AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File Keystone XL
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File

Last week the Department of Health and Human Services issued a memorandum classifying pipeline construction workers as essential, exempting them from stay-at-home orders.

After a decade of resistance from indigenous nations and climate activists, fuel giant TC Energy has resumed work on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry burning tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. 

In 2011, conservationists decried the 1,700-mile pipeline as a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet,” and NASA climate scientist James Hansen called it “game over” for a stable climate. With the current coronavirus pandemic, a bad situation looks much, much worse. 

Most states have issued stay-at-home executive orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. But last week the Department of Health and Human Services issued a memorandum classifying pipeline construction workers as essential, exempting them from stay-at-home orders. TC Energy immediately began moving thousands of workers from across the U.S. into rural communities along the pipeline route, jeopardizing the populations of nearby indigenous reservations already vulnerable to the pandemic

“This is a shameful new low,” Catherine Collentine, associate director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement. “By barreling forward with construction during a global pandemic, TC Energy is putting already vulnerable communities at even greater risk.”

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The company is touting the thousands of jobs it says will “strengthen the continent’s energy security,” but the market has such a surplus of oil that prices are dropping, world demand is down 30%, and Texas is shutting down wells.

Under President Obama, the Keystone XL plan was stalled, but four days into his presidency Trump began clearing the way for construction to begin. Earlier this year the administration approved a right-of-way grant permitting construction across 44 miles of land in Montana, and tried unsuccessfully to throw out lawsuits against its approval of the pipeline. On March 18, South Dakota Gov. Kirsti Noem signed legislation that classified oil, gas, and utility equipment as “critical infrastructure” and made it a felony to protest such. In October, a nearly 400,000-gallon Keystone spill compromised a wetland in North Dakota with heavy crude oil.

In the statement released last week, TC Energy thanked President Donald Trump by name for his advocacy, “without which, individually and collectively, this Project could not have advanced.”