Trump Administration Takes Legal Heat for Keystone Pipeline Permit

(CN) – Conservation groups sued the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday over the “rubber-stamp approval” of a permit for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The Keystone Steele City pumping station, into which the planned Keystone XL pipeline will be connected, is seen in Steele City, Neb., on Nov. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

The lawsuit filed by Northern Plains Resource Council, Bold Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth says wildlife, streams and wetlands will be harmed by the pipeline and the government has not properly evaluated the pipeline’s impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.

The groups say “the fact remains that no federal agency has yet completed the requisite analysis” of the 1,200-mile pipeline and infrastructure.

Filed in federal court in Great Falls, Montana, the lawsuit challenges the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the pipeline under the agency’s Nationwide Permit 12 process. The process allows the Corps to avoid the comprehensive review that is normally required for major projects, the groups say.

Keystone XL would carry tar sands oil and other crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. The pipeline would connect to TC Energy’s existing pipeline network, which serves refineries and export terminals on the Gulf Coast, allowing TC Energy to move about 35 million gallons of crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast every day, according to the lawsuit.

The pipeline would cross 212 water bodies and 32 wetlands in Nebraska, 182 water bodies and 41 wetlands in South Dakota, and 194 water bodies and 27 wetlands in Montana, for a total of at least 688 jurisdictional waterways, the groups say in their lawsuit.

Despite the size of the project, the Clean Water Act allows the Corps to issue “Nationwide Permits” for activities that will cause only “minimal adverse environmental effects” and have only “minimal cumulative adverse effect on the environment,” the lawsuit says.

The process allows the Corps to proceed without the comprehensive and transparent environmental review ordinarily required by the Clean Water Act. There is no public notice or opportunity for public involvement when projects are approved under nationwide permit process, the groups say.

The Corps uses this blanket coverage of having one environmental analysis for some 11,500 permits in the United States each year, the lawsuit says.

“The Trump administration has proven to be just as reckless with our constitutional separation of powers as this dangerous Keystone XL pipeline is to the safety of our water and climate,” Dena Hoff, a Northern Plains Resource Council member, said. “This foreign corporation’s proposed tar sands pipeline has yet to prove it meets legal standards in the American court system.”

Named defendants include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite.

Plaintiffs seek a court order vacating the Corps’ approval of Keystone XL using the nationwide permit 12 process, blocking future approvals of the project using the process and barring construction of the pipeline. Attorney Timothy Bechtold represents the groups in the case.

The pipeline has been in legal limbo since the Obama administration.

In September 2008, TC Energy submitted an application to President Barack Obama’s State Department for a cross-border permit for the pipeline.

In January 2012, the State Department denied the application. TC Energy re-applied, but in November 2015 the Obama administration denied the permit as “contrary to the national interest,” citing the project’s climate impacts and other threats to the environment.

But just days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump issued a presidential memorandum inviting TC Energy to apply for a cross-border permit. He directed the State Department to make a decision within 60 days of the application.

On March 23, 2017, Trump’s State Department found that Keystone XL “would serve the national interest” and issued a cross-border permit. Environmentalists sued, and in 2018 a federal judge found the State Department broke the law by failing to evaluate new information regarding the pipeline’s impacts – including a new route in Nebraska – changes in the oil market and its effects on climate change.

The judge vacated the State Department’s permit, blocked construction of the pipeline and ordered a supplemental environmental impact statement.

But Trump issued a new cross-border permit for the pipeline in March, leading the Ninth Circuit to dismiss an appeal as moot.

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