Reversing Trump's Pipeline Approvals Is the Latest Litmus Test For Democratic Presidential Candidates

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is down.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is down.
Photo: Getty

When Donald Trump took over the White House in 2017, one of his first acts was helping fast track major oil projects. Slowly, Democratic presidential candidates are coming out of the fold to declare that if they secure the White House, they’ll move to reverse that ASAP.


The Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines are becoming the latest environmental litmus test for candidates who are in Sioux City, Iowa, this week for the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum 2019. Native Americans have been at the forefront of the efforts to stop these pipelines, and some candidates are quickly realizing that these are top issues for the communities who live closest to this energy infrastructure and yet have had little to no say in their development.

The promises began last week when Bold Nebraska challenged candidates to take the “NoKXL Pledge” to revoke the presidential memorandum Trump signed in March for the Keystone XL Pipeline. The proposed 1,179 mile-long pipeline would transport crude oil from the Alberta tar sands in Canada all the way to Nebraska where it would connect with the already-built Keystone Pipeline.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee was the first to sign on publicly. Billionaire candidate Tom Steyer quickly followed. Senator Elizabeth Warren went even further to note that she’d also revoke the permit Trump issued in January 2017 for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile stretch of pipe that transports some 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day through the Midwest. Senator Bernie Sanders also signed the pledge. As of Monday, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro became the latest presidential candidate to sign the pledge, also including Dakota Access.

“This pledge is really talking about re-instituting a true climate test,” Mark Hefflinger, the communications director for Bold Nebraska, told Earther. “We do not have time to allow these projects to continue moving forward—and for any other projects to move forward—without being put under the scrutiny of a climate test that will have the effect of putting us on a path of transition to renewable energy to avoid climate disaster.”

While many people are rightly concerned about what a potential oil spill could mean for their water and natural resources, they are also worried about how new fossil fuel infrastructure worsens the climate crisis. And Bold Nebraska wants the impacts these projects have on climate change (what Hefflinger referred to as a “climate test”) to play a bigger role in whether they’re given federal approval.


The courts are increasingly becoming the only option under the Trump administration to stop oil and gas pipelines. A federal judge canceled hundreds of oil and gas projects in March because the government failed to address those impacts when giving them the green light. And even though the federal government has signed off on it, the Dakota Access Pipeline continues to come under fire in the courts. Just Friday, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed a motion in its ongoing suit against the project demanding the courts shut down the pipeline because the federal government has still failed to meet its demands from 2017 to re-do the project’s environmental analysis.


The pipeline was allowed to operate while the Army Corps of Engineers conducted this process, but the tribe is now alleging that the government kept them out of this process while looping in developer Energy Transfer Partners from the beginning, delegitimizing the process. The tribe’s argument is that if the federal government isn’t going to correct its actions, the permit should be deemed moot and the project should stop operating.

All this is happening as Energy Transfer Partners tries to expand the pipeline. The company wants to move about 100,000 barrels more of crude oil a day, a 20 percent increase over the pipeline’s current carrying capacity.


“[The pipeline] shouldn’t be operating without the full environmental review and consideration of alternatives that is required by law,” Jan Hasselman, the lead Earthjustice attorney on the case, told Earther.

There’s always hope that this lawsuit may succeed in shutting down the Dakota Access Pipeline, but that’s unlikely under Trump, Hasselman said. Even if they win this case and the project is shut down temporarily while it goes through the proper environmental review process, the administration could always turn it back on at the end.


“Once you do the final environmental review, the administration can still pick the most environmentally harmful option,” he told Earther.

A new president, however, that takes a pledge to reverse Trump’s permit could help shut down the project for good. Sure, counter litigation from industry will almost definitely follow, Hasselman speculated, but that closure would be more permanent than what he and his team can secure with their lawsuit. Shutting down any of these pipelines will be a long and painful process no matter what the method because disagreement will always exist.


“I don’t think this will ever be over, over,” Hasselman sighed.

But then again, if we had a president who considered the climate and communities pipelines put at risk, maybe these projects would hit pause long enough to die for good.


Update August 27, 2019, 9:15 a.m. ET: This article previously did not include Senator Bernie Sanders’ name on the list of signatories. We have updated it to add his name.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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Most of the country’s midsection states mentioned here like Iowa and Nebraska, really don’t give that much of a fuck about pipelines. Except if there may be a billionaire with a 15,000 acre grouse hunting estate in the sandhills who can afford a Big Green nonprofit to run roughshod.

My god, oil pipelines criss cross the Midwestern ag states like spaghetti in a bowl. Illinois is damn near the crude oil pipeline junction of the world. Most of those lines going through corn and soybean fields.

Corn ethanol on the other hand is another story. Don’t fuck with ethanol in the corn belt, motherfuckers. Trump just did.

Democrats should jump on this shit regardless of the efficacy of ethanol for emissions mitigation. Bernie Bros for Corn!!!

USDA and National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) says that ethanol is good. American Petroleum Institute (API) and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) says ethanol is bad. They both had their experts prepare studies.

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