BILLINGS, Mont. -- The Trump administration on Wednesday approved a right-of-way allowing the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline to be built across U.S. land, federal officials told The Associated Press, pushing the controversial $8 billion project closer to construction though court challenges still loom.
The approval signed by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt covers 46 miles (74 kilometers) of the line’s route across land in Montana controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Casey Hammond, assistant secretary of the Interior Department.
The 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) pipeline would transport up to 830,000 barrels (35 million gallons) of crude oil daily from western Canada to terminals on the Gulf Coast. Project sponsor TC Energy said in a court filing that it wants to begin construction in the next several months, but that’s sure to face more legal challenges.
First proposed in 2008, the pipeline has become emblematic of the struggle between economic development and curbing the fossil fuel emissions that are causing climate change. The Obama administration rejected it, but President Donald Trump revived it and has been a strong supporter.
The stretch approved Wednesday includes all federal land crossed by the line, Hammond said. Much of the rest of the route is across private land, for which TC Energy has been trying to get permissions to build on.
Opponents worry burning the tar sands oil will make climate change worse, and that the pipeline could break and spill oil into waterways like Montana's Missouri River. They have filed numerous lawsuits.
Hammond said Interior officials and other agencies have done a thorough review of the line’s potential effects on the environment. He said TC Energy had provided detailed plans to respond to any spill from the line.
“We’re comfortable with the analysis that’s been done,” Hammond said.
Another oil pipeline in TC Energy’s Keystone network in October spilled an estimated 383,000 gallons (1.4 million liters) of oil in eastern North Dakota. The company's critics say a damaging spill from Keystone XL is inevitable given the the length of the line and the many rivers and other bodies of water it would cross beneath.
An attorney for environmental groups that have sued to overturn Trump’s permit for the line said they will ask the judge in the case to issue an order blocking the new approval.
“We know President Trump’s permit was unconstitutional, and we have every confidence that the federal courts will set aside these approvals,” said Steve Volker, who represents the Indigenous Environmental Network.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana praised the administration's move.
“Trump and his administration are delivering on their promise to get this critical infrastructure project moving after years of unnecessary delays," the Republican lawmaker said in a statement.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris in Montana initially denied a request from environmentalists to block construction in December because no work was immediately planned. But he also has ruled against the project, including a 2018 decision that stalled the line and prompted Trump to issue a new presidential permit for Keystone XL to cross the U.S.-Canada border.
In Nebraska, the state Supreme Court removed the last major obstacle for the project in August when it ruled in favor of state regulators who had approved a route for the pipeline in 2017. Opponents had argued that regulators didn’t follow all the procedures required by state law.
TC Energy intends next month to begin mobilizing construction machinery to areas designated for worker camps and pipeline storage yards in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, according to its court filings. It also plans to start toppling trees along the route in areas of South Dakota.
In April, the company plans to start building a 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) segment of the pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border. Construction of pumping stations for the line would begin in June.
Associated Press reporter Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Nebraska, contributed to this report.
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