In Harm's Way: How Keystone XL Threatens Endangered Animals and Plants

No matter how you look at it, Keystone XL would be bad for wildlife, especially endangered species.

Many imperiled species live along the proposed pipeline's path and in areas where tar-sands oil is produced. If the pipeline were built, it would decimate habitat these species rely on.

The Center for Biological Diversity released a report called In Harm's Way: How the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Have Ignored the Dangers of the Keystone XL Pipeline to Endangered Species.

Our analysis found that at least 12 threatened and endangered species in four states would be put in harm's way by the proposed pipeline, including critically endangered whooping cranes, interior least terns, American burying beetles, piping plovers, pallid sturgeons and black-footed ferrets.

Threats from this project include habitat destruction from the massive ground disturbance this pipeline would've caused, bird deaths from power line collisions, and the potentially catastrophic impacts of pipeline spills.

Under the Endangered Species Act, government regulators — like the Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — are required to study the potential impacts of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline on threatened and endangered species.

In analyzing this pipeline's impacts, the government summarily dismissed or ignored some of the most significant harms these species would face if the project’s approved and built. It failed to fulfill its duties under the Act and to the American public, which overwhelmingly supports the protection of wildlife.

The analysis of Keystone XL failed to consider the impact of pipeline spills on endangered species, despite acknowledging that spills are all but certain to happen. It also failed to consider the impacts of related infrastructure like power lines and roads, improperly downplayed the impacts of ground disturbance, and ignored the impacts of increased tar-sands production on endangered species in Canada.

In 2015 Obama finally rejected the proposed KXL pipeline — but right after he left office, the Trump administration put it back on the table. Three years later, following a lawsuit by the Center and allies, a court ruled that the administration violated bedrock environmental laws by approving a federal permit for the pipeline, including by failing to adequately address the risks of oil spills on listed species. The Trump administration undermined that victory by issuing a new permit, which allowed the project to proceed anyway.

The Center and allies went back to court, arguing that the Army Corps illegally permitted the Keystone XL pipeline to be constructed through waterways using Nationwide Permit 12, a streamlined permit under the Clean Water Act allowing pipelines like Keystone XL (and many others nationwide) to cross rivers, streams and wetlands without a full analysis of the environmental impacts.

We saw victory when, in April 2020, a Montana judge vacated Nationwide Permit 12 because the Corps had failed to do a programmatic analysis to ensure all the impacts of projects using that permit wouldn’t jeopardize imperiled species.

The decision effectively blocked construction of Keystone XL through hundreds of water crossings along the pipeline route. The next month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declared the ruling would stay in place while a full appeal of the decision moves forward, finding that the Corps and TC Energy failed to show that they were likely to succeed on the merits of their appeal. After the Trump administration OK'd Keystone XL's construction on federal lands the Center and other conservation and landowner groups filed a new lawsuit challenging the approval.

Among the Wildlife Affected by Keystone XL:

Whooping cranes: Toxic tailing ponds in Canada, power line collisions, oil spills.
Interior least tern: Disturbance of breeding habitat, power line collisions, oil spills.
Piping plover: Power line collisions, increased exposure to predators, oil spills.
American burying beetle: Loss of vital grass habitat, smashing during construction, oil spills.

Details on Impacts

Pipeline Spills

  • The agencies in charge of evaluating spill risks minimized the risk and consequences of KXL spilling.
  • KXL would stretch across hundreds of miles and carry up to 35 million gallons of oil every day. Regulators have predicted that it could spill oil up to 100 times during its 50-year lifetime. Past tar-sands oil spills have devastated local wildlife, but the government completely failed to consider the cumulative effects of spills on terrestrial wildlife and migratory birds in important habitat areas.
  • Even though the agencies admitted that the toxic effects of tar-sands spills can reduce entire populations or biological communities of sensitive species, they came to the unsupported conclusion that endangered species such as the whooping crane, pallid sturgeon and American burying beetle would not be “adversely affected” by pipeline spills.

Power Lines

  • KXL would require the construction of hundreds of miles of new power lines, creating significant collision threats for imperiled birds and bats.
  • Only about 400 endangered whooping cranes remain in the wild. Nearly all of the pipeline's route through Nebraska and South Dakota is within the central migratory corridor used by the last remaining wild population of whooping cranes, and cranes are particularly susceptible to collisions because they’re so lanky and because power lines are hard for them to see.

Ground Disturbance

  • Construction on just the northern U.S. segment of the proposed KXL pipeline would directly disturb about 15,500 acres and would require the construction of hundreds of new roads.
  • While the State Department admitted that building KXL could result in the crushing of endangered northern swift foxes with young in dens, the State Department and Fish and Wildlife ignored their legal duty to consider impacts to these tiny imperiled foxes under the Endangered Species Act.

International Wildlife Impacts

  • Construction on the northern U.S. segment of the proposed KXL pipeline alone would directly disturb about 15,500 acres and would require the construction of hundreds of new roads.
  • While the government admitted that building KXL could result in the crushing of endangered American burying beetles, the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed the project to kill hundreds of them.
  • The pipeline’s construction would also result in sediment impacts to many streams and rivers, including many that migratory birds (like whooping cranes, piping plovers and interior least terns) need during their long migrations.

Whooping crane photo by Anthony Rue/Flickr