Activists on the sharp edge of the climate movement are in an existential battle with the Goliath of fossil fuel influence in government. When the future of nature and humanity is at stake, milestones gained are often just rest stops before the marathon resumes. But on June 9, 2021, an epic 13-year struggle waged in courtrooms, fields, and city streets was finally won when TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) announced it had cancelled its plans for the Keystone XL pipeline.
That’s a major reversal from the corporation’s plans announced in July 2008: a 2,030-mile-long oil pipeline from Alberta to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. It was expected to haul as much as 100 million tons of tar sands oil per day, and the State Department estimated that Keystone XL alone could add up to 27 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere per year.
Indigenous activists led opposition to the pipeline, and the resistance grew bigger, bolder, and more united as the broader environmental movement joined the fight. The long effort to prevent construction of the pipeline was instrumental in creating today’s climate movement. It ushered in a new era of environmentalism anchored in solidarity with impacted communities, climate justice, and an intersectional approach to addressing climate change.
The final bell for Keystone XL is a victory for the movement of tribes, activists, farmers, and local communities who put up courageous and persistent opposition to slow, snarl up, and finally stop construction of Keystone XL. These climate champions fought far above their weight and persisted when it looked like they were outmatched.
The resistance movement that wouldn’t quit has outlived the pipeline that wouldn’t die. Here is a brief history of how we got here:
Big Green began to take on the pipeline in 2009, when environmental groups working on climate policy were dismayed by the failure of a cap-and-trade bill and the United Nations climate talks. Given the power of the fossil fuel lobby, the necessity of new strategies became apparent. “Now we know what we didn’t before,” wrote Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. “Making nice doesn’t work…we may need to get arrested.”
June 26, 2009: The American Clean Energy and Security Act, a bill to reduce carbon emissions and support sustainable technology through cap-and-trade, is approved in the House of Representatives but never reaches the floor of the Senate.
Dec. 18, 2009: The UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen fails to establish effective global agreements to limit carbon emissions.
April 2010: The U.S. State Department’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) says Keystone XL would have a limited effect on the environment.
April 20, 2010: The Deepwater Horizon explosion, the worst marine oil spill in history, wreaks havoc on the ecosystem and people of the Gulf. The well continues leaking until it is capped in mid-September.
May 2010: U.S. State Department holds public meetings in Nebraska as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment process for Keystone XL. Rancher Ben Gotschall sees the pipeline’s proposed route runs through the Nebraska Sandhills ecosystem—and above the Ogallala aquifer, the source of irrigation and drinking water for eight states.
Gotschall and Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska start a campaign against the pipeline that focuses on land rights and the pipeline’s threat to agricultural livelihoods. Bold Nebraska forms a coalition with Sierra Club Nebraska, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, the League of Women Voters and the Nebraska Farmers Union. The model spreads to other states, creating the Bold Alliance.
July 2010: The EPA gives the State Department’s draft environmental impact statement the lowest possible rating, and raises concerns about Keystone XL’s large carbon footprint, global warming and national security, and the risk of a spill in the Ogallala aquifer.
The State Department extends its review period to reach a final EIS.
September 2010: Indigenous Environmental Network organizers from Native tribes and Canadian First Nations visit decision-makers in Washington, D.C., informing them of the harmful impact of tar sands development and urging them to oppose Keystone XL.
January 2011: Globally, 2010 is determined to be one of the hottest years on record. It will prove to be just the first of many “hottest years.”
June 3, 2011: Climate scientist James Hansen publishes “Silence is Deadly,” writing that adding tar sands to the global carbon load would ensure catastrophic climate change, in what he calls “game over” for the atmosphere.
August 2011: The State Department releases its final EIS, finding that Keystone XL would have a limited environmental impact.
In East Texas, TransCanada files for eminent domain with the Texas Railroad Commission and seizes a pipeline easement on Julia Trigg Crawford’s family farm. Crawford will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court on the grounds that the project to pipe tar sands bitumen through her land and under a local water source is not a public good as defined in the Constitution and thus not entitled to eminent domain. Her legal case becomes a cause célèbre, supported by thousands of small donations.
