On a chilly Washington Wednesday, Joe Biden became the President of the United States. His election-loss-denying predecessor skulked back to Florida. America’s allies breathed a sigh of relief.
At least that’s the prevailing narrative. Yet for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, one of Biden’s first actions as president created a headache that simply wasn’t there when Trump and his red diet coke button occupied the Oval Office.
No Biden of His Time…
On day one of his presidency, Biden signed an executive order effectively canceling the planned Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Canadian-based TC Energy, formerly TransEnergy, first proposed the project in 2008. If ever completed, the pipeline would stretch 1,179 miles, from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada through the US states of Montana and South Dakota, to Nebraska. It would have a carrying capacity of 830,000 barrels of oil a day.
Biden’s executive order revoked the presidential permit that Trump had issued in 2019, which had allowed the project to avoid required environmental oversights.
It wasn’t a surprise Biden revoked it – he’d promised to.
When Trump was in office, there were never any such concerns.
Trump and Trudeau had a turbulent relationship. The relationship got most heated in the wake of the G7 summit in Canada in 2018. Trump left early to travel to Singapore for his first meeting with Kim Jong-un. Trudeau criticised Trump in a press conference, describing certain American tariffs as “insulting.” Trump slammed the Canadian prime minister as “two-faced.”
The Keystone XL Pipeline represented a single branch of enduring unity between the US and Canada throughout Trump’s presidency. Trump’s indifference to environmental concerns meant it received his determined backing.
When the Biden campaign promised in May 2020 to revoke Keystone XL’s permit, the US presidential election became a lose-lose situation for Trudeau. Trump’s re-election meant four more years of an unreliable, brash populist. Biden’s win would restore US reliability in the international order, but at the price of losing consistent White House support for Keystone XL.
Worse still, Biden’s victory underlines how Trudeau is cornered in on Keystone XL domestically.
Canadian Domestic Politics
Trudeau’s Liberal Party knew his 2019 re-election would be a challenge. The halo had fallen from Trudeau due to a combination of factors, including his backtracking on electoral reform promises, attempting to influence the Attorney-General in the SNC-Lavalin affair, and his history of brownface.
The election was looking tight. To ward off voter loss to the New Democratic Party (NDP), Greens, and Bloc Québécois, the Liberals placed considerable emphasis on promises of climate action if re-elected. Yet conversely, they recommitted to Keystone XL, aware of its importance to conservative-leaning Western Canada.
The plan worked. Just. On the lowest popular vote ever for a Canadian governing party, the Liberals returned to power.
The fragility of their minority government has forced the Liberals to follow through on their climate rhetoric. Building on the introduction of a national carbon tax and the phaseout of unabated coal by 2030, Trudeau announced Canada’s new climate plan in December. It recommitted the Liberals’ promise of a net-zero Canada by 2050 and to exceed its Paris Agreement goal of reducing emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The government will also set five-year targets for emissions reductions from 2025, though there’s no enforcement mechanism for that policy.
Climate Action Tracker (CAT) still ranks the current targets as insufficient with the Paris Agreement’s minimum target of limiting global temperature rise to 2°C. It is progress though, especially considering Canada has never once met previous emissions targets.
On the flipside, Trudeau has restated his government’s support for Keystone XL. He said in 2017 that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.”
In his congratulatory call to Biden, Trudeau raised the issue of the Keystone XL. Global News Canada reported that Ottawa’s surprise at Biden’s haste to cancel stemmed at least partly from the fact that the two men seemed to have agreed in the call to revisit the subject.
When news came through of Biden’s rapid intentions, Trudeau’s office was equally swift to state he’d spoken to Alberta province’s premier Jason Kenney about it.
Alberta’s provincial government, led by conservative Kenney, is naturally concerned by the permit cancellation. It gambled big on Keystone XL. It took, at about the same time Biden promised to cancel it in May, a C$1.5 billion equity stake in the project. It also acts as a guarantor for TC Energy paying back $6 billion in loans. Kenney has already threatened legal action against the US government as a result of Biden’s order.
Albertan oil production is heavily scrutinized because for environmental reasons because its major source is tar sands. Oil from tar sands is more expensive to extract, requires three barrels of water to each barrel of oil, and averages between three to five times more CO2 per barrel than the global oil average.
In this context, Trudeau simultaneously talks climate action, yet backs Keystone XL and other pipelines. This is a contradiction that was brilliantly exposed by comedian Hasan Minhaj in 2019.
Trudeau is not the only North American head of government facing pressure on Keystone XL, though.
Biden’s Environmental Political Pressures
Biden’s presidential policy platform was the most thorough yet on climate action. He committed to a net-zero US by 2050 and 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. Biden also wants a Clean Energy Revolution for the US, which will allocate $1.7 trillion of federal funds to clean energy alone over the next decade.
Greenpeace USA graded the two main presidential candidates on climate policy. Biden received a score of 75.5/100.
A big contributor to Biden’s ambitious climate goals is the revitalized left wing of the Democratic Party. The other contributor is Trump. Biden has a sense that is not just necessary to compensate for four lost years of climate action but four calamitous years of climate policy reversal.
Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement. He appointed climate skeptics to front bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Scientists at EPA and other federal agencies were banned from public communications. Regulations were rolled back, whether on car emissions, light bulb standards, or Obama’s ban on Arctic offshore drilling.
Trump simply didn’t care. Greenpeace USA’s grade for him in the presidential election was 0.
Encouraged by the Democratic left, Biden is racing to reverse Trump’s policies and move US climate action forward.
It’s not just environmental politics playing a part in Biden’s decision to cancel the pipeline though. Keystone XL was another example of the rights of indigenous peoples in North America being sidelined.
A number of indigenous peoples are affected by Keystone XL, adding another dimension to Biden and Trudeau’s political pressures.
Over the years, there have been various protests and legal attempts to stop or slow down Keystone XL’s construction brought by indigenous and environmental groups. The Fort Belknap Indian Community and Rosebud Sioux Tribe are vocal opponents.
They say TC Energy’s own public maps of the pipeline’s planned route through Montana confirm it would break the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties.
These treaties tried to settle land disputes and end bloodshed between the ever-encroaching white settlers of North America and a variety of indigenous tribes’ people, including the Sioux tribe. They guaranteed areas of land which would be assigned to indigenous tribes and untouched by white settlers. Aspects of the treaties quickly descended into dispute as gold mining swept across America by the late 1800s and the lands of indigenous peoples were squeezed further.
TC Energy’s maps confirm the pipeline’s planned route through Montana would cross Rosebud mineral estates. Crossing without the consent of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe violates the 1851 and 1868 treaties.
The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has an informative thread on the Keystone XL case. The two communities naturally welcomed Biden’s quick cancellation of the permit, though they view it as merely “a first step.”
It’s important to add though, not all indigenous peoples are opposed. Some believe the project could actually bring considerable benefits.
Chief Alvin Francis of Nekaneet First Nation from southwestern Saskatchewan, Canada is one such individual. He told the Calgary Herald, “Growth for my First Nation would mean such a lot because we have unemployment of about 50 percent, so with this project on the horizon my people were basically already planning their future.”
Keystone XL isn’t the only pipeline being planned in North America. There’s the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which Canada nationalized in 2018, and the US’s Dakota Access Pipeline, which was completed in 2017 but is undergoing reviews about its use after a successful court challenge by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Lines 3 and 5 are other proposed cross-border pipelines.
All these pipelines seek to increase the ease with which oil and gas are transported across North America. All have encountered opposition and threatened incursion on indigenous peoples’ lawful lands.
Pressure will mount on Trudeau regarding other pipelines due to Keystone XL’s recent obstacles. It’s been estimated that at least two out of three pipelines (Trans Mountain, Keystone XL, and Line 3) are necessary to meet Canada’s oil transport capacity.
As for Biden, he’s stopped short of canceling the other US-affected pipelines, though there are calls for him to repeat his Keystone XL cancellation with other pipelines. Resumption of Dakota Access would be especially tricky for Vice-President Kamala Harris as she’s publicly opposed it.
Keystone XL Propaganda and Environmental Responses
Keystone XL supporters are keenly aware of the environmental criticisms of the pipeline. Consequently, they’ve invested and reacted to these charges.
The pipeline would be the first-ever to run on renewable energy by 2030 and TC Energy committed to net zero emissions on project operations by 2023, when it would have opened.
Keystone XL supporters also hail the reduced emissions intensity of oil from tar sands, effectively arguing it’s no longer as harmful as it used to be. Between 2011 and 2018, the greenhouse gas emissions intensity from mining and upgrading Alberta oil sands fell by over 20 percent.
But even with possible further reductions, oil sands are still way more carbon-intensive than other oil extracts. The pipeline would almost entirely transport oil from this source.
It’s like a football team that used to average 8-0 losses lauding improving their average to 5-0 losses. The football team is still getting thrashed, and tar sands are still emitting extraordinary amounts of CO2.
Let’s assume emissions intensity is reduced in coming years to 60kg per barrel and Keystone XL ran at a 60 percent capacity of its full capacity of 830,000 barrels a day. That would produce 498,000 barrels a day. And regardless of how it is produced, once burned, oil is estimated to release at least 400kg of CO2.
Based on these numbers, each day Keystone XL would enable the release of 230,000 tons of CO2 per day and 83 megatons of CO2 per year. That’s 24 percent of the UK’s CO2 emissions in the whole of 2019.
Biden may have judged that tension with Canada over Keystone XL will be reduced both by renewed, shared commitment to the Paris Agreement and a policy of non-executive interference in Line 3’s fate. This project partly aims to replace a creaky existing pipeline anyway.
Construction of Line 3 began in December and American indigenous peoples were unsuccessful in recent days with a court petition in Minnesota to halt construction. For now, campaign pressure seems more telling on Line 5. Kenney’s Twitter account has shifted in recent days from sustained criticism of Keystone XL’s cancellation to defending Line 5.
For now, the Biden administration has declined to intervene in either Line 3 or Line 5’s fate.
In at least his presidency’s first year, however, it’s likely Keystone XL will be a millstone around the relationship between the new US administration and the Canadian government, with Alberta pushing especially hard against Biden’s stance.