Six years ago today, when TransCanada (TRP) first tendered its application to complete a $5.4 billion, 1,179-mile pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border, the Keystone XL was a “no-brainer”—at least that’s what President George W. Bush called it. The Keystone XL was intended to be the final stent of a multi-part network through the American heartland, connecting Alberta crude to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
But this master plan for energy development failed to foresee the domestic shale oil and gas boom. After Barack Obama was sworn in as president, the Keystone XL ran into trouble, and not merely because the party of “Drill, Baby, Drill” had been voted out. In June 2011, after former NASA climate scientist James Hansen condemned the pipeline, contending that carbon pollution from the tar sands would be “game over” for human civilization, activists surrounded the White House in the first of several actions in a sustained #NoKXL campaign. In the areas where the Keystone XL would actually be built, a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists rose up in protest to protect the aquifers of the Great Plains. The project’s politics got scrambled: Lifelong Republicans in Texas and Nebraska have been the most vocal and effective opponents of the pipeline, while on the Democratic side, former aides to Hillary Clinton have helped TransCanada lobby the government.
Because the pipeline crosses an international boundary, it cannot be built until the president approves it. Today the Keystone XL remains in limbo. Obama has punted on a final decision until after a legal battle in Nebraska plays out—and, let’s not kid ourselves, until after the midterm elections. Given the political fallout from either a green light or final “no,” Obama may have decided that delaying the project is the best he can ever hope to do. A president who can’t be the decider, however, is far from the most farcical twist in this saga, and so, to commemorate this, its keenly anticipated sixth anniversary, we offer a top-10 list of the most absurd moments in the Keystone fight so far.
Photograph by Noam Galai/Getty Images
10. “Up to a million high-paying new jobs!”
That’s what Fox Business host Eric Bolling claims that Obama, by refusing to approve the Keystone XL, is denying Americans during the depths of the recession (Nov. 2, 2011). When the State Department publishes its final, revised assessment of the project in 2014, it finds that the Keystone XL will create 1,950 construction jobs for two years, and 35 permanent ones.
Photograph by Getty Images
9. Mean environmentalists club pipeline companies like helpless baby seals
In an interview with the Canadian Press, Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert’s choice of an analogy turns an iconic enviro appeal on its head. “I think back to the good old days [when] this pipeline business used to be sort of a sleepy, boring, unnoticed part of the industry. That’s not the case anymore,” Liepert said. “I think pipelines have sort of become the baby seals of the environmental groups these days.”
8. Pray for the rain, man
A TransCanada land agent claiming to be a preacher asks landowners to pray before he shows them the money the company is offering for their land.
Photograph by Sandra Dahdah/Corbis
7. Lock up your grandmothers!
Eleanor Fairchild is arrested on her own property and tossed in county jail. The charge: criminal trespassing. The 78-year-old granny was standing in the way of a TransCanada earthmover and not happy about the easement that gave the Calgary-based company right of way on her Texas farm. Locked up with her? None other than Daryl Hannah.
6. No way! Um, make that way
For months, TransCanada insists that any route but the one it has picked out in Nebraska—which goes directly through the Ogallala Aquifer, a source of water for 3 million people—is “next to impossible,” “not an option,” “seriously jeopardizes the project,” and even “impossible.” Until, that is, Chief Executive Officer Russ Girling admits to Bloomberg News that it’d be easy to reroute the pipeline.
5. Who was that masked spin doctor?
A mysterious “State Department” staffer provides off-the-record briefings without the White House or others at State knowing.
4. Don’t get any bad ideas
Climate activist and Keystone opponent Tom Steyer hires an ex-Navy SEAL to conduct a mock terrorist attack on the Keystone I pipeline. The SEAL, Dave Cooper, determines he could easily blow a massive hole in the thing, causing a 1.2 million-gallon spill. We saw this kind of sabotage in Iraq, Cooper says. “The analogy breaks down because we were involved in a full-scale war [in Iraq],” he says. “But it still highlights something: the softness of targets such as these oil pipelines and the attractiveness of hitting them.”
Photograph by Eric Gregory/The Journal-Star via AP Photo
3. Nebraska’s supreme court rules Keystone XL law unconstitutional
OK, not about the Keystone XL, but a law covering who issues the permits for it to happen. This one takes a little setting up. After initially writing to Obama asking him to reject the project because it could mar his state’s Sandhills region, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman decides he likes the rerouted plan so much that he writes the president again, this time imploring him to approve it. A citizens group, Bold Nebraska, demonstrates outside Heineman’s home with 91 jack-o’-lanterns, and eventually forces a special session on the Keystone XL’s approval. (This too, obviously, becomes a convoluted debacle, and ends up in court, where a judge determines the pipeline builder’s legislative ploy is unconstitutional.) Why 91 pumpkins? It’s one for each of the number of leaks the pipeline could spring, says Bold Nebraska’s Jane Kleeb, citing independent research.
Photograph by Candy Mooney/AP Photo
2. Keystone I leaks 100 times as often as predicted
In its 2008 environmental risk assessment for the Keystone I segment, the predecessor to Keystone XL, TransCanada forecasted the pipeline would leak no more than 1.4 times a decade. In reality, it spilled 14 times in its first year alone, and became the newest oil pipeline in the U.S. to be shut down by federal regulators as a safety risk. And that’s not the worst of TransCanada’s safety concerns. In July 2011, TransCanada’s state-of-the-art Bison natural gas pipeline exploded. The blast destroyed a 60-foot section, with a shock wave that could be heard 30 miles away.
1. TransCanada stock reaches a six-year high
At $62.87 (the moment this morning I typed this), TransCanada shares have increased in value 70 percent since Sept. 19, 2008.