Pipeline Permitting and the Limits of Executive Power

The tortured, roundabout, drawn-out process that led last fall to the final disapproval of the Keystone XL pipeline project was equal parts astonishing and frustrating.  After a seven-year process, in the wake of determinations clearly to the contrary by the State Department, and in the face of unambiguous Congressional support, the Administration finally disapproved of the pipeline, finding that it was not in the national interest to approve the project.  Supporters of the pipeline wondered how it could be possible that the Executive branch could have such sweeping authority to kill a private commercial project that enjoyed strong bipartisan Congressional support and which the Administration had previously supported.  The decision clearly appeared to be one based on politics, but was it also one based on legitimate Constitutional authority?   In a brief recently filed by the Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas, we join TransCanada in arguing that it was not.

In our amicus brief in TransCanada v. Kerry, we argue that the State Department’s prohibition of the pipeline violated the Constitutional separation of powers.  The Constitution explicitly grants to Congress the authority to regulate foreign commerce.  A cross-border pipeline clearly falls in the domain of foreign commerce.  While the Executive branch possesses the implied authority to regulate foreign affairs, which is oftentimes exercised collaboratively with Congress, and has relied upon that authority in this case, it does not have the authority to usurp the power of Congress to regulate commerce, particularly when Congress has clearly and repeatedly acted to demonstrate its support for construction of the pipeline.

While the President has noted that the pipeline crosses an international border, thereby implicating foreign affairs interests that fall within the realm of the implied power of the Executive, the justification offered for regulating the pipeline has nothing to do with border crossing, relations with Canada, or national security.  Rather, the President encroached on Congressional authority to regulate commerce in this case to create a helpful bargaining chip in the unrelated matter of the Paris Climate Change talks.  While this may be a legitimate political concern, it is not a permissible exercise of the foreign affairs power.

Stay tuned as this case progresses through the courts.  Not only are the specifics of the case very important, but in this era of heightened Executive branch power, the underlying separation of powers principles are equally so.

Linda Kelly

Linda Kelly

Senior Vice President and General Counsel at National Association of Manufacturers
Linda Kelly is the senior vice president and general counsel at the NAM. In addition to handling NAM’s organizational legal compliance, Ms. Kelly also oversees the work of the NAM’s Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action, directing the NAM’s litigation strategy in support of its policy objectives. Ms. Kelly is a seasoned Washington policy lawyer with more than 20 years of experience working on a diverse array of legal and public policy issues at the state, federal and international levels.
Linda Kelly

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