Keystone XL Pipeline Clears Major Obstacle for Construction

The move is the latest development in the long history of the controversial pipeline

A worker unloads pipe from a truck during construction of the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline.
A worker unloads pipe from a truck during construction of the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline. Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, regulators in Nebraska voted to allow TransCanada to continue construction on the Keystone XL pipeleine with the requirement that the company will build along an alternate route, reports Mitch Smith of The New York Times. This means the project has cleared its "final major hurdle" in its long battle for construction, writes Smith.

The pipeline is planned to run more than 1,100 miles from Canada to southern Nebraska to help boost the flow of crude oil from the Canadian oil sands and North Dakota. But the project has been controversial for years, the BBC reports.

Nebraska in particular has become the center of opposition against the pipeline, where permits and land-use easements have delayed the project's completion. But the pipeline as a whole has become symbolic of a bigger debate over the future of energy and climate change policy, writes Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic.

Today’s decision comes just days after news broke that another pipeline operated by the same company spilled 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota, Smith writes. Under Nebraska law, the state Public Service Commission cannot consider safety and spill risks when deciding on a permit. As of Sunday, TransAmerica still had workers on site cleaning up the spill, the largest Keystone has yet had in South Dakota, according to Holly Yan at CNN.

Opponents of the pipeline cite the project's environmental impacts, including negative effects on wildlife, Howard writes. Meanwhile supporters, including some labor unions and business groups, claim the project will create jobs. But a 2014 State Department Review found that of the thousands of workers required for construction, only 15 temporary contractors and 35 permanent positions would remain after its completion.

TransCanada first applied for a permit to build the pipeline in 2008, Darran Simon and Eliott C. McLaughlin reported for CNN earlier this year. In 2010, the Canadian National Energy Board approved the pipeline, but former President Barack Obama did not issue the permits required in the U.S., under advisement of the Environmental Protection Agency, according to BBC News. In 2015, Obama rejected the pipeline's continued construction, but President Donald Trump reversed that decision earlier this year.

Many people have drawn parallels between Keystone and the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Trump also green-lighted earlier this year. Both projects have been opposed by environmental and grassroots groups, have faced legal challenges and have been revived by Trump, Tom McCarthy wrote for The Guardian in January. North Dakota became a battleground in the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline last year, when Standing Rock Sioux members and allies stood in the path of the pipeline, in what eventually became violent protests.

As for the Keystone Pipeline, now that regulators have approved an alternate route in Nebraska, it could be another few months before TransCanada decides whether to begin construction, according to AP and The Guardian. A spokesperson for the company said it will also need to finalize its contracts with shippers that want to use the pipeline.