The Keystone XL pipeline has become a hot topic lately.


So what’s the big fuss about?  The Canadian company TransCanada has proposed a 1,700-mile pipeline to bring Northern Alberta tar sands oil across the United States to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.  The oil industry and Canadian officials are strongly committed to this $6 billion dollar project, promoting it’s a slam dunk for U.S. jobs and energy security.  Not so fast, counters diverse opposition insisting the pipeline is not in America’s best interests upon taking a closer look.  I happen to agree and here’s why (including a few local impacts).  


Top 10 Reasons why the Keystone XL Pipeline is a BAD DEAL


Export Motive

Courtesy of NRDC

It is often overlooked that the Keystone pipeline would NOT be dedicated to supply oil for the US.  In fact, TransCanada has refused the condition that the pipeline’s oil be used only in the US.  The purpose of Keystone is to provide a pathway for Canadian oil to the world market.  Currently, 97% of Canada’s oil exports are pipelined to US refineries in the Midwest.  Keystone would redirect Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, opening access to international buyers.  Selling this commodity in the global marketplace would command a higher price and maximize oil industry profits.  Canada has made no secret about their interest in expanding oil production and diversifying their energy markets.  As it is now, Alberta’s tar sands are landlocked and TransCanada faces difficulty in building a pipeline to its own western coasts for exportation due to Canadian public opposition and First Nations roadblocks.  For a much fuller explanation see Keystone XL: Undermining US Energy Security and Sending Tar Sands Overseas.


Higher Midwest Gas Prices

Most people may not realize that the Keystone pipeline will actually drive UP local gas prices by bypassing Midwest and Chicago refineries.  Tar sands producers are interested in redirecting Canadian crude to the tax-free Foreign Trade Zone in Port Arthur, Texas.  Not only would the pipeline allow oil producers to sell to international buyers at higher prices, but also avoid taxes.  Economist Philip Verleger noted last spring that KXL pipeline would drive up gas prices by 10 or 20 cents a gallon in the Midwest.  Reports from Corporate Ethics International and Plains Justice concur that overbuilt pipeline capacity, expensive tar sands production, and global energy markets will lead to higher prices.  Even TransCanada has acknowledged that KXL would increase the cost of Canadian crude by more than $6 per barrel in the Midwest market, increasing the price paid by the market between $2 billion and $3.9 billion a year.  While lucrative to the oil industry, the KXL pipeline would hurt the pocketbooks of local consumers.


Energy Security

Importing oil from a friendly neighbor is no cure against price spikes and oil shortages in global energy markets.  In terms of avoiding “unethical” imported oil, a 2010 analysis commissioned by the Department of Energy concluded that eliminating Middle East crude imports longer term would have little to do with the Keystone XL.  Furthermore, retired Brigadier General Steven Anderson wrote in an op ed the KXL pipeline “would move dirty oil from Canada to refineries in Texas and would set back our renewable energy efforts for at least two decades, much to our enemies’ delight.  It would ensure we maintain our oil addiction and delay making the tough decisions regarding energy production, management and conservation that we need to start making today.”  Energy security can only be achieved by reducing our dependence on oil.


Overstated Jobs

TransCanada, the American Petroleum Institute and other pipeline proponents have repeatedly claimed KXL project will create from 20,000 to 200,000 American jobs.  Upon further examination, a Cornell study concluded these job estimates are unsubstantiated and KXL will not only create fewer jobs than industry states, but could actually kill more jobs than it creates.  The State Department estimates that KXL would generate at most 6,000 temporary construction jobs, and very few would be local hires.


The BEST Keystone XL pipeline video I’ve seen!  Bill McKibben sets Steven Colbert straight about killing “billions of jobs.”


Climate Consequences

NASA climate scientist James Hanson has stated “the tar sands pipeline will be game over for our planet.”  Environmentalist Bill McKibben described Keystone as “a 1,700-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent.”  The problem is the production of tar sands oil releases three times more carbon into the atmosphere than traditional oil. The consumption of tar sands oil will accelerate climate instability and offset gains from efficiency measures.  We are in no position to ramp up greenhouse gas emissions, especially when we  experiencing the warmest average global temperatures ever.   Our more frequent 100-year storms and balmy winter highlights how the weather is not quite right.  In December, the International Energy Agency warned the world is heading toward irreversible climate change and we need to take bold action in the next five years.


Environmental Impacts

The Sierra Club calls tar sands oil the most toxic fossil fuel on the planet.  Moving this hazardous material across the county puts farms, ranches, communities and aquifers at risk of oil spill contamination.  Sen. Ben Nelson summed up a major concern, “Upon crossing into Nebraska, the pipeline would run through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer which provides the drinking water for two million people and supports $20 billion in agriculture.”

environmental impacts of tar sands

Top: The Athabasca Delta is a critical migratory bird habitat at risk from toxic waste of tar sands mining upstream. Below: Syncrude tar sands open mine pit. Photos by David Dodge/The Pembina Institute.

In Canada, the oil industry is devastating hundreds of thousands of acres in Alberta’s pristine Boreal Forest to extract tar sands crude, by clear-cutting the ancient forest, strip mining the soil beneath it and leaving behind giant toxic lakes that are linked to cancer clusters in neighboring communities.  Boreal forests and wetlands provide critical habitat for caribou, wolves, grizzlies, 50 percent of North America’s migratory birds and other species.  Furthermore, deforestation accelerates global warming, since the forest serves as a carbon sink and keeps vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Inadequate Pipeline Safety Regulations
NRDC map showing existing and proposed oil pipelines

Notice the existing Enbridge oil pipelines going through Illinois. Map from NRDC.

