There are a lot of big numbers and a lot of lofty rhetoric swirling around the media this week, and they all concern the Keystone XL pipeline. At this stage, it’s very likely that Congress will approve its construction and it’s equally likely that President Obama will veto it. So why does KXL matter?
It matters because both opponents and supporters of the pipeline are spinning this story, and the facts are as apt to get lost in the spin cycle as your left sock. So let’s get into the dirty laundry.
What Is the Keystone XL?
For a thorough breakdown of what the KXL is, where it comes from and what it does, I recommend revisiting my interview with Art Tanderup, a Nebraska farmer whose land is directly in the path of the proposed pipeline. Mr. Tanderup is opposed to the KXL on the grounds that it could potentially devastate not only his farm but also one of the largest freshwater resources in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer, which sits underneath eight states and provides irrigation for farmers throughout the Midwest and the High Plains.
To give you a crash course in the KXL: It is an extension to the current Keystone pipeline that would add 1,700 new miles of pipe between Canada and the U.S. and transport Canadian crude from Alberta to the Gulf coast of Texas. Its maximum payload would be about 830,000 barrels of oil per day. That oil would come in the form of what’s known as oil sands or tar sands, the thickest kind of crude, which unlike lighter crudes does not float on water.
Its heaviness is what has farmers like Tanderup concerned for the Ogallala Aquifer. If the pipeline leaked – and many of them do – the tar sands would sink through the soft Nebraskan soil and contaminate the aquifer. There would be no way to clean it out.
Environmentalists and those worried about climate change oppose the KXL on the grounds that tar sands mining emits an estimated 17 percent more greenhouse gases than traditional oil drilling, in part due to the higher heat required to separate the bitumen from the sand. In addition, a 2014 study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute found that the pipeline would increase global carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 110 million tons per year – four times more than the U.S. State Department claimed in its environmental impact report.
It must be said, however, in the interest of presenting a balanced report, that even 110 million tons is 0.25 percent of how much carbon the planet pumped into the atmosphere in 2014 (44 billion tons). Therefore, environmental opposition to the pipeline must be seen as part of a larger movement to phase out the use of fossil fuels by 2100. Doing so would help keep overall global temperature rise below the perilous 2℃ threshold.
But What About the Jobs?
Recently, this has become the central focus of the KXL debate: How many jobs it will create for America.
This may have to do with the fact that oil prices are currently hovering around $50 per barrel. Are we approaching the end of the oil era, as Dennis Gartman predicted back in October? That remains to be seen, but it’s relevant because a State Department analysis of the KXL noted that if oil prices were to drop to $75/bbl, the costs associated with Canadian oil sands might make the pipeline financially untenable.
“Tar sands only makes sense in a world of high oil prices,” Anthony Swift, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told InsideClimateNews. “We’re in a world where cheap transportation by pipeline makes or breaks even the cheapest tar sands project.”
So, with oil prices down and staying down for the immediate future, KXL proponents are trying to sell the pipeline on how many jobs it will create.
The number that gets touted most often is 42,000. This is how many jobs the pipeline would create according to the U.S. State Department’s report (the actual number is approximately 42,100). However, like most things in politics, the nuances of a statistic are the first things to be scraped off when carving out a juicy soundbite.
How long will those 42,000 jobs last? Diving deeper into the State Department’s report, the bulk of the KXL jobs would exist for four- to eight-month periods and the majority of them would be seasonal and construction-related. In actuality, some 3,900 jobs would be created that lasted more than a year.
In fact, when all is said and done and the $7.6 billion project is completed after two years, the State Department reports that a total of 35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors would be left.
And this makes perfect sense. Obviously the KXL will require thousands of men and women to build it, but you’re not going to keep them on the payroll once the pipeline is built.
“There’s very few jobs operating pipelines,” Ian Goodman, president of the Goodman Group Ltd., an energy and economic consulting firm in Berkeley, California, told PolitiFact. “That’s one of the reasons why pipelines are attractive to the oil industry. They’re relatively inexpensive to build and operate.”
So bear this in mind when Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) appears on Meet the Press and tells the host that President Obama will have to make a choice between environmental extremism and the economy. As Barrasso states in the video below, “[Obama’s] own State Department said it’s 42,000 new jobs. This is a good infrastructure project supported widely across the United States. He’s going to have to decide between jobs and the extreme supporters of not having the pipeline.”
Here’s the really interesting thing, though. Last year, The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump pointed out that, even if the KXL did create 42,000 lasting jobs, it would still be a normal week for the U.S. economy.
“So far this year,” Bump wrote in November 2014, “the economy has added 229,000 jobs per month on average. If you look at the numbers weekly, the economy has added nearly 50,000 jobs for each of 2014’s 46 weeks.”
When you look it at it that way, Bump continued, “[e]ven if the 42,000 figure were hard, fast, and long-term, the effect on the national economy would still be modest. But that figure isn’t hard, fast, or long-term.”
Regarding the 50 long-term employees the pipeline will actually create, Bump wrote, “The economy has added that many jobs in 2014 every 10 minutes and 9 seconds.”
Who’s Buying? Who’s Selling?
On Thursday, the Senate sent a bill authorizing the KXL’s construction to the House of Representatives, which will vote on it Friday.
Republican senators tried to pass the bill last year but it fell one vote short of passage. Now that Republicans are in charge of both houses of Congress, they’ve made passing the Keystone one of their top priorities, along with dismantling the EPA.
But all of this is probably moot. President Obama first implied that he wouldn’t approve a KXL bill during an appearance on the Colbert Report in early December. In late December, he was slightly less opaque on his intentions:
“I haven’t used the veto pen very often since I’ve been in office, partly because legislation that I objected to was typically blocked in the Senate even after Republicans took over the House,” Obama said in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “Now I suspect there are going to be some times where I’ve got to pull that pen out.”
“And I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made in healthcare; I’m going to defend gains that we’ve made on environment and clean air and clean water.”
On Tuesday, the White House stopped being coy. “If this bill passes this Congