our work." 

  • A large majority of Americans say Puerto Ricans aren't getting the help they need in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed 70 percent believe residents are not getting the necessary relief compared to 62 percent who said so last month. The poll also found that more than half of Republicans – 52 percent – agree that Puerto Ricans aren't getting enough help, a marked jump from the 38 percent who believed the same last month. But 63 percent of Republicans do feel the federal government is doing enough to help, while 86 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Independents do not.
  • More than 5,000 business on the island could shutter following the storm, The Post’s Gene Marks reports, in large part due to the collapse of the infrastructure and resources.
  • In the more than 60 days since Maria, the island is back to nearly 47 percent power generation, per the local government. Meanwhile, over 90 percent of water services have been restored.
  • According to CNN’s survey of 112 funeral homes in Puerto Rico, there have been 499 deaths since Sept. 20 it believes to be storm-related. That’s compared with the official local government death count of 55 as of Nov. 17.
  • New England-based ReVision Energy says it has plans to send about 100 portable solar units to the island, per local NBC affiliate station WWLP.

-- After Harvey, Irma, and Maria...: Americans are more worried about climate change, according to a survey from Yale and George Mason Universities. But the Guardian reports "it shows that Americans are still poorly-informed about the causes of global warming. Only 54% understand that it’s mostly human-caused, while 33% incorrectly believe global warming is due mainly to natural factors." Nevertheless, a record 22 percent are "very worried" about climate change, which is double the percentage from a March 2015 survey. Overall, most Americans — 63 percent — are "somewhat worried."

-- Is Trump's NASA nominee ready to tackle climate change? That is the question Wired's Eric Niiler asks in a new profile of Rep. Jim Bridenstine. In 2013, as a first-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma, Bridenstine went to the House floor to ask President Obama to apologize for spending money on climate research. Now Tony Busalacchi, a former NASA ocean and atmospheric scientist, tells Niiler he thinks Bridenstine is repentant. 

"He told me he regrets his [2013 House floor] statement in the past, and that he believes CO2 is a greenhouse gas and is contributing to climate change and man is contributing to climate change," Busalacchi said. "I see him as pragmatic and not an ideologue."



  • The House and Senate are out this week for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Coming Up

  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts an event about the “Status of Carbon Capture 2017” on November 28.
  • The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on "Conservation programs, the waters of the United States, and the Renewable Fuel Standard" on December 6.

Roy Moore accuser Leigh Corfman's interview on the “Today” show, annotated:

Roy Moore accuser Leigh Corfman spoke to the “Today” show Nov. 20, following allegations she made in The Washington Post. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

A second woman accuses Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) of inappropriate touching:

A second woman accuses Democratic Senator Al Franken, of inappropriate touching in 2010. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

On the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addresses sexual harassment on Capitol Hill: 

Watch a bus block The Weather Channel's video shot the exact moment the Georgia Dome implodes:

Watch the official trailer for The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks: