State Department issues presidential permit for Keystone pipeline

PHOTO: President Donald Trump, flanked by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is seen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 24, 2107.PlayEvan Vucci/AP Photo
WATCH State department issues presidential permit for Keystone pipeline

The White House announced today it has signed off on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, authorizing the Canadian company behind the project to begin construction.

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According to a press release from the Department of State, a presidential permit was issued to TransCanada Corp., authorizing the energy firm "to construct, connect, operate, and maintain pipeline facilities at the U.S.-Canadian border in Phillips County, Montana, for the importation of crude oil."

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recused himself from any decision involving the Keystone pipeline because of his previous role as the head of ExxonMobil. The department announced earlier this month that Tillerson’s decision to recuse himself from the matter was made as soon as he took office in early February.

The presidential permit was signed by Thomas Shannon, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

"In making his determination that issuance of this permit would serve the national interest, the Under Secretary considered a range of factors, including but not limited to foreign policy; energy security; environmental, cultural, and economic impacts; and compliance with applicable law and policy," the State department's press release said.

The Keystone pipeline would span 900 miles, carrying oil from the tar sands of Canada to Nebraska, where it would connect with other pipelines down to the Gulf of Mexico. It requires federal approval because it crosses an international border.

While formally announcing the permit from the Oval Office this morning, President Donald Trump lauded the approval of the $8 billion project as "a great day for American jobs and a historic moment for North America and energy independence."

"TransCanada will finally be allowed to complete this long overdue project with efficiency and speed. We’re working out the final details as we speak," Trump said. "This is the just first of many energy and infrastructure projects that my administration will approve, and we’ve already approved a couple of big ones –- very, very big ones -– which we’ll be announcing soon."

Environmental groups slammed the administration's decision to grant the permit, arguing that the fossil fuel project will exacerbate climate change.

“The dirty and dangerous Keystone XL pipeline is one of the worst deals imaginable for the American people, so of course Donald Trump supports it. This project has already been defeated, and it will be once again. The project faces a long fight ahead in the states," Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement today. “We’re living in what feels to be the worst version of Groundhog Day imaginable, as every morning we’re waking up to yet another decision made by Trump that would be disastrous for our climate, our communities, and our health -- but Trump will not succeed."

“The State Department just sent a signal to the rest of the world that the United States government is moving backwards when it comes to climate and energy," according to a statement from Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard. "The world simply cannot afford to transport or burn the Canadian tar sands if we hope to have any chance at avoiding catastrophic climate change. Keystone was stopped once before, and it will be stopped again.”

Liberal advocacy group CREDO Action, part of CREDO Mobile, also released a damning statement, accusing the Trump administration of "putting corporate interests first with disastrous consequences for the American people.”

Today's announcement came two months after President Donald Trump signed memorandums aimed at advancing both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, a move which pleased supporters of the projects and brought immediate condemnation from environmentalists and other opponents.

The Jan. 24 memorandum on the Keystone pipeline, which was addressed to the departments of State, the Army and the Interior, sought to restart the presidential permit process for TransCanada. It also called on the State department to decide within 60 days, utilizing the environmental impact study from 2014, as opposed to starting from scratch. The memo asked the Interior Department and Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the decision.

Trump has long promised that this pipeline project and others within the United States would be constructed using American-made materials and equipment. In a Feb. 23 meeting with business leaders, Trump told U.S. Steel Corp CEO Mario Longhi that the Keystone and Dakota pipelines have to use "steel made in this country." And in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 16, Trump said the material for the pipelines "comes from the United States, or we're not building it ... if they want a pipeline in the United States, they're going to use pipe that's made in the United States."

In fact, ABC News has identified at least five instances since Trump's inauguration where the president intimated the Keystone pipeline would be built with steel manufactured in America.

But the White House this month said the Keystone pipeline will not be bound by the president's Jan. 24 memorandum requiring new and retrofitted pipelines to use American steel, signaling that Trump is backtracking on his promise to American workers.

"The way that executive order is written … it’s specific to new pipelines or those that are being repaired. And since this one is already currently under construction, the steel is already literally sitting there, it would be hard to go back," White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One on March 3. "But I know that everything moving forward would fall under that executive order."

Earlier this week, Democratic congresswoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois sent a letter to Trump demanding he keep his promise to impose “buy American” requirements on the Keystone pipeline project.

The State Department's decision to issue the permit follows years of reviews under President Barack Obama, whose administration ultimately denied TransCanada's application.

“Secretary Kerry informed me that, after extensive public outreach and consultation with other Cabinet agencies, the State Department has decided that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the national interest of the United States. I agree with that decision,” Obama said in 2015 remarks rejecting the project.

Given the Obama administration’s denial of a permit, critics questioned what new information the Trump administration was considering that could lead to a different conclusion.

“We did do an extensive review previously, but we’re looking at new factors. I don’t want to speak to those until we’ve reached a decision or conclusion,” State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said at a press briefing Thursday.

When questioned on how two administrations could look at the same evidence and make different conclusions, Toner told reporters, “Our review, previous review stands. Those conclusions stand. I think we’re just looking at it with fresh eyes and trying to see if there’s any new factors to look at and consider.”

Trump has promised nearly 30,000 jobs as a result of the construction of the Keystone pipeline. But according to the 2013 State Department report on Keystone, the majority of the jobs created by the Keystone pipeline are temporary, with only 35 listed as permanent jobs.

In a 2014 interview with ABC News, TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said the thousands of jobs created will be during the major construction period.

“Yes, the actual operating jobs are about 50," Girling said. "But that doesn't include all the other jobs that come with it."

ABC News' Erin Dooley, Serena Marshall, MaryAlice Parks and Angie Yack contributed to this report.