US Pipeline Projects Move Forward Amid Covid-19 Crisis

Environmental advocates call for nationwide moratorium on pipeline construction and approvals, citing threats to environment, vulnerable communities, and workers.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

Global energy demand has plummeted in recent weeks in response to the novel coronavirus and oil prices have hit historic lows. Travel has basically come to a halt, fewer people are commuting, and businesses have shut down. But pipeline construction in the US continues, despite the sweeping economic contraction. At the same time, federal and state lawmakers are pulling back on environmental monitoring and enforcement activities during the Covid-19 crisis, a decision that will disproportionately impact vulnerable communities — particularly indigenous, low-income, and communities of color.

photo of pipeline
In late March, the Iowa Utilities Board issued an order to double the amount of oil allowed to flow through the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline Dakota Access Pipeline, pictured here in 2016. Photo by Tony Webster.

Environmental advocates are pushing back. On April 3, over 200 organizations signed a letter calling for a moratorium on pipeline construction and approval during the Covid-19 crisis. “There is no good reason why a pipeline company should be able to continue construction in the face of a global pandemic,” Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper and leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said in a statement. “These projects put the environment, local communities, and the workers at risk. People’s ability to participate in the public comment and meeting process are curtailed by the Covid-19 crisis, yet industry is allowed to advance its interests under relaxed oversight. These actions will not only harm efforts to curtail the current health crisis, but will also impact another crisis we’re facing, the climate crisis.”

In recent weeks, both the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have loosened environmental rules and curtailed enforcement activities in response to the pandemic. Similarly, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has suspended its efforts to enforce compliance with employee qualification and safety standards within Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities and amongst pipeline operators. South Dakota, Kentucky, and West Virginia have also increased penalties for protests against fossil fuel infrastructure and criminalized civil disobedience against the industry.

Governors and legislators have taken the lead in fighting the pandemic, and many states have operated under state-level stay-at-home orders since mid-March. Businesses deemed essential have remained open during this time. While the federal government hasn’t issued a national shelter in place order, the US Department of Homeland Security has released guidance on what qualifies as “critical infrastructure,” including energy — in addition to health services and food and agriculture — on the list. Several states have issued their own orders, deeming pipelines “critical” in some cases, and in others issuing shutdown waivers that allow pipeline projects to continue. Private energy companies and the fossil fuel industry have thus been emboldened to continue building oil and gas pipelines, even while most other businesses across the country are closed and communities are encouraged to shelter in place.

“Pipeline construction is only ‘essential’ to the bottom line of fossil fuel companies,” said Linda Christman, President of Save Carbon County.

Environmental damage is inherent to the fossil fuel industry, and megaprojects like oil and gas pipelines often also impose additional, disproportionate social and cultural costs upon Indigenous communities. As Indigenous leader and Honor The Earth Executive Director Winona LaDuke describes, extractive industries inflict a level and degree of trauma upon Native peoples that is difficult to express. “I’m not sure how to quantify [the social cost],” LaDuke said in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! “Having a megaproject shoved down your throat causes suicide in Native communities. You know, we already have diabetes and every other epidemic that you do not want to have, and nothing in this pipeline contributes to our well-being. So who’s paying for that? Who’s paying for that?”

Indigenous-led resistance to major oil pipelines — such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL — has made the harm inflicted by the fossil fuel industry on Native communities a topic of national conversation. However, pipelines continue to be built upon or in close proximity to ancestral homelands and Native reservations, cutting through ancient village sites and burial grounds, polluting the water, and threatening communities’ physical health, safety, and cultural and traditional lifeways. Sites of extractive industry development and the proliferation of “man camps” in Indigenous territories are also linked to increased rates of sexual and domestic violence, particularly against Native women and youth.

As Indigenous communities around the country grapple with the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 virus on Native peoples thus far, many also face intensified environmental threats due to the designation of the energy sector as critical infrastructure and the concurrent loosening of environmental standards, reduction of industry oversight, and approval and acceleration of new pipeline construction. Transient workers traveling to pipeline construction sites near Indigenous communities in rural areas also increase the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to populations for whom access to healthcare and emergency medical services are already limited.

The Keystone XL pipeline project is among those projects moving forward during the crisis.

On March 31, TC Energy announced that the provincial government in Alberta, Canada invested US$1.1 billion and offered US $4.2 billion in loan guarantees for construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Though Montana is currently operating under a “stay at home” directive, pipeline construction is exempt from the Governor’s order, and work on the Keystone XL pipeline began in the state after TC Energy’s announcement. This despite the fact that the project has been tied up in the courts for years due to legal challenges brought by tribes and environmental groups, several of which are still pending, and despite local and tribal communities’ recent calls to halt construction due to the increased public health risks that the construction project currently entails.

President Trump tweeted his support for the project on April 3, at which point more than 7,000 people in the US had died due to Covid-19. “GREAT news this week regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline - moving forward with fantastic paying CONSTRUCTION jobs for hardworking Americans. Promises Made, Promises Kept! #MAGA,” Trump wrote, attempting to paint pipeline construction as an answer to the country’s skyrocketing unemployment rate.

In yet another development, on April 15, a federal judge in Montana revoked a key permit from the Keystone XL pipeline, ruling that the US army corps of engineers had not properly assessed the project’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act. It was a victory for tribal nations and environmental groups fighting against the federal government’s attempts to fast-track the pipeline.

“The revoking of the permit is a victory for treaty rights and democracy,” Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizer Alliance, told The Guardian. “Tribal nations have a renewed opportunity to exercise our legal and inherent rights to protect the water of the Missouri river bioregion for all who live, farm and work on the land.”

Meanwhile, progress on other pipeline projects has also accelerated in recent weeks. On March 27, the Iowa Utilities Board issued an order to double the amount of oil allowed to flow through the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) every day. The order came just two days after a federal judge in North Dakota struck down permits for DAPL and ordered a full environmental impact review, writing that the US Army Corps of Engineers has not adequately considered the environmental and human-health risks of the project. The March 25 ruling was a significant victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies, but it was short lived, as the pipeline’s daily flow has since increased from 550,000 to 1.1 million barrels. The court has yet to issue a decision about whether the pipeline should be shutdown during the environmental review.

FERC also moved forward in approving multiple pipeline projects in Oregon, a move that Governor Kate Brown called “stunning” given the current circumstances, in which the federal government has failed to fulfill its “basic responsibility to keep citizens safe” amid a national emergency. And in Brooklyn, which is in the epicenter of the United States’ Covid-19 outbreak in New York, construction on National Grid’s North Brooklyn pipeline continued after the city announced a shelter-in-place mandate, and even after a worker tested positive for the virus. Local residents and elected officials called for National Grid to halt construction, arguing that the company was endangering employees’ lives by continuing work, but it wasn’t until photos surfaced showing workers in close physical proximity to one another and clearly not able to practice social distancing on the job that the company finally suspended work on the pipeline.

The effort to push pipeline projects through is all the more jarring given that it comes at a time of plummeting oil demand. Many refineries in the US have been forced to cut production as their storage tanks reach capacity. Many oil and gas companies are slowing operations and some see bankruptcy on the horizon; meanwhile, US banks have begun preparing to seize and retain energy assets from fossil fuel companies that are saddled with debts they may not be able to repay. In fact, many of the same banks that the water protectors at Standing Rock confronted for funding the DAPL pipeline during the #NoDAPL protests in 2016 and 2017 are now moving to establish independent companies to actually manage the oil and gas fields, asserting their ongoing commitment to fund and support the fossil fuel industry.

“Banks are becoming enabled and more assertive in protecting the oil and gas industry. They are going to become an even bigger opponent to Native communities,” said Desiree Kane (Miwok), Digital Content Editor/Director of Pollen Nation Magazine. “Mercenary groups that were present at Standing Rock to harm and harass Native people are now merging with the banks. This is a direct threat to Native communities who are opposing the pipelines.”

Unfortunately, this reality is nothing new. For many Native activists and their allies, the cooperation between the fossil fuel industry and banks, law enforcement, and elected officials at all levels of government is a longstanding, ongoing threat — as was made clear when federal, state, and local law enforcement officials teamed up with private security and mercenary groups in opposition to Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock.

By relaxing environmental and health standards, reducing industry oversight, and accelerating pipeline construction amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trump administration has only reaffirmed its faithful and morally backwards commitment to invest in fossil fuels and disregard for the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples during this era of both the coronavirus and climate crisis.

As Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Action, says, we should be heading in an entirely different direction: “We must work to repair the systems that are essential to life, not build new projects that bring us one step closer to the climate crisis.”

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