Pipelines are having a bad week.
Words projected onto the EPA’s headquarters during a demonstration.
A series of decisions in the last few days has halted or scuttled three high-profile oil- and gas-pipeline projects. The Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines—sources of long-running controversy—both suffered legal setbacks that will require additional environmental impact reviews. Separately, the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline recently won a case before the US Supreme Court, yet it has now been abandoned by the two energy companies behind it.
The Keystone XL pipeline is meant to carry oil produced in Alberta, Canada, southeast to Nebraska, but it has suffered major delays. The Dakota Access pipeline, on the other hand, has been operational for several years, carrying oil from North Dakota to southern Illinois.
Both were subjected to major protests. The Keystone protests focused on the climate impact of facilitating production in Alberta’s oil sands, where extraction is unusually energy intensive. Dakota Access was strongly opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (and many others), who feared the consequences of a leak where the pipeline crosses under the Missouri River on the edge of reservation land.
The Obama administration eventually denied approval to Keystone and halted work on Dakota Access while the Army Corps of Engineers reevaluated the proposed route. But immediately after taking office, President Trump pushed both projects forward, fast-tracking some remaining permits.
Those moves have been challenged in court, where tribal and environmental groups have argued that environmental review requirements were not being met. That argument has won out in recent decisions. A US District Court judge ruled in April that the Army Corps of Engineers should not have exempted the Dakota Access pipeline from completing an environmental impact analysis for the river crossing. On Monday, that same judge ruled that the pipeline has to stop operating until the analysis is complete, giving a 30-day deadline to shut it down.
According to a Bloomberg report, however, Energy Transfer (the owner of the pipeline) is refusing that order. Instead, it’s going right ahead with scheduling oil transport with its customers for August. (UPDATE: Energy Transfer released a statement after this story was published denying that they would defy a court order. “Rather, DAPL is seeking appropriate relief from that order through the established legal process,” the statement says.)
The Keystone pipeline also ran into District Court trouble back in April, when a judge decided that a long-standing Army Corps program allowing pipelines and other utility lines to skip many permitting requirements for river crossings is not legal. That lawsuit was focused on Keystone, but the ruling affected projects around the country.
The decision is being appealed, but the Trump administration wanted the US Supreme Court to step in with an emergency ruling to prevent the change from taking effect until that process plays out. On Monday, the Supreme Court left the ruling in place for Keystone, preventing construction work from beginning. But the court did restore the current rules for any other projects.
This case was one of the factors cited by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy Sunday when they announced they had decided to drop the Atlantic Coast pipeline project, which was intended to carry natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. They argued that a stay from the Supreme Court “would not ultimately change the judicial venue for appeal nor decrease the uncertainty associated with an eventual ruling.”
It is a surprising decision given that the companies won a Supreme Court case just last month about whether the pipeline could cross the Appalachian Trail. Some environmental groups had sued, arguing that the US Forest Service shouldn’t have granted the permit as the pipeline should not be allowed on National Park land. Obviously, it would be logistically difficult to ever run a pipeline on the East Coast without crossing the nearly 2,200-mile-long trail, and a number of pipelines already do. The Supreme Court decided that the Atlantic Coast pipeline’s permit should stand.
Still, Duke and Dominion said that “ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty which threaten the economic viability of the project” pushed the companies to cancel it. Instead, Dominion decided to sell all of its natural gas pipeline and storage assets to “an affiliate” of prominent investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.—a deal valued at $9.7 billion.
The Keystone and Dakota Access projects could ultimately win on appeal or resume after completing new environmental reviews. However, it’s also possible that the government’s position could change after the 2020 general election. But at least in the short-term, these court decisions have once again brought both pipelines to a halt.