In a blow to the Trump administration’s fossil fuel agenda, a federal judge in Montana has blocked completion of the Keystone XL pipeline, ruling that the administration was “arbitrary and capricious” in ignoring climate impacts cited by the Obama State Department when it halted the pipeline in 2015.
The pipeline — a flashpoint in the global fight over climate change for nearly a decade — would carry more than 800,000 barrels a day of tar-sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries and export terminals on the Gulf of Mexico. This crude is one of the planet’s most carbon-polluting fossil fuels, and Canadian reserves are massive. NASA’s James Hansen, one of the godfathers of climate science, warned in 2012 that Keystone’s completion could mark “game over for the climate.”
In a 54-page decision, District Court Judge Brian Morris rebuked the Trump administration for jettisoning previous climate findings about Keystone XL — without even attempting to justify their decision. Citing a previous court ruling, Judge Morris wrote that the federal government “cannot simply disregard contrary or inconvenient factual determinations that it made in the past.”
Specifically, the court ruled, the Trump administration “simply discarded” a 2015 State Department analysis, “Climate Change-Related Foreign Policy Considerations.” In ending reliance on this document, Judge Morris wrote, the Trump administration asserted “that climate-related impacts from Keystone… would prove inconsequential” — but failed to offer any “reasoned explanation” of this assertion, as required by law.
This was not the Trump administration’s only legal failing. The judge also hit them for ignoring the “cumulative climate impacts” of opening Keystone XL to operate alongside an expanded pipeline known as Alberta Clipper. The administration, Judge Morris wrote, “failed to paint a full picture of emissions for these connected actions, and, therefore, ignored its duty to take a ‘hard look’” — referring to a required standard of environmental analysis.
The district court ruling is — as 350.org founder and Rolling Stone contributor Bill McKibben put it — “good news!” But it is almost certainly not the end of the fight. Judge Morris has ordered the administration to conduct required due-diligence, and fossil-fuel-friendly Trump lawyers may yet be able to craft the requisite arguments for proceeding with the pipeline.
But the ruling likely delays Keystone XL by at least a year. And it underscores a trend. In Trump’s push to put “victories” on the board that he can tout politically, the administration has taken sloppy short-cuts. Playing fast and loose with the law in seeking to undo the major accomplishments of the Obama years, the Trump administration is sometimes its own worst enemy.