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Trump aims to clear path for Keystone XL, but opponents vow to keep fighting

Environmentalists fighting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline remain confident of stopping the project despite U.S. President Donald Trump's latest executive order aimed at speeding up development of cross-border infrastructure.

Odds of construction in 2019 are over 50%, says former TransCanada executive

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up an executive order on energy and infrastructure after signing it at the International Union of Operating Engineers International Training and Education Center on Wednesday in Crosby, Texas. (Associated Press)

Environmentalists fighting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska remain confident of stopping the project despite U.S. President Donald Trump's latest executive order aimed at speeding up development of such cross-border infrastructure.

But a former executive with Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. — the company behind the project —  said the order builds on other recent "good news" and could help bolster efforts to begin construction work on the long-stalled oil pipeline.

"I've always been one who has said I expect this project to get to construction this year," said former senior executive Dennis McConaghy, who worked on the Keystone XL project for TransCanada.

"I think the odds of it getting to construction this year are well over 50 per cent now."

Trump this week signed two executive orders intended to speed up oil and gas pipeline projects in the United States.

One orders calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to consult with states, Indigenous groups and others before issuing new guidance and rules for states on how to comply with the law.

Former TransCanada Corp. senior executive Dennis McConaghy speaks with CBC News at its Calgary studios on Thursday. He thinks the odds of starting construction on Keystone XL this year are 'well over 50 per cent.'

Environmental groups described that order as an effort to short-circuit a state's ability to review complicated projects,
putting at risk a state's ability to protect drinking water supplies and wildlife.

His other order is designed to ease the process for energy projects that cross international borders.

Currently, the U.S. secretary of state has authority to issue permits for cross-border infrastructure such as pipelines. The executive order clarifies that the president will make the decision on whether to issue such permits.

That move comes less than two weeks after Trump issued a new presidential permit for the project — replacing the one he granted in March 2017 — with the intention of speeding up development of the controversial pipeline, which would help ship heavy oil from Alberta's oilsands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

In November, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled that the Trump administration did not fully consider potential oil spills and other impacts when it approved the pipeline in 2017.

Trump's new permit, issued late last month, is intended to circumvent that ruling.

"The news we got 10 days ago was very positive," McConaghy said. 

"It meant a way of salvaging this project to get to construction this year as opposed to have to grind through not just the issuance of the environmental impact statement but have it go back to that judge and get embroiled in whether the courts thought it had passed muster.

"What occurred [Wednesday], I think, was incrementally positive for ... getting this project back to construction."

Keystone XL would carry 830,000 barrels of crude a day from Hardisty, Alta., to Nebraska. The pipeline would connect with the original Keystone that runs to refineries in Texas. (Alex Panetta/The Canadian Press)

But American environmental groups, some of which have been fighting Keystone XL for years, do not believe Trump will succeed in getting Keystone XL built.

"We feel confident in our position, for sure," Jane Kleeb, founder of environmental group Bold Nebraska, told CBC News.

"Every time they try to speed up a pipeline or a coal plant by creating some type of new state law or signing an executive order, it does the opposite effect. It just adds more layers of legal loopholes and legal strangleholds that these big corporations or the Republican Party have to go around." 

The pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of crude a day from Hardisty, Alta., to Nebraska and cost $8 billion US, according to the company's latest estimate. The pipeline would then connect with the original Keystone that runs to refineries in Texas.

First announced in 2005, the project has been stuck in limbo after being met with considerable political, environmental and Indigenous opposition.

Bold Nebraska founder Jane Kleeb speaks against Keystone XL in 2017. (Associated Press)

James Coleman, an energy law professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, isn't certain that the executive orders do much to clarify the future of Keystone XL.

"Anybody over the past 11 years who told you how things were going to work out over the next months would have been foolish to do so, and so I think we are stuck with continued uncertainty for months to come and maybe years," he said.

"That doesn't mean that the pipeline won't necessarily go forward." 

Coleman anticipates more court challenges, as does Kleeb. She also thinks Trump's moves will invigorate opposition groups.

"President Trump and Big Oil are hoping that this makes people feel depressed and deflated, and it's really doing the opposite," Kleeb said. 

"Everybody is just as energized to make sure that this pipeline, especially Keystone XL, does not get built."

Preparing for an election?

Part of Trump's motivation is likely preparing for the election next year, according to one U.S. energy policy expert, who says putting thousands of people to work on a pipeline is "great advertising."   

"He's definitely feeling he's going to get a lift off of this," said Chris Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C., and an expert of U.S. energy policy.

"He doesn't want to have this endless argument about, you know, the world is going to end, global warming is going to kill us."

A TransCanada spokesman didn't comment on Trump's executive orders, but said the company has filed a motion with the U.S. Ninth Circuit court asking it to dismiss the legal challenges related to the 2017 presidential permit.

"Our filing looks to resolve the issues raised in the challenge, remove the injunctions in place and put thousands of hard-working men and women to work building this critical piece of North American energy infrastructure," a spokesman said in an email statement.

About the Author

Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.

With files from Geneviève Normand and The Associated Press

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