IN THE nine years since Keystone XL was first proposed it has become the most political of pipelines, pitting environmentalists, ranchers and Native Americans against oil companies, state officials and unionists. Barack Obama’s administration delayed its construction in 2011, then rejected it in November 2015. Shipping oil from Canada’s tar sands, which is one of the dirtiest sources of crude, threatened to undercut the leadership role the government wanted to play on climate change. “So sad that Obama rejected Keystone Pipeline. Thousands of jobs, good for the environment, no downside!” tweeted Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate.

Yet the green light came with an amber one—the commissioners did not approve the route preferred by TransCanada, but one farther east. This could add more expense and complexity to a project that was costly and complicated before it even started (it involves dozens of landowners who have not yet been consulted). It could also prompt yet another review of Keystone XL in neighbouring South Dakota, which has already said it will look at the pipeline again if changes made by other states affect the route through its plains.

TransCanada’s reaction to the regulators’ decision was muted, at best. Mr Girling is now “assessing how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project”, he said in a statement. In July TransCanada launched an “open season” to solicit binding commitments from shippers for Keystone XL. It has not made the results public.

“The reviews of the regulatory decision were mixed,” says Jim Smith, a Republican senator in Nebraska’s unicameral state legislature. Mr Smith is a longtime supporter of the pipeline. As the owner of a business selling Omaha’s finest garage doors, he says, he knows about the importance of cheap and plentiful energy. Mr Smith thinks renewable energy is too costly and unreliable to replace fossil fuels. He points out that pipelines are a safer way to transport oil than rail or lorries. And when they leak, operators can at least clean up fairly quickly. On November 16th Keystone spilled 5,000 barrels of oil in South Dakota, which shut down the pipeline until at least November 23rd.

Once all the reviews are completed, it may be economics rather than politics that halts the pipeline. “The financial viability of the project is highly speculative,” says Tom Sanzillo of the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a research group, who thinks there is only a 20-30% chance the pipeline will be built. For Keystone XL to work financially, the price of oil needs to be $80-90 a barrel, with an upward trajectory, says Mr Sanzillo. The price of oil is at $60 a barrel, compared with $140 in 2008 when TransCanada first applied for a permit to pipe oil across the American-Canadian border. Lorne Stockman of Oil Change International, an advocacy group, also thinks the pipeline is unlikely to be built. To get going TransCanada needs to sign up enough clients with long-term contracts for 90% of the capacity of Keystone XL, which will be able to transport 830,000 barrels of oil a day (compared with 600,000 barrels from the current pipeline). “Shippers will not have signed the dotted line before the Nebraska decision,” says Mr Stockman. And they are likely to be more hesitant to sign up now given that the route has been altered from the one preferred by TransCanada.

Zachary Rogers of Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy, is less pessimistic about the finances of the project. Thanks to cuts by the OPEC oil cartel, declining Mexican production and the political instability in Venezuela, the market for heavy crude has been tight recently, says Mr Rogers. However dirty and difficult to refine, Canada’s thick tar-sands oil could fill that gap. (Using tar-sands oil emits up to 50% more carbon dioxide than using conventional oil.)

TransCanada’s bosses will decide in December whether to build the pipeline. The prospect of interminable litigation is likely to weigh on their minds. Jane Kleeb of Bold Alliance, a foe of Keystone XL, says her group believes TransCanada will have to seek another federal review, as 63 miles of the newly approved route have not been examined by the federal government. Other opponents are expected to take the case to a state district court, from where it is likely to go all the way up to the state Supreme Court. Mr Trump handed the pipeline a reprieve. But its ultimate fate will be decided by shareholders, rather than by activists, courts or governments.

 

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Ex-XL?”