Biden’s climate credentials are challenged by brawls over oil pipelines

At a demonstration this month against a pipeline that pumps heavy Canadian oil to the United States, actress and activist Jane Fonda raised a banner with a picture of Joe Biden. It read: “President Biden, which side are you on?”

The message, from protests against the expansion of Enbridge’s Line 3 project in Minnesota, succinctly captures a growing problem for Biden.

The president has come under pressure from activists to intervene to halt development of new fossil fuel infrastructure, but is reluctant to take an overly harsh approach.

On his first day in office, Biden denied permission for the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive $8 billion project that would also transport Canadian crude to Gulf Coast refineries, leading to its occurrence. abandoned This month.

But in other projects he was less assertive. Activists had hoped he would direct the US Army’s Corps of Engineers to reverse its position on permits for both Project Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which transports oil south from the Bakken shale in North Dakota. In both cases, his administration refused, leaving it up to the courts to decide.

He also walked away from a row between Canada and Michigan over another pipeline from Enbridge, Line 5, as the Calgary-based company defied an order from the state’s governor to shut it down.

This approach angered activists.

“Biden’s climate credibility is at stake,” said Bill McKibbin, co-founder of, a climate lobby group. “I think at this point it’s pretty clear that only the federal government can do what needs to be done on Line 3 and DAPL and others as well.”

The president ran for office on the platform tackling climate change. But despite some of the steps he’s taken — such as joining the Paris climate agreement, proposing unprecedented federal support for clean energy and halting new drilling leases on federal land — activists want him to take a harder line against an industry he has promised to “go away” from .

The pipelines have become a flashpoint between climate activists and the oil and natural gas industry. The first argues that new projects encourage increased production of fossil fuels for decades to come at a time when the world must shift to cleaner energy sources. The latter assures that these projects are still essential for a steady supply of fuel at reasonable prices. The average demand for oil in the United States is 20 million barrels per day.

The success of the campaign against TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline has spurred more projects against others across the United States.

“The idea was: You can’t organize people around hundreds of coal plants, but you can pick one really expensive thing that you can try to kill,” said Amy Myers Gaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Laboratory at Tufts University. Fletcher School.

Some campaigns have proven effective. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was to carry natural gas from wells in West Virginia to facilities on the East Coast, was give up last year after legal objections drove up costs. DAPL entered service in 2017 despite fierce protests, but its future now hangs on a new environmental review after narrowly avoiding a court order. close last year.

The courts last week gave another victory to environmentalists, who have taken a fresh approach in their efforts to block new construction. The Environmental Defense Fund argued that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had failed to create the necessary market demand for the Spire STL gas pipeline in the Midwest, as the company relied on contracts with a subsidiary to demonstrate the need. The court agreed.

“It’s another stock in the game for opponents,” said Paul Patterson, analyst at Glenrock Associates. “It seems that environmentalists are after more economics.”

Richard Gleick, president of FERC, who opposed the initial certification, He said The ruling stressed the need for the Commission to reconsider how it assesses new interstate gas pipelines through a “legal, enduring approach to assessing the need.”

Despite the string of disruptions, pipeline executives have argued that too much attention has been paid to some cases while behind-the-scenes construction continues.

“Most people just focus on the shiny thing,” said John Studi, vice president of the Oil Pipeline Association, an industry group. “There is a great deal of pipeline development and construction that takes place in the United States every day.”

In the five-year period between 2015 and 2019, 16,000 miles of oil pipelines and 44,000 miles of gas pipelines were built, according to the United States. Transportation Department An 8 percent and 3 percent increase, respectively.

Line graph of pipeline miles (in thousands) showing a sharp rise in oil pipeline construction in the United States
Line chart of pipeline mileage (in millions) showing increased construction of natural gas pipelines

Biden has stressed some of the environmental requirements affecting the new pipelines. The Environmental Protection Agency said it would enable states to deny water quality permits for infrastructure projects – giving them effective veto power – after the Trump administration dilute their authority in this regard.

On Line 5, the Army Corps of Engineers said last week it would conduct a More stringent Environmental review, which Enbridge said would delay plans to modernize the line.

“I think we are going to see the permitting process getting tougher and more robust on the front end, so that the risk goes back to what it was before the Trump administration,” said Kristi Tysack, analyst at ClearView Energy Partners. She added that permits would become more difficult to obtain but would be legally more permanent once they were granted.

However, when it comes to taking a position on individual projects such as Line 3, Line 5 and DAPL, the President walks a fine line. Government lawyers said in a June 23 legal filing that the Army Corps of Engineers correctly assessed the impact of the Enbridge Line 3 project and asked the court to dismiss the objections of local tribes and environmental advocates.

Jaffe, of the Climate Policy Laboratory, said previous administrations have faced similar dilemmas between environmental and societal interests and the nation’s energy security.

“So far, no one has done it well,” she said. “What I would say about the Biden administration is that they’re trying to handle it well and to handle it well probably means that everyone is going to be unhappy.”

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