At a demonstration this month against a pipeline pumping heavy Canadian oil to the US, actress and activist Jane Fonda held up a placard 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 campaigners to intervene to halt the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure, but he is reluctant to take an approach that is too heavy-handed.
On his first day in office, Biden threw out a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a totemic $8bn project that would also have carried Canadian crude to Gulf Coast refineries, leading to it being abandoned this month.
But on other projects he has been less decisive. Activists had hoped he would direct the US Army Corps of Engineers to reverse its position on permits for both the Line 3 project and the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which transports oil south from North Dakota’s Bakken shale. In both cases, his administration demurred, leaving the matter for the courts to decide.
He has also steered clear of a dispute between Canada and Michigan over another Enbridge pipeline, Line 5, where the Calgary-based company defied an order from the state’s governor to shut it down.
This approach has enraged campaigners.
“Biden’s climate credibility is on the line,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, a climate pressure 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, on DAPL and on others, too.”
The president ran for office on a platform of tackling climate change. But despite some of the steps he has taken — such as rejoining the Paris climate accord, proposing unprecedented federal support for clean energy and pausing new drilling leases on federal lands — activists want him to take a harder line against an industry he promised to “transition away” from.
Pipelines have become a flashpoint between climate activists and the oil and natural gas industry. The former argue new projects encourage greater production of fossil fuels for decades to come at a time when the world should be shifting to cleaner energy sources. The latter maintains these projects remain essential for the steady supply of affordable fuel. US oil demand averages 20m barrels a day.
The success of the campaign against TC Energy’s Keystone XL pipeline has spurred many more against other projects across the US.
“The idea was: you can’t organise people around hundreds of coal plants, but you could pick one really high-ticket thing that you could try to kill,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
Some campaigns have proven to be effective. The Atlantic Coast pipeline, which would have carried natural gas from wells in West Virginia to utilities on the east coast, was ditched last year after legal challenges sent costs soaring. DAPL entered service in 2017 despite intense protests, but its future now hangs on a new environmental review after it narrowly avoided a court-ordered shutdown last year.
The courts last week handed another victory to environmentalists, who had taken a novel approach in their efforts to impede new construction. The Environmental Defense Fund argued that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had failed to establish necessary market demand for the Spire STL gas pipeline in the Midwest, as the company had relied on contracts with an affiliate to demonstrate need. The court agreed.
“It’s one more arrow in the quiver of opponents,” said Paul Patterson, an analyst at Glenrock Associates. “Environmentalists seem to be going after the economics more.”
FERC chair Richard Glick, who had opposed the initial certification, said the ruling underlined the necessity for the commission to revisit how it evaluated new interstate gas pipelines with a “legally durable approach to assessing need”.
Despite the string of upsets, pipeline executives have argued that too much attention has been given to certain cases while construction continues behind the scenes.
“Most people are focused merely on the shiny object,” said John Stoody, vice-president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, an industry group. “There is a large amount of pipeline development and construction that goes on in the US 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 US transportation department — an increase of 8 per cent and 3 per cent, respectively.
Biden has tightened some environmental requirements affecting new pipelines. The Environmental Protection Agency has said it will empower states to deny water quality permits to infrastructure projects — giving them an effective veto — after the Trump administration diluted their authority in this regard.
On Line 5, the Army Corps of Engineers said last week it would conduct a more rigorous environmental review, which Enbridge said would delay plans to upgrade the line.
“I think we are going to see the permit process become increasingly stricter and more robust on the front end, so that the risk shifts back to where it was prior to the Trump administration,” said Christi Tezak, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners. Permits would become harder to get but would be more legally durable once they were awarded, she added.
However, when it comes to taking a position on individual projects such as Line 3, Line 5 and DAPL, the president is walking a fine line. Government lawyers said in a legal filing on June 23 that the Army Corps of Engineers had properly assessed the impact of the Enbridge Line 3 project and asked the court to throw out objections from local tribes and environmentalists.
Previous administrations had faced similar dilemmas between environmental and community interests and the country’s energy security, said Jaffe, from the Climate Policy Lab.
“So far, no one has done it well,” she said. “What I would say about the Biden administration is that they are trying to address it well and addressing it well probably means that everyone’s going to be unhappy.”