Direct action and divestment became complementary strategies for the climate movement beginning in 2011. Pipeline opponents focused on Obama’s power to veto the Keystone XL. They demonstrated on his re-election tour and staged mass civil disobedience outside the White House during his second term. The pipeline permit was delayed, denied, and filed again, and the fossil fuel divestment campaign was launched to address the money backing Big Oil.
Aug. 20–Sept. 3, 2011: Protesters stage a two-week campaign at the White House to demonstrate the strength of their objections to Keystone XL. The protest follows the tactics of the civil rights movement, and is supported by large environmental groups not previously associated with civil disobedience, including Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Defense Fund. The protest has a strong Indigenous presence. Police arrest 1,253 for “stepping over the line” in front of the White House to protest Keystone XL, including organizer Debra White Plume (Oglala Dakota), actors Tantoo Cardinal (Cree), Margot Kidder, and Daryl Hannah, and writer Naomi Klein.
Hurricane Irene sweeps up the East Coast.
October 2011: TransCanada threatens to sue Nebraska for billions if it passes laws blocking Keystone XL. Members of Congress call on the State Department’s Inspector General to review the hiring of a firm to conduct Keystone’s environmental impact review—a firm that works for TransCanada.
November 2011: About 15,000 people surround the White House in a “solidarity hug,” once again urging Obama to veto the pipeline.
Nov. 10-14, 2011: The State Department says TransCanada must reroute the pipeline to avoid the ecologically sensitive Nebraska Sandhills. TransCanada agrees to reroute the line.
November 2011: Obama delays the pipeline approval process to give Nebraska time to “institute its own regulations and oversight of pipelines.” The Nebraska state legislature mandates its own EIS for Keystone XL.
December 2011: U.S. legislators require Obama to make a decision on Keystone XL within the next 60 days.
Jan. 18, 2012: Obama rejects the Keystone XL permit, saying the December bill did not leave enough time to review the new route. TransCanada is free to submit another application.
Feb. 27, 2012: TransCanada says it will build the southern leg of Keystone XL, from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf Coast, as a separate project with a price tag of $2.3 billion. This portion is not subject to presidential permission, as it does not cross an international border.
March 5, 2012: Lakota elders take part in the first action of civil disobedience against tar sands oil transport on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
March 22, 2012: In Cushing, tribal members protest at Obama’s speech announcing a fast-track for the southern leg of the pipeline.
May 4, 2012: TransCanada files a new application with the State Department for the pipeline’s northern section.
September–December 2012: Activists from Tar Sands Blockade stage a tree sit-in blocking bulldozers on David Daniel’s farm in Winnsboro, Texas. The sit-in draws public attention to the frustration of farmers and ranchers like Daniel, whose land is being seized against his will. After three months and 50 arrests, the pipeline is rerouted around the sit-in.
Oct. 2012: In East Texas, 78-year-old Eleanor Fairchild is arrested on her land for standing in front of an earth excavator to block pipeline construction.
Superstorm Sandy originates in the Caribbean and moves north, affecting 24 states. A storm surge in NYC destroys homes, floods streets and subway tunnels, and knocks out power to a quarter of the city.
Nov. 7, 2012: Bill McKibben launches 350.org’s “Do the Math” tour, a new divestment campaign targeting the fossil fuel companies’ power to block effective climate legislation.
January 2013: Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman approves TransCanada’s proposed new route for Keystone XL. Opponents file a lawsuit against the State of Nebraska claiming the law used to review the new route is unconstitutional.
Through Nebraska Easement Action Team, Gotschall reaches out to landowners on the pipeline’s new route and organizes a legal defense fund to challenge eminent domain.
People from 25 tribes and First Nations meet at the Gathering to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects in South Dakota. The international treaty commemorates the 150-year anniversary of the Pawnee and Yankton Sioux Peace Treaty and forms deep intertribal alliances.
Building on the work of activists like Faith Spotted Eagle, non-Natives are included in the gathering. Some are Great Plains ranchers who acknowledge broken treaties and find common cause with tribes seeking to protect their land from tar sands pipelines. The Cowboy Indian Alliance is formed. It will join forces with Bold Nebraska and other activists to meet at tribal council meetings, rallies, and public hearings about the Keystone XL.
