In a major blow to the Trump administration, a federal judge halted construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on Thursday night, citing concerns over climate change and violations of environmental laws.
Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for Montana ruled that both the Trump administration and TransCanada largely ignored climate change in their decision to proceed with the tar sands project. The $8 billion pipeline, spanning 1,180 miles, would transport up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Canada into the United States.
The Obama administration waffled on the pipeline before ultimately agreeing to deny the permit following the completion of a 2014 analysis by the State Department and mass-resistance to the effort.
By virtue of the pipeline’s border-crossing nature, approval was largely left to the State Department, which under the Trump administration okayed the project, arguing that little had changed since the analysis and that any damage to the environment would be minimal.
Morris disagreed. His 54-page opinion, which references climate change 11 times, states that the Trump State Department failed to “analyze the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions” and their impact on the environment and on Native tribes, including impacts on “cultural resources” spanning over 1,000 acres.
“The Department … simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change to support its course reversal,” the judge stated.
An Obama appointee, Morris ruled that the Trump administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act in approving the pipeline.
“The Department appears to have jumped the gun,” he wrote.
Morris ordered a new, more thorough environmental analysis by the State Department, blocking both the federal government and TransCanada from continuing construction until a supplement to the 2014 Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement is completed.
Morris noted that major oil spills between 2014 and 2017 must also be accounted for and that the new supplement must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The judge’s decision was the result of a suit by plaintiffs including the Indigenous Environmental Network and Northern Plains Resource Council, who sued in March 2017 over the pipeline. Their suit argued that the project violates environmental laws.
Green groups on Thursday cheered the judge’s decision and hailed the moment as a key victory.
“Despite the best efforts of wealthy, multinational corporations and the powerful politicians who cynically do their bidding, we see that everyday people can still band together and successfully defend their rights,” said Dena Hoff, a Montana farmer and member-leader of the Northern Plains Resource Council. “All Americans should be proud that our system of checks and balances can still function even in the face of enormous strains.”
The ruling marks a major setback for President Donald Trump, who has overseen a massive effort to unravel Obama-era environmental regulations, in addition to promoting the role of fossil fuels in U.S. energy. Trump approved the Keystone XL pipeline two days after taking office, ensuring that construction on the project could have begun as early as 2019.
The White House has yet to comment on the ruling, but would likely appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Environmental groups, however, indicated that they see the ruling as a sign they will continue to win in court regardless.
“Environmental laws exist to protect people and our lands and waters,” said Marcie Keever, legal director for Friends of the Earth, in a statement. “Today, the courts showed the Trump administration and their corporate polluter friends that they cannot bully rural landowners, farmers, environmentalists and Native communities.”