Jul 7, 2020 - Energy & Environment

2020 could decide fate of Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines

A check mark illustration.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Two new court actions — one by the Supreme Court and another by a federal judge — together highlight and raise the energy stakes of November's election.

Why it matters: The legal actions mean the results of the 2020 election could very well decide the fate of Keystone XL and Dakota Access, two projects at the heart of battles over fossil fuel infrastructure.

Driving the news: Late Monday, the high court thwarted a Trump administration push to revive construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

  • But the order simultaneously cleared the way for a suite of other pipelines to proceed under a contested permit program called Nationwide Permit 12.
  • Separately, a judge ordered the shut down of the existing Dakota Access Pipeline until the Army Corps of Engineers completes a new environmental review.

Where it stands: Joe Biden opposes Keystone XL. And if the decision to halt operations of Dakota Access withstands challenge, the Corps' review is estimated to continue far beyond the election. A Biden White House may not allow the pipeline to resume operations, analysts say.

  • "A potential Biden administration would likely refuse to conduct a new environmental review, resulting in a permanent shutdown of the 570 kb/d pipeline," Rapidan Energy Group said in a note.
  • And via ClearView Energy Partners: "We think there is a strong possibility that the new Biden administration could decide to not reissue the authorizations now that the permits have been vacated."

The big picture: More broadly, November is approaching fast, so the outcome will certainly affect the regulatory environment for fossil fuel projects more broadly.

  • Biden has vowed to closely scrutinize fossil fuel projects for climate effects and take steps to speed up the transition to low-carbon fuels.

Catch up fast: While Monday's high court order should allow some contested projects to proceed, overall the Trump administration is having a tough time realizing its goal of successfully knocking down regulatory barriers.

  • Yesterday's action came just a day after two huge energy companies, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, scuttled plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a major natural gas line from West Virginia to North Carolina, amid legal and permitting challenges.

What they're saying: One analyst tells Bloomberg that the one-two punch of that project's demise and the Dakota Access decision highlights a shift in the business landscape.

  • "I would expect this to be a turning point for new investment," Katie Bays of Sandhill Strategy says in Bloomberg's piece. “There is real investor fatigue around this parade of legal and regulatory headwinds to energy projects."
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