Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

This story has been corrected.

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated that his first order of business as president will be cancellation of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Rescinding the pipeline permit fulfills a campaign promise he made in May.

The proposed 1,210-mile pipeline is owned by TransCanada Pipeline; it will carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to ports on the United States’ Gulf Coast.

Many people, including tribes, environmentalists and members of the fossil fuel industry, wonder if Biden might move to cancel other pipeline projects such as the U.S.-based Dakota Access Pipeline, owned by Energy Transfer, and Line 3, owned by Enbridge, based in Calgary, Canada.

Although there are many similarities among the projects — they carry tar sands oil and are opposed by environmentalists and several tribes, and both Enbridge and TransCanada are based in Calgary — each project presents unique challenges to any presidential-led cancellation bid.

Canceling the Keystone XL pipeline is a relatively easy legal move for Biden. He has only to rescind President Donald Trump’s presidential permit issued to the company in July allowing the company to operate and maintain the pipeline between the U.S. and Canada. Preliminary construction on the U.S. portion of the Keystone pipeline started in April.

He will of course face opposition from Canada’s fossil fuel industry and political leaders. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supports the project. Trudeau has attracted criticism from environmentalists who insist he has betrayed them, as well as oil industry leaders who accuse him of waffling in his support for the country’s struggling oil interests.

Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney, a member of the United Conservative Party, told the Washington Post on Tuesday that he hoped Biden would show respect to Canada by sitting down with leaders and discussing the project.

“Surely, the relationship between Canada and the United States is worth at least having a discussion,” Kenney said.

Pipeline supporters in Canada are also expressing concern about job losses for workers there.

Although Enbridge’s Line 3 also crosses the border from Canada into the U.S., the project received its presidential permit in the 1960s and was grandfathered in, according to Andy Pearson, Midwest tar sands coordinator for MN350.org, a Minnesota-based advocacy organization opposing fossil fuel development.

Water protectors locked themselves inside a section of Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline at a construction site near Backus, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Ginew Collective)

Therefore, a cancellation of Enbridge’s presidential permit, especially since the pipeline is actively transporting oil, would be a legal stretch for Biden.

The original 1,097-mile Line 3, which runs from Alberta, Canada, through northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin, was built in the 1960s. The current project is described as a replacement pipeline by Enbridge, although much of the route will actually break new ground.

“Enbridge’s Line 3 is essentially a Keystone XL clone; it’s the same size and would carry the same dirty tar sands oil across the U.S. out of Canada and would be used largely for export markets in Asia and India,” Pearson said.

Although most bands of Ojibwe in Minnesota initially united in opposing Line 3, Enbridge negotiated an agreement with the Fond du Lac bands in which they will no longer oppose the project.

According to Line 3 opponents, Enbridge is known for strategically dividing resource poor communities, such as tribes, by offering them large sums of money to drive a wedge through opposition to its projects.

Enbridge spokespeople did not respond to an email request for comment.

Biden has not indicated if he will take action against either Enbridge’s Line 3 or the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although he has ambitious climate policy goals such as rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and supporting clean energy initiatives to build a more sustainable economy, Biden has been unclear on his support of fracking by the fossil fuel industry.

Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. (Photo by Mark Trahant, File)

The oil that flows and will flow through Keystone XL, Dakota Access and Enbridge’s Line 3 is generated through hydraulic fracturing or fracking. In the fracking process, large quantities of water, chemicals and sand are blasted into oil shale formations, allowing trapped oil or gas to flow to the surface. According to opponents, fracking risks pollution of water since it uses large amounts in the work and poses threats of leaks of poisonous fracking fluids into local wells.

According to a report by CNN, Biden has issued confusing remarks about his stance on fracking. In 2019 he said, “We will make sure it’s eliminated,” in response to questions about the future of coal and fracking. At the end of his presidential campaign, however, Biden said he opposed any new fracking projects and proposed banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.

Although Biden hasn’t spoken about the Dakota Access Pipeline, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris signed as an amici in a legal brief opposing the project in May.

Harris joined the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes in calling on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to require the pipeline to cease operations while the battle over the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting process was being decided in court.

Tribes fear a spill into the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Reservation would pollute their water supply. Pipeline operator Energy Transfer and the Army Corps of Engineers maintain the pipeline is safe. Prolonged opposition to the pipeline in 2016 and 2017 drew thousands of people to camps near the river crossing and resulted in hundreds of arrests.

The Dakota Access Pipeline transports shale or tar sands oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota to Illinois.

Jan Hasselman, an attorney representing the Standing Rock Sioux, told the Bismarck Tribune on Monday that the Dakota Access Pipeline is operating illegally and the Army Corps of Engineers is refusing to enforce the law by allowing it to remain open.

“The Biden administration can shut down the pipeline on Day One with the stroke of a pen,” Hasselman said.

Political wonks, however, speculate that Biden is walking a fine line between his campaign promises to support construction trade unions while maintaining his promise to fight climate change.

Leaders of several trade unions sent a letter to Biden on Sunday opposing plans to cancel the Keystone XL project.

They argue the latest iteration of the pipeline project is a “true infrastructure project aimed at meeting future energy demand in the most sustainable way possible.”

How Biden will navigate this minefield of campaign promises and calls to create more jobs remains to be seen.

ICT Phone Logo

This article has been corrected. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's agreement with Enbridge does not affect their ability to support or oppose the pipeline. 

Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.