Debating the Keystone XL Pipeline

The top portion of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline connecting Hardisty and Steele City, in a map provided by TransCanada.


The Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposed $3.3 billion 875-mile pipeline project which would stretch from Alberta, Canada to oil refineries in the Gulf Coast areas of Texas and Louisiana. Its purpose would be to deliver up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil obtained from Canada’s tar sands deposits daily and would connect to the existing Keystone Cushing Extension pipeline, which extends from Steele City, Nebraska, to Cushing, Oklahoma. Proponents of the project say that it will strengthen the economy by creating jobs and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Critics of the pipeline are concerned about oil spills and see the investment better spent on developing alternative and renewable energy. It’s unclear as to when President Obama will announce his position on the pipeline, but according to the U.S. Department of State website, once the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), a preliminary review of the potential environmental impact of the pipeline, is published by the EPA, the public will have 45 days to comment on the document.  A Draft SEIS released by the Department of State earlier this month is viewable here.


According to the SEIS, the pipeline’s construction hinges on the granting of a Presidential Permit due to the fact that it crosses the border between Canada and the United States. The project’s original application was submitted by TransCanada to the U.S. Department of State in September of 2008. After much consideration, the proposed project was “found to not serve the national interest” and rejected. TransCanada re-submitted an application in May 2012 with a revised route, avoiding Nebraska’s Sand Hills area, the largest wetland ecosystem in the United States. Although the new proposal avoids the Sand Hills area, the SEIS states that that there are other points on the pipeline map, including Nebraska’s Keya Paha County, that are just as fragile.


Many supporters of the Keystone XL Pipeline assert that it will strengthen the economy and create new jobs. In the SEIS, however, it is projected that the project construction will create only 3,900 U.S. jobs for two years, and permanently employ only 35 people.


Environmentalists feel that the risks outweigh the benefits. Many believe that we are already at a tipping point regarding the Earth’s future, and drilling for tar sands oil is not the direction in which we should be heading. According to the Rainforest Action Network, tar sands “consist of heavy crude oil mixed with sand, clay and bitumen [a heavy black viscous oil]. Extraction entails burning natural gas to generate enough heat and steam to melt the oil out of the sand. As many as five barrels of water are needed to produce a single barrel of oil.”


The SEIS states that the greenhouse gases emitted from Keystone XL would amount to about 3.19 million metric tons annually, or to put it in more comprehensible terms, an amount comparable to the emissions produced by approximately 626,000 passenger vehicles operating for one year.


The cost estimates of the U.S. portion of the pipeline are approximately $3.3 billion, and construction would disturb about 15,493 acres of land, crossing “1,073 waterbodies, including 56 perennial rivers and streams, as well as approximately 25 miles of mapped floodplains.” The SEIS goes on to explain that the primary source of groundwater contamination from the proposed pipeline would be the potential releases of petroleum during pipeline operation and from fuel spills from machines and equipment.


“…[Spills could] result from many causes, including corrosion, excavation equipment, defects in materials or in construction, over-pressuring the pipeline, and geologic hazards, such as ground movement, washouts, and flooding. Although a leak detection system would be in place, some leaks might not be detected by the system.”


The SEIS admits that construction of the 36-inch diameter pipeline would likely impact eleven already endangered species, including the American Burying Beetle and the Whooping Crane, and two species that are nearing the endangered/threatened category: Sprague’s Pipit and the Greater Sage-Grouse.


In an August 2011 statement, both the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) voiced their opposition to the pipeline: “We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on tar sands oil [. . .] Many jobs could be created in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, maintaining and expanding public transportation; jobs that can help us reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and improve energy efficiency.”


For more information on the Keystone XL Pipeline, visit Public comments regarding the pipeline can be addressed to

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