Keystone XL turns into early club against Biden

President Joe Biden's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline has become an early talking point against him from domestic critics of his administration — and even some allies.

Pipeline cancellation becomes talking point in Washington. There's scant evidence it'll change anything

U.S. President Joe Biden revoked the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on Day 1 of his administration. That decision has become an early talking point against him from domestic critics of his administration — and even some allies. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press, Alex Panetta/CBC)

This story is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians.

What's new

U.S. President Joe Biden's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline has become an early talking point against him from domestic critics of his administration — and even from some allies.

A centrist Democrat from West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin, told Fox News he "respectfully disagree(s)" with Biden's decision. Manchin said similar volumes of heavy crude will still get shipped to the U.S. to be refined. He thinks it's safer in a pipeline than on trains.

"We have to have the heavy crude," he told Fox's Bret Baier Tuesday night. "I'd rather for it to come from Canada than I would from Venezuela."

His comments come as numerous Republicans point to the symbolism of Biden cancelling the pipeline on Day 1 of his presidency — as a job-killing move in the first hours of his administration.

Here's one reason this is somewhat striking: Biden's promise to kill the pipeline was a potential campaign issue last year — and it sat there virtually untouched. Even after Biden promised to end the Canada-U.S. project, Republicans simply didn't raise it much on the campaign trail.

They are now. 

Keystone came up several times in recent Senate confirmation hearings for Biden's cabinet picks. Sen. Ted Cruz mocked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for saying Biden's massive clean-infrastructure plan will create far more jobs than those lost in the construction of this pipeline.

"For those [laid-off pipeline] workers, the answer is: 'Somebody else'll get a job?'" Cruz said. 

What's next

It's too early to tell whether Biden will actually be damaged politically by the charge he's hurting fossil-fuel-industry jobs. The polling is a bit vague.

On the one hand, a survey commissioned by the Alberta government by JDA Frontline Partners said that when Americans were told the project was already under construction, a strong majority wanted it completed.

On the other, American political pollster Scott Rasmussen found that more Americans supported Biden's decision on Keystone than opposed it.

So the broader political implications for Biden aren't yet clear. It may depend on whether he succeeds in his main energy objective: getting Congress to pass a massive $2 trillion plan to build clean infrastructure.

But when it comes to Keystone XL, there's been no sign that Biden, or the vast majority of Democrats aside from Joe Manchin, have any interest in backing down on the cancellation.

Joe Manchin is a rare Senate Democrat to defend Keystone XL. He's also poised to have some pull on energy policy in Washington. (Leigh Vogel/Reuters)

Manchin, it should be noted, has for years been a rare Washington Democrat to vocally defend Keystone XL. He's also a defender of his state's coal industry, a longtime recipient of oil-industry campaign donations, and he could play a key role on any future energy bill.

Manchin not only holds an important swing vote in the 50-50 Senate; he's also the top Democrat on the Senate's energy committee which his party is about to control.

How this affects Canada

Oil is Canada's No. 1 biggest revenue-generating export and Keystone XL was designed to simplify the shipment of 830,000 barrels per day from Alberta to refineries in the U.S.

The project was also supposed to create thousands of jobs in the U.S. and Canada, primarily in construction. Immediately after Biden ended the project, pipeline company TC Energy Corp., cut 1,000 jobs. It didn't specify how many of those jobs were in each country.

This project has become a fault line in the climate debate — with advocates like Manchin, and past U.S. government analyses, arguing the oil will keep being shipped anyway, while opponents target Keystone XL as part of a longer-term strategy to stifle the expansion of the Alberta oilsands.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.