After five and a half years, the battle over the Keystone pipeline will soon be at an end. In Washington, the request to extend TransCanada's crude oil pipeline from Canada through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska has crossed all of the requisite bureaucratic hurdles except for one: Final approval from the Obama administration through the issuance of a presidential permit.
President Obama's final decision on the pipeline could arrive any day now. Whatever his decision, the ruling could define the political terrain of U.S. climate change policy for years to come. If the White House rejects Keystone XL, Obama will have proven that the federal government can be responsive to grassroots pressure from environmental activists, even in the face of the seemingly all-powerful energy lobby. But if the president allows the project to move forward, then he will have demonstrated his administration's unwillingness to antagonize those business interests which currently stand in the way of a sustainable energy policy. Even if the immediate environmental impact of Keystone XL is minimal, its significance cannot be understated.
That helps to explain why both left-leaning environmental activists and conservative business groups have become so deeply invested in the debate. Below is a condensed timeline of the fight.
September 19, 2008: TransCanada asks the State Department for permission to construct Keystone XL.
October 15, 2010: Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says "we are inclined" to sign off on the pipeline extension.
June 23, 2011: Opposition to the pipeline begins to heat up. A group of environmental activists, including NASA climate scientist James Hansen, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and journalist Naomi Klein announce a series of protests against Keystone XL.
June 7, 2011: After the State Department releases a preliminary survey of the pipeline's anticipated environmental impact, the Environmental Protection Agency calls the survey inadequate and requests further review.
August 20, 2011: Anti-Keystone protesters begin two weeks of protests and sit-ins in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of supporters, including celebrity Daryl Hannah, are arrested as a result.
August 26, 2011: The State Department releases its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL project, finding minimal impact to the country's natural resources.
November 6, 2011: Thousands of protesters converge on the White House for a major anti-Keystone protest.
November 10, 2011: Obama announces that he will not make a decision on the project until after the 2012 election.
December 23, 2011: After Republicans in Congress successfully pass a bill that requires President Obama to rule on Keystone within the next 60 days, the president signs it into law.
January 18, 2012: President Obama rejects TransCanada's request for a permit to build Keystone XL, saying that the 60-day time limit left him in a position where he didn't have enough time to adequately review the potential impact of the project.
May 4, 2012: TransCanada submits a revised permit application to the State Department, including a new pipeline route which avoids passing through Nebraska's fragile Sand Hills region.
January 22, 2013: Gov. Dave Heineman, R-Neb., approves the revised Keystone XL route.
February 17, 2013: An estimated 40,000 protesters rally on the National Mall in opposition to the Keystone XL project. Organizers will later describe it as the "largest climate rally in U.S. history."
June 25, 2013: President Obama says he only favors the pipeline extension if it does not "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."
January 31, 2014: The State Department releases its final Environment Impact Statement on Keystone XL, standing by its earlier assessment that the pipeline would not have a significant environmental impact.
February 20, 2014: Efforts to build the pipeline along its planned route in Nebraska hit a snag when a county court rules that land for the route was acquired under an unconstitutional eminent domain law.
February 26, 2014: Having investigated allegations of a conflict of interest in the review process, the State Department's inspector general declares that there is no evidence of wrongdoing. On the same day, two members of the Senate environment committee send a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for “an immediate and comprehensive study on the human health impacts of tar sands and the proposed pipeline.”
March 2, 2014: Another mass protest in front of the White House results in hundreds of arrests.
March 7, 2014: A Washington Post-ABC poll finds that 65% of Americans are in favor of the Keystone XL project, including a 46% plurality of self-described liberals. While 47% of respondents believe that the pipeline "would pose a significant risk to [the] environment," the results indicate a belief that the perceived economic benefits outweigh the risks.
March 13, 2014: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducts a hearing on Keystone XL, with proponents arguing for energy independence as a matter of national security.