As a string of infrastructure projects hits the buffers, America’s oil and gas industry is facing up to an uncomfortable new reality: the era of building big new pipelines has probably come to an end.
Joe Biden moved quickly last week to cancel the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline, delivering on a campaign promise to curb emissions and put the clamps on the oil and gas industry’s growth.
Days later, a federal court in Washington ruled against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), another high-profile project that has been fiercely opposed by both native American and environmental groups. The judge said it needed a new environmental review, putting another big oil infrastructure decision on Mr Biden’s desk.
Suddenly, America’s oil and gas operators are realising that building new pipes — the crucial plumbing of their business — has become much more difficult.
“I think the days of the mega gas pipeline or oil pipeline projects are probably behind us,” said Jim Bowe, a partner at King & Spalding, a law firm that advises oil companies.
DAPL, which entered service in 2017, certainly appears vulnerable. Activists are urging the Biden administration to take the unprecedented step of shutting the pipeline and emptying it out while that environmental review is being carried out.
Jan Hasselman, lead counsel to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that is fighting the pipeline in court, tweeted after the ruling: “ Shut. It. Down.”
The industry argues such a move would carry environmental risks of its own and simply push crude on to less safe rail wagons to get to refineries. But some analysts say the Biden administration can order project operator Energy Transfer to start suspending operations in the coming days.
“I think Dakota Access gets shut down,” said Christi Tezak, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, noting that such a move would be consistent with Mr Biden’s position when he was vice-president and when the Obama administration opposed the project in 2016.
Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Mr Biden’s nominee for interior secretary and the first native American put forward for a cabinet role, joined demonstrations against the project at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in 2016, even serving green chilli and tortillas in a show of support for the protesters.
The recent setbacks for those projects come after months of grim headlines for the industry.
In July last year, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, two leading US utilities, ditched the $8bn Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, which would have moved natural gas out of the booming Marcellus gasfields in Pennsylvania. They blamed a protracted legal fight with environmental groups that led to long delays and soaring costs for killing the project.
The state of New York rejected a proposed pipeline in May that would have brought shale gas into the region, saying it ran counter to efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
It has been a jarring reversal of fortunes from the previous decade when soaring oil and gas production fuelled tens of billions of dollars in investment to expand the pipeline system. The network of natural gas and liquid fuel pipelines now spans more than 2.6m miles, enough to stretch around the earth more than 100 times.
Four years of Donald Trump, who tore up environmental rules to promote more fossil fuel production, did not help in the way the industry had hoped. His support even backfired in many cases in which rushed environmental reviews were shot down in the courts.
Mr Bowe expects a “much more rigorous” approach to pipelines than under the Trump administration amid the push towards renewables. Projects built within fossil fuel friendly states such as Texas, which do not have the same level of federal oversight as cross-state pipelines, would have an easier time, he added.
After Keystone XL was axed, officials in Canada are nervously watching the fate of Enbridge’s Line 3 and Line 5 projects, two pipeline expansions to ship more oil from the contentious oil sands in northern Alberta into the US.
State regulators in Michigan and elsewhere will decide the fate of the lines.
But Alberta’s premier told the Financial Times he was worried that Mr Biden’s domestic climate tsar, Gina McCarthy — who like Ms Haaland previously joined anti-pipeline protests — could sink those projects as well.
Natural gas pipelines are suffering too. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project led by producer EQT that aims to carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia, has been forced by the new Biden-appointed regulators to rethink part of its permitting strategy.
MVP is already more than 90 per cent built, but analysts say the new permitting requirements will delay it by at least six months. NextEra, which has a stake in the project, took a $1.2bn impairment on the project in the fourth quarter, citing delays and rising costs.
Ms Tezak argues that “navigating a more robust regulatory process” under the Biden administration might end up working in the project’s favour.
More scrutiny from the start could mean the permits hold up better in the courts, she argues, adding that the lax and expedited approach taken by the Trump administration often left permits vulnerable to legal challenges.
But the difficulties getting projects approved, coupled with heightened climate concerns, has many asking if MVP could prove to be the last big pipeline to be built across state lines in the US.
“That one might be the last one for quite some time,” said Ms Tezak.