Alberta oil's U.S. allies try long-shot measures to get Keystone XL built

Some American politicians are still making long-shot efforts to revive the Keystone XL pipeline project, cancelled last month by U.S. President Joe Biden. They're trying procedural tactics in Congress and making their case in letters to the president.

Pipeline proponents write letters, try procedural tactics in U.S. Congress. Do they have any hope of success?

U.S. President Joe Biden revoked the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on Day 1 of his administration. (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

Some American politicians are still making long-shot efforts to revive the Keystone XL pipeline project, cancelled last month by U.S. President Joe Biden.

On Tuesday, Biden received letters from several parties urging him to reconsider, including state-level Republicans and the powerful Democrat who leads the Senate energy committee.

In addition, a pipeline measure, sponsored by Republican Steve Daines of Montana a few days ago looked like it would pass in the U.S. Senate but ultimately failed.

In a marathon all-night voting session last week, the Senate approved a budget amendment that called for the creation of a fund to improve relations with Canada, related to Keystone XL.

The cancelled 1,897-kilometre pipeline was to have carried 830,000 barrels of crude a day from the storage terminal in Hardisty, Alta., to Nebraska, where it would connect to the original Keystone pipeline to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

The budget amendment was an attempt to stick pipeline construction into the massive COVID-19 stimulus bill. Democrats are preparing a pandemic recovery plan via a fast-track process known as budget reconciliation, which requires just a 51-vote majority to pass instead of the 60 votes required for most bills in the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, tried tucking a pro-Keystone XL measure into a massive budget bill last week. (Anna Moneymaker/Reuters)

The catch with reconciliation: it's only allowed for budget bills. So the reference to a Canada-U.S. budget fund was a procedural gambit to get it tacked onto the spending bill.

In any case, it didn't last long: the Democratic majority removed Daines's measure in a subsequent vote.

Now, Republicans are talking about other legal options.

Fourteen attorneys general from Republican-led states sent Biden a letter on Tuesday saying they were reviewing legal options in the pipeline battle. 

Written by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, the letter accused Biden of cancelling the project without explaining why his move was in the national interest or offering evidence that it will lower carbon emissions or create green-energy jobs.

"Observers are thus left with only one reasonable supposition: it is a symbolic act of virtue-signaling to special interests and the international community," said the letter.

"The real-world costs are devastating. Nationally, your decision will eliminate thousands of well-paying jobs, many of them union jobs … We were not consulted, and our states' substantial interests were not considered."

On the same day, Biden received a letter in support of the pipeline from Democrat Joe Manchin — who wields serious power in the U.S.Senate as a centrist swing vote and as head of the chamber's energy committee. 

What difference will it make?

We've reported that this pipeline is showing signs of lingering as a U.S. political issue regardles of whether or not Canada's government or public want to move on.

Republicans keep raising it every day.

It was the first topic mentioned by the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, James Risch, in a statement after a phone call this week with Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau.

So, what's clear is that Canada's oil patch and pipeline workers still have allies in U.S. politics. What's less clear? What practical difference all of this might make.

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)

Aside from potentially suing the U.S. government for financial compensation under terms of the old North American Free Trade Agreement, it's not clear any legal avenue exists to force the U.S. government to allow a cross-border permit.

As for trying to push a construction bill through the U.S. Congress, it's been tried before — and it was vetoed by former U.S. president Barack Obama.

Asked about the effort by Senate Republicans, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's office said it was following events in the U.S.

"We're monitoring and continue to talk to American political players about the importance of Canadian energy to the United States," Kenney's office said in a statement.


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.

With a file from Elise von Scheel