To my shame, I’ve never had much more than a tenuous grasp on what presidents can or can’t do. Which is why I was confused about the executive orders signed by Trump regarding the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines. Can he just make these projects happen with the stroke of a pen? Thankfully, at this point, the answer is no.
For the Dakota pipeline he’s merely requesting the Army Corps of Engineers to hurry the fuck up and approve it. From The Atlantic
[T]he executive orders seemed to be written in a typical way. Instead of commanding agencies to ignore congressionally passed law, the orders request that they expedite or reconsider previous judgments. “Executive orders are legal orders—they’re law—but they can’t contravene legislative enactments. So an executive order can’t say, ‘Ignore the (National Environmental Policy Act) and give me a pipeline,’” [Sarah Krakoff, a professor of tribal and resources law at the University of Colorado Boulder] told me.
“If the federal law gives decision-making authority to a particular official, that official has to make the decision,” said John Leshy, a professor of real property law and a former general counsel to the U.S. Department of the Interior. “But there’s some murkiness about what the president can do. The decision maker can say no, and then the president can fire them and replace them with someone who would. But that takes time.”
Krakoff added that it would attract judicial suspicion if the Army Corps of Engineers suddenly decided that it didn’t have to make an environmental-impact statement for the Dakota Access pipeline after saying that it did just weeks ago.
“It would be hard for them to turn around on a dime and say, ‘We got this piece of paper from the president and now we don’t think that’s necessary,’” she said. “If the agency were to take a different route, legally, now, I would strongly suspect that that would be subject to litigation.”
There is less in the way of getting the Keystone XL pipeline off the ground. Ominously, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (isn’t he supposed to be a totally cool and awesome liberal heartthrob???) is welcoming the opportunity for TransCanada to re-submit its application:
Canadian diplomats had spent years attempting to convince Obama to let Keystone proceed. Trump’s decision was applauded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
“I’ve been on the record for many years supporting it because it means economic growth and good jobs for Albertans,” Trudeau said at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary.
To sum up where we are now in regards to the pipelines, (again, from The Atlantic article):
Experts seemed to think the Keystone XL pipeline would be easier to restart, at least from a legal perspective. The obstacles to that pipeline originated in the federal government and not an ongoing legal challenge. But in a way, that highlights the paradox of the two pipelines: While it may be easier to restart Keystone XL legally, none of that project is built, and there’s no guarantee that it ever will be. The Dakota Access pipeline, meanwhile, sits idle at 80-percent completion. It is closer to being done. It also has, legally, much further to go.
Our primary hope appears to be sweet, sweet labyrinthine bureaucracy, as well as the fact that not all executive orders yield their desired results. The Atlantic article notes this and concludes with an outline of Obama’s inability to follow through on his 2009 executive order to close Guantanamo. It would be obscene and demoralizing if Trump’s authoritarian bullying succeeds in attaining environmentally destructive goals, while Obama’s eloquence and diplomacy failed to achieve his comparatively noble mission to close an ongoing human rights disaster.