FACT CHECK: Are Energy Companies Exploiting The Pandemic?


Writing in The Guardian, Bill McKibben claims that “big oil is using the coronavirus to push through the Keystone XL pipeline,” in part because states continue to enact laws protecting critical infrastructure projects, construction

“(A) series of states quickly adopted laws making it a felony to protest “critical infrastructure” like pipelines. (Last week South Dakota, a crucial link on the KXL route, made it a felony even to “incite” such protest.) And the Department of Health and Human Services issued a memorandum exempting pipeline construction from stay-at-home orders because such work was “critical” – that is, the department is asserting it is essential to build oil pipelines at the precise moment that the world is swimming in oil …”




First, let’s look at McKibben’s claim about “a series of states quickly adopted laws making it a felony to protest `critical infrastructure,’” as if the legislative activity was tied directly to the coronavirus pandemic.

States – including those enacting legislation this year – began working on protecting critical infrastructure projects long before the coronavirus even originated, let alone spreading in the United States or overseas. See our previous fact checks on such legislation over the past year: here, here, here, here, here and here, to name just a few.

McKibben is well aware of this, having tweeted about such laws here, in May 2019. But he does not highlight the actual reason why such laws are being enacted across the country: Protesters have caused significant damage to pipeline projects and placed themselves, workers, and first responders in danger with illegal, risky tactics. From Virginia to North Dakota Louisiana to Pennsylvania, protesters have set fires on public roads, set fire to machinery and use torches to cut steel valves on a pipelinechain themselves to machinery, and crawl into a pipeline, among others.

Second, he claims the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has deemed pipeline construction critical, as if it singled out the energy industry while the rest of the economy has been shut down.

The memo he cites – from the Department of Homeland Security, not HHS – covers a wide array of the economy that includes communications, commercial facilities, dams, manufacturing, home construction, emergency services, chemicals, energy, banks, food, health care, information technology, transportation and others.

And now is the exact time the United States should be doubling down on our investment in our energy infrastructure, at a time when the nation is achieving energy independence after decades of relying on foreign nations. Further, shovel-ready infrastructure investments like pipelines and LNG terminals are capital-intensive, multi-year projects that support thousands of high-skilled jobs. These jobs and economic investment should be welcomed in light of the COVID-19 economic challenges.

Strengthening the American energy market is a win-win. It puts Americans back to work and creates significant economic opportunity while improving our national security and reducing reliance on foreign actors. Policymakers shouldn’t be distracted by shortsighted claims to call off pipeline construction. They must maintain their focus on the long-term goals of strengthening American energy security while ushering in the economic benefits of a strong energy industry when we need it most.

McKibben characterizes the American energy industry as a “villain.” But shovel-ready infrastructure jobs will be vital in driving the U.S. economy forward when the pandemic ends, providing economic stimulus, supporting thousands of jobs, and ensuring American energy is safely and efficiently transported.