February 2013: The Sierra Club participates in civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history when it joins protesters at the White House calling for Obama to reject the pipeline. Among the 48 arrested are Robert Kennedy Jr., Julian Bond, McKibben, and NASA scientist James Hansen. Tribal members participate in the Washington rally against Keystone XL, telling the federal government that it has not consulted adequately with tribes. A coalition of tribal and other Indigenous representatives meet with EPA officials to highlight the health, cultural, economic, and human rights impacts of the proposed pipeline on Indigenous people.
March 8-9, 2013: On the Pine Ridge Reservation, Owe Aku’s Sacred Water Protection Project holds a “Moccasins on the Ground” training for nonviolent direct action.
April 22, 2013: The EPA criticizes the State Department’s latest EIS as insufficient, and recommends routing the pipeline to avoid the Ogallala aquifer. By this date, Earth Day, the State Department has received a million public comments on the EIS, most of them against the pipeline.
May 2013: While Crawford waits for her appeal against eminent domain to be heard in the Texas Supreme Court, TransCanada begins pipeline construction on her land. The southern section of the pipeline becomes a reality.
A U.S. State Department meeting in South Dakota to consult with tribes on Keystone XL ends on May 16 when the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association—16 tribal leaders from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska who have joined to defend treaty rights—declare the meeting to be invalid and say they will meet only with Obama to discuss the pipeline.
Legal and legislative battles at the federal level and in Nebraska kept Keystone XL in limbo, even after the State Department issued a final EIS disregarding the pipeline’s impact on global warming. Under pressure to act on the pipeline, which became a partisan issue in the mid-term elections, Obama stalled on making an executive order. When a pro-pipeline bill forced his hand, Obama delivered the veto the climate movement was waiting for. Then Keystone XL resurfaced in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
January 2014: After a five-year review process, the State Department releases its final EIS, stating: “Approval of any single project is unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction of the oil from the oil sands or the refining of heavy crude on the U.S. Gulf Coast.”
The southern section of the pipeline, from Cushing to Texas refineries on the Gulf, goes into operation.
Feb. 19, 2014: A Nebraska judge rules that the governor’s approval of the pipeline over the objections of landowners was unconstitutional. The state says it will appeal the decision.
March 29, 2014: The Rosebud Sioux Spirit Camp, a circle of tipis presenting physical and spiritual resistance to the path of Keystone XL, is opened.
April 18, 2014: The State Department suspends the regulatory process indefinitely, citing uncertainty about the court case in Nebraska.
April 22-27, 2014: The Cowboy Indian Alliance and others gather in Washington, D.C. for Reject and Protect, five days of protest. The event includes a horse ride, a tipi encampment on the National Mall, and presentations by leaders from the Oglala, Rosebud, Standing Rock, Yankton, and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes, and the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation of British Colombia.
Sept 21, 2014: Indigenous peoples and frontline communities from around the world lead the People’s Climate March in New York City. Held a few days before the U.N. Climate Summit, it is the biggest climate march in history.
Nov. 2-4, 2014: TransCanada says the costs of Keystone XL have grown from $5.4 billion to $8 billion and requests a temporary suspension of its application. The U.S. government rejects the request.
November 2014: The House of Representatives votes in favor of Keystone XL—a treaty violation and an “act of war,” according to Rosebud Sioux tribal president Cyril Scott, who says the tribe will never allow the pipeline on their lands.
The U.S. Senate votes against the northern portion of Keystone XL. Midterm elections turn a majority of seats in Congress over to Republicans, who vow to push the pipeline ahead.
Jan. 9, 2015: The Nebraska Supreme Court strikes down a lower-court ruling that found land seizures to be unconstitutional.
Jan. 29, 2015: The U.S. Senate approves a bill to build Keystone XL.
Feb. 24, 2015: Obama vetoes the bill, citing concerns about climate change.
Nov. 6, 2015: The Obama administration rejects TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
Jan. 6, 2016: TransCanada files a claim under NAFTA against the U.S. government’s rejection of Keystone XL. The company also files a federal lawsuit in Texas.
May 26, 2016: Republican presidential contender Donald Trump vows to approve Keystone XL if elected, a pledge he repeats several times during the campaign.
April 2016: Water protectors, many of them teenagers, start Sacred Stone Camp to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. The camp grows into a historic gathering of tribes. Thousands of supporters are drawn to Standing Rock over months of resistance despite a militarized police response.
Nov. 8, 2016: Trump is elected president.
Jan. 24, 2017: Trump signs an executive order approving Keystone XL, but suggests the U.S. will renegotiate the terms of the project. He also signs an order requiring American pipelines to be built with U.S. steel.
March 24, 2017: President Trump issues a presidential permit for Keystone XL.
Going forward, environmental and Indigenous activists have vowed resistance in the path of the pipeline similar to that seen at Standing Rock. Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network says South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux and Rosebud Sioux tribes will provide space for resistance spirit camps.
January 2017: Climate activists stage sit-ins and demonstrations calling on banks to divest from oil pipelines.
February 2017: The Cheyenne River and Yankton Sioux tribes, Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), Indigenous Environmental Network, Dakota Rural Action, and others file an appeal against the South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission decision to grant TransCanada a renewal permit.
March 2017: Organizations including the Northern Plains Resource Council, Bold Alliance, and the NRDC file a federal lawsuit in Montana challenging the permit and environmental approvals.
April 2017: Seattle’s city council votes to avoid banking with backers of Keystone XL.
May 2017: Tribal nations from British Columbia to Oklahoma sign the “Declaration Opposing Oil Sands Expansion and the Construction of the Keystone-XL Pipeline” in Calgary, Ontario.
Opposition in Nebraska remains focused and well-organized. Every proposed Keystone XL route in Nebraska would run through territory with sites important to the Ponca tribe, which opposes the pipeline.
July 2019: The Northern Plains Resource Council, NRDC, Bold Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club bring a new lawsuit to stop Keystone XL. The lawsuit objects to the use of Nationwide Permit 12, a key water-crossing permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to leapfrog the environmental review process for pipeline projects like Keystone XL. A district court rules in their favor. The Army Corps appeals that ruling, but on July 6, 2020, the Supreme Court rules that the construction of Keystone XL through waterways must be suspended pending appeal of the case in the Ninth Circuit Court.
July 2020: The plaintiffs from the aforementioned case follow up with a challenge to the BLM’s approval of Keystone XL on public lands in Montana. That approval, argues the lawsuit, is based on (sound familiar?) incomplete environmental review.
November 2020: The Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Fort Belknap Indian Community challenge the right-of-way granted by the BLM, asserting that it violates the United States’ treaty obligations to protect the tribes’ territory and water resources.
December 2020: The Indigenous Environmental Network files a lawsuit against the BLM for its authorization of Keystone XL, arguing that it has not fully assessed or considered the climate impacts of the project.
Jan. 20, 2021: In response to public pressure and climate movement clamor, presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to cancel Keystone XL’s cross-border permit. On his first day in office, President Biden does just that.
February 2021: The U.S. officially rejoins the Paris Climate Agreement, after Biden signs an executive order to initiate the reentry process.
June 9, 2021: TC Energy (formerly TransCanada, prior to its 2020 rebranding) announces it will terminate the Keystone XL Pipeline Project.
Environmental activists see the Keystone XL victory as a pathway to halting other pipelines, like Enbridge Line 3, where direct action protests are working to protect waterways and tribal lands in Minnesota. “When this fight began, people thought Big Oil couldn’t be beat,” Bill McKibben said in a statement. “But when enough people rise up, we’re stronger even than the richest fossil fuel companies.”
This story was updated on June 10, 2021 to include events that have transpired since the previous version of the timeline was published on June 15, 2017.
Valerie Schloredt is the books editor at YES!, where she leads print and online coverage of literature, media, and film, with a focus on social change movements. Valerie worked for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in London for seven years, has followed the police reform process in Seattle as a citizen activist since 2010, and continues to monitor developments in both London and Seattle. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English.