with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Joe Biden is about to cancel a big oil pipeline project. It won't be the last hard choice he has to make about whether to let one be built. 

One of the president-elect's first actions in office will be to kill a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, as our colleagues Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin report, fulfilling a campaign promise made in May. The move amounts to a major victory for tribal and environmental group who fought for years to draw attention to the project. 

Now some of those same activists are preparing to mount more fights to stop more fossil-fuel infrastructure. At the same time, several labor unions with Biden's ear are pushing back against the end of projects that provide their members with high-paying construction jobs. 

All that puts Biden at the center of future political fights over pipelines. 

Attention is already turning east to another cross-border pipeline. Since 2014, the Canadian firm Enbridge has been aiming to replace a nearly 2,000-mile pipe between Alberta and Wisconsin called Line 3 with a higher-capacity tube. 

But anti-pipeline advocates are trying to stall the project in Minnesota, raising some of the same concerns they did with Keystone about potential water pollution if the pipe leaks, in addition to locking in higher global temperatures from the burning of more fossil fuels. The proposed Keystone XL oil conduit is meant to deliver Canadian crude from the tar sands of Alberta to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast, crossing the border in Montana.

“More than any other project in the U.S., it's a Keystone clone,” said Andy Pearson, Midwest tar sands coordinator for the Minnesota branch of the green group 350.org, noting the pipeline would transport some of the same Canadian crude Keystone XL would have. “Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, and a huge amount of this would go through wetlands with high water quality.”

Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company, emphasized replacing the pipeline is safer than leaving the old one in. “The safety and maintenance driven replacement of Line 3 has passed every test during six years of science-based regulatory and environmental permitting review,” spokeswoman Juli Kellner said.

Adding hope to the effort to stop the Line 3 replacement is Gina McCarthy, who voiced opposition to the project over the summer as head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major environmental group. Biden later picked her to be his domestic czar on climate change. 

With the state greenlighting the project late last year, opponents are pressing Biden to reconsider a final federal water permit for the Line 3 replacement issued by the Army Corps of Engineers under President Trump.

For now, the Biden transition team is keeping its head down, declining to comment on Line 3. 

There are other potential fossil-fuel infrastructure flash points for the incoming administration. 

Another target of activism may again be the Dakota Access pipeline, which tribes have been trying to shut down in federal court. In his own early administration move, Trump sought to resuscitate both Dakota Access and Keystone XL during his first month in office.

Biden's promise to end drilling leases on federally controlled lands is already a cause for consternation among his allies in oil- and gas-producing states, such as New Mexico and Montana. 

And there may also be fights over federal permits for export terminals for liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which were regularly granted under both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump.

During the campaign, Biden was cagey about whether he supports banning the export of fossil fuels after several of his Democratic rivals for the nomination called for doing so. The United States had a moratorium on selling crude oil abroad for four decades until it was lifted by Congress and Obama in 2015.  

But Biden was clear he will take global warming into account when considering pipelines for approval, requiring “any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change,” according to his climate plan.

The fossil-fuel infrastructure fight pits two Democratic flanks — environmentalists and labor unions — against each other. 

Biden courted both camps during the presidential campaign as he put together a $2 climate trillion proposal, arguing his plan to slow down global warming would also create millions of high-paying jobs in clean energy. 

The former vice president got the endorsement of the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters over the summer, for example, after committing to approach each pipeline permitting decision on a case-by-case basis, the union said.

Still, the pipe fitting union's president, Mark McManus, excoriated Biden this week for siding with “fringe activists instead of union members and the American consumer” in his Keystone decision. 

Labor groups are making strange bedfellows with big businesses they often do not see eye-to-eye with, including the National Association of Manufacturers, to stress the boon in union jobs such a big construction project would bring. 

“If this union project is blocked, workers and families will lose a huge opportunity,” unions and the manufacturers' organization wrote in a letter to Biden.

Power plays

Biden fills out deputy secretary roles for his administration.

Biden announced his picks for the No. 2 spots at the Agriculture, Interior and Transportation departments. The nominees, who all held roles in the same departments during the Obama administration, are expected to have a critical role in shaping government policy, if confirmed by the Senate.

“Deputies at large federal departments often have crucial responsibility for managing day-to-day operations in their sprawling organizations. The deputy has traditionally functioned as the leader who holds things together while the secretary travels or acts as the agency’s better-known figurehead,” our colleague Lisa Rein reports.

Here are the picks:

  • Jewel H. Bronaugh, Biden’s choice for deputy agriculture secretary, serves as the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She would be the first woman of color to serve as the agency’s deputy secretary and could help blunt criticism of Tom Vilsack’s nomination to lead the agency, especially from Black farmers who have said he did not do enough to combat discrimination during his first stint as secretary.
  • Elizabeth Klein, Biden’s choice for deputy interior secretary, is a specialist in energy and environmental law. She served in the agency under the Obama and Clinton administrations, working on renewable energy and climate change. More recently, she served as deputy director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University’s School of Law, which supports state attorneys general who are seeking to defend environmental rules.
  • Polly Trottenberg will join the Transportation Department, an agency that Biden has said will play a key role in combating climate change in his administration. Trottenberg has led New York City’s transportation department for the past seven years.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Baltimore’s climate lawsuit today.

Baltimore has sued a group of oil companies, including BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, for their role in contributing to climate change. The city argues that the companies knew about the impact of their products on rising greenhouse gases but continued to produce fossil fuels and misled the public on the science of climate change. 

“[But] the Supreme Court won’t consider the heart of the case, whether the oil companies should pay. Instead, the justices will hear arguments over a narrow procedural issue related to whether the Baltimore case and others like it should be heard in state or federal court,” the Washington Examiner reports.

Oil companies have pushed to move Baltimore’s case and other climate lawsuits to federal court, which they see as a more favorable venue. Federal appeals courts have so far rejected this argument, but the Supreme Court accepted fossil fuel companies’ appeal in the Baltimore case.

The Trump administration will make its case in support of the oil companies during the arguments, but Biden, who takes office on Wednesday, has promised to take a different stance on the climate lawsuits. It’s unclear whether the justices will consider a change in the government’s position on the case.

Montana’s National Bison Range will be transferred to tribes.

The Interior Department transferred Montana’s National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Missoulian reports. The transfer comes as part of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, which was included in the omnibus spending bill signed by President Trump at the end of last year.

Shelly Fyant, the chairwoman for the tribal council, told the Missoulian that the transfer returned care of the bison to the people who had made it a mainstay of their culture. The tribes have said that they will continue the conservation plan developed by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the 18,800 acre wildlife refuge that covers Red Sleep Mountain.

Methane emissions fell in 2020 as oil and gas production declined.

Oil and gas operations emitted just over 70 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas last year, representing a 10 percent reduction compared to 2019, according to a report by the International Energy Agency. The fall in emissions was the result of declining oil and gas production during the pandemic, but the emissions “were still equivalent to the European Union’s total carbon dioxide emissions,” Bloomberg News reports

Extra mileage

Even in the dead of winter, there are signs of spring.

Brown bears and grizzly bears are starting to give birth. The mother bears will take care of her cubs inside her den until spring.