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Trump revives Keystone XL, Dakota Access pipelines rejected by Obama

President Trump showed off his signature Tuesday on an executive order to advance construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
President Trump showed off his signature Tuesday on an executive order to advance construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Trump moved assertively Tuesday to resurrect a pipeline in the Dakotas that had become a major flashpoint for Native Americans, while reviving the Keystone XL pipeline, which had stirred years of debate over the balance between energy needs and environmental concerns.

The actions were the latest to dismantle Obama administration policies. The former president rejected the proposed 1,179-mile Keystone pipeline in 2015, arguing that it would undercut US leadership in curbing reliance on carbon energy to address a warming climate.

Trump signed a document clearing the way for the government to reconsider the pipeline as well as another expediting the Dakota Access pipeline from North and South Dakota to Illinois.

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The decisions came a day after Trump formally abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious, 12-nation trade pact negotiated by Barack Obama. In his opening days in office, Trump has also signed an order that begins to unravel Obama’s health care program, reversed the former president’s policies on abortion and housing, and ordered a freeze of any pending regulations left behind by the departing administration.

As proposed by TransCanada, a Canadian firm, the Keystone pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels a day from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast. Republicans and some Democrats argued that the project would create jobs and expand energy resources, while environmentalists said it would encourage a form of oil extraction that produces more gases that warm the planet than normal petroleum.

Studies showed that the pipeline would not have a momentous impact on jobs or the environment, but both sides made it into a symbolic test case of American willingness to promote energy production or curb its appetites to heal the planet. Torn by competing policy imperatives and conflicting politics, Obama delayed a decision for years before finally rejecting the pipeline shortly before an international conference in Paris to forge a global climate change agreement.

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“Keystone has never been a significant issue from an environmental point of view in substance, only in symbol,” said David Goldwyn, an energy market analyst and a former head of the State Department’s energy bureau in the Obama administration. Regarding the pipeline’s effect on the nation’s broader energy market, Goldwyn said: “One additional pipeline? It’s useful. It’s not indispensable.”

But it was a symbol Trump found important enough to seize on early in his presidency. He signed an executive memorandum inviting TransCanada “to promptly resubmit its application to the Department of State for a presidential permit” for the pipeline, although the document did not guarantee approval.

Speaking with reporters, the president said he would “renegotiate some of the terms” — including possibly an insistence that the pipeline be built with US steel — but left little doubt that he wanted it approved. “We’ll see if we can get that pipeline built,” he said. “A lot of jobs.”

Terry Cunha, a spokeswoman from TransCanada, said in an e-mail that the company remained “fully committed” to building the project, although she declined to discuss the project’s next steps.

The Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota became the focus of protests when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe objected to its construction less than a mile from its reservation. The tribe and its allies won a victory last month when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would look for alternative routes for the $3.7 billion pipeline instead of allowing it to be drilled under a dammed section of the Missouri River.

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Trump signed an executive memorandum directing the Army “to review and approve in an expedited manner” the pipeline, “to the extent permitted by law and as warranted.” In his session with reporters, he added, “Again, subject to terms and conditions to be negotiated by us.”

Trump owned stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company that is building the Dakota Access pipeline, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission. Last month, a spokesman for Trump said he sold all of his stock in June, but there is no way of verifying that sale, and Trump has not provided documentation of it.

Critics denounced Trump’s decisions. “Donald Trump has been in office for four days and he’s already proving to be the dangerous threat to our climate we feared he would be,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Environmental activists vowed to keep fighting the projects. “This is not a done deal,” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, the group that led the protests against Keystone, said in a statement. “The last time around, TransCanada was so confident they literally mowed the strip where they planned to build the pipeline, before people power stopped them. People will mobilize again.”

In Canada, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed Trump’s decision. “We have been supportive of this since the day we were sworn into government,” Jim Carr, the natural resources minister, said in Calgary, Alberta.

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The green light for Keystone came after Trudeau’s approval of two pipeline projects linked to Alberta’s oil sands in late November. Expanded pipeline capacity and its potential to expand the market for the oil sands, which overwhelmingly export to the United States, are welcome developments in Alberta and neighboring Saskatchewan, both oil-producing provinces. But there is considerable opposition to Keystone and oil sands pipelines in general in other parts of Canada and within many indigenous communities.

In addition to the Keystone and Dakota directives, Trump signed three others intended to ease the way for businesses and promote US manufacturing. One instructed the Commerce Department to develop a plan to ensure that all future pipelines built in the United States be constructed out of American-made materials.

Another was aimed at streamlining what he called “the incredibly cumbersome, long, horrible permitting process and reducing regulatory burdens for domestic manufacturing.” The last directive was intended to expedite environmental reviews for “high-priority infrastructure projects” like highways and bridges.