Brian Matthew Morris, United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Montana. Photo: Derek Brouwer / Independent Record

By Fred Barbash, Allyson Chiu, and Juliet Eilperin
9 November 2018

(The Washington Post) – A federal judge temporarily blocked construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, ruling late Thursday that the Trump administration had failed to justify its decision granting a permit for the 1,200-mile long project designed to connect Canada’s oil sands fields with Texas’s Gulf Coast refineries.

The judge, Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court in Montana, said the State Department ignored crucial issues of climate change to further the president’s goal of letting the pipeline be built. In doing so, the administration ran afoul of the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires “reasoned” explanations for government decisions, particularly when they represent reversals of well-studied actions.

It was a major defeat for President Trump, who attacked the Obama administration for stopping the project in the face of protests and an environmental impact study. Trump signed an executive order two days into his presidency setting in motion a course reversal on the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as another major pipeline, Dakota Access.

The ruling highlights a broader legal vulnerability in the Trump administration’s push to roll back Obama-era environmental protections. Since Trump took office, federal courts have found repeatedly that his agencies have short-circuited the regulatory process in areas ranging from water protections to chemical plant safety operations. Robust environmental and administrative procedure laws, many dating back to the 1970s, have given the administration’s opponents plenty of legal ammunition.

Thursday’s decision does not permanently block a federal permit for Keystone XL, a project of the Calgary-based firm TransCanada. It requires the administration to conduct a more complete review of potential adverse impacts related to climate change, cultural resources and endangered species. The court basically ordered a do-over.

In a 54-page opinion, Morris hit the administration with a familiar charge that it disregarded facts, facts established by experts during the Obama administration about “climate-related impacts” from Keystone XL. The Trump administration claimed, with no supporting information, that those impacts “would prove inconsequential,” Morris wrote. The State Department “simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change to support its course reversal.”

It also used “outdated information” about the impact of potential oil spills on endangered species, he said, rather than “'the best scientific and commercial data available.'”

“Today’s ruling makes it clear once and for all that it’s time for TransCanada to give up on their Keystone XL pipe dream,” said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Doug Hayes in a statement. The lawsuit prompting Thursday’s order was brought by a collection of opponents, including the indigenous Environmental Network and the Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation coalition based in Montana.

“The Trump administration tried to force this dirty pipeline project on the American people, but they can’t ignore the threats it would pose to our clean water, our climate, and our communities,” Hayes said. […]

Among the judge’s findings:

  • The State Department, in issuing the permit, failed to “analyze the cumulative greenhouse gas emissions” of the Keystone project and the expanded Alberta Clipper pipeline. It “ignored its duty to take a ‘hard look’ at these two connected actions."
  • The department “acted on incomplete information regarding” the potential damage to cultural resources in Indian territory along the route. “The Department appears to have jumped the gun.”
  • The department failed to make a fact-based explanation for its course reversal, “let alone a reasoned explanation. …'An agency cannot simply disregard contrary or inconvenient factual determinations that it made in the past, any more than it can ignore inconvenient facts' " in the present, he wrote, quoting judicial precedents.
  • The department’s analysis that “climate-related impacts” from Keystone “would prove inconsequential” needed a “reasoned explanation.” It did not provide one.  [more]

Federal judge blocks Keystone XL pipeline, saying Trump administration review ignored ‘inconvenient’ climate change facts

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