An NRDC report shows that tar sands oil is more corrosive, more prone to spills and more difficult to clean up than conventional oil.  The consistency of tar sands (or DilBit) is similar to sandy peanut butter.  Moving this heavy, abrasive, corrosive mass requires high heat and pressure, which may weaken pipelines and lead to hazardous spills.  The existing Keystone pipeline already experienced 14 spills since June 2010 and a former Keystone inspector called it “a Deepwater Horizon disaster waiting to happen.”  The EPA is still cleaning up the July 2010 Kalamazoo River tar sands spill in Michigan over a year later.  Unfortunately, pipelines are still designed for conventional crude and no regulations specific to handling DilBit exist.  New rules are needed to adequately address corrosion, leak detection and spill response for tar sands oil.  Before rushing to approve extensive infrastructure across the nation, we need to make sure we are protecting farmland, wildlife habitat and critical water resources.  Also, keep in mind tar sands oil is already flowing to two Illinois refineries.


Intense Grassroots Opposition

Millions of Americans have voiced their disapproval of the Keystone pipeline from farmers and ranchers along KXL’s proposed route, scientists, public health officials, religious leaders, Native Nations, organized labor, elected officials and all major environmental groups. Thousands of people have voiced their opposition at public hearings.  In summer 2011, over 1,250 people were arrested in front of the White House opposing the pipeline.  As a follow up, over 12,000 people encircled the White House to stop the pipeline permit in November 2011 (to read about my first hand account, see December 2011 post SPEAK YOUR MIND) .


McKibben getting arrested at summer Keystone Pipeline protest

At the 11/6 DC rally, Nobel Laureate Jody Williams reminded us to “listen to people getting arrested” for civil disobedience. Photo credit: Shadia FayneWood



Flawed State Department Review 

Before issuing a permit, the State Department is responsible for reviewing the economic, environmental and safety impact of the pipeline and ensuring it is in America’s best interests. However, serious questions have been raised about the State Department’s objectivity.  In October 2011, members of Congress requested that the inspector general investigate possible abuses.  Concerns include the alleged conflict of interest for the consulting company Cardo Entrix that conducted the State’s environmental assessment.  Several drafts of the environmental impact statements have been criticized by the EPA, members of Congress and environmental groups for inadequately addressing pipeline safety, alternatives to the pipeline, alternative routes that would avoid the Ogallala aquifer, climate impacts and other issues.  Significant flaws in the review process need to be addressed before making a permit decision.



Undermining of  Clean Energy Future & Jobs

The Keystone pipeline deepens America’s dependence on pipelines and tar sands oil.  As NRDC states, we can keep America moving without the hazards of heavy crude.  We need sound policy and investment that encourages fuel efficiency in cars, trucks and planes, sustainably grown bio-fuels, electric vehicle infrastructure and smart growth.  Currently, the Obama administration plans to set a new average fuel-economy standard of 54.5 mpg for cars and trucks by 2030.  This can save 1.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2030 – or more than twice the amount of oil the Keystone pipeline would deliver.  Consumer and environmental groups, as well as auto manufacturers and labor unions support these new standards.  Moving America beyond oil and toward greener transportation will fuel lasting and local jobs.  Nurturing the emerging clean energy industries will also help the U.S. stay competitive internationally.



Imagine what it takes to push heavy tar sands through a pipe.  This NRDC video summarizes why the Keystone pipeline is not in our country’s best interests.



Pushback & Forth…

Within a week of the November 2011 pipeline protest at the White House, the Obama Administration rejected the State Department’s environmental impact review and sent the entire project back for another year of analysis.  TransCanada responded by stating it would relocate the controversial pipeline route away from the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area and Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska.  One month later, Congressional Republicans added a rider to the payroll tax cut forcing the President to make a final permit decision by February, 2012.  Shorty afterward, Obama denied the controversial project.  He stated the rejection was not based on the merits of the pipeline, but on the rushed and arbitrary deadline that prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact to protect Americans, especially when an alternate Nebraska route had not yet been identified.  Despite political attacks and an intense misinformation campaign, there is ample and compelling justification to stop Keystone XL on the merits.


The battle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is NOT over.  Transcanada and Congressional Republicans are working hard to resurrect the failed pipeline proposal through overriding the Obama Administration in backdoor legislative attempts.  Just this week, Senate Republicans are trying to attach approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to passage of a transportation bill under debate.  Environmental groups are urging Senators not to approve the pipeline with an online grassroots campaign, over 780,000 e-mails within 24 hours were sent to the Senate  (***you can help too by visiting NoTarSands).  House Republicans are also working on a bill to revive the pipeline within 30 days.  Whatever the outcome, the Keystone pipeline will surely be a prominent wedge issue the 2012 election cycle.  The American Petroleum Institute warned Obama he would face “huge political consequences” if he didn’t approve the project.  So far, the oil lobby has put their money where their mouth is.  The 234 Congress members that voted “aye” to expedite the pipeline in December had accepted $42 million from the fossil fuel industry.  Despite Big Oil’s might, pipeline opponents are determined to fight on until Keystone is permanently nixed.




Thanks especially to Susan Casey-Levkowitz, from the NDRC Washington DC office, who closely follows this issue.


Shame on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs for their cheeky comments and unwavering support of the pipeline. Really, KXL will lead to over 600,000 American jobs??? Agreed, energy and environmental matters are serious issues that “grains of truth and simplistic analysis” won’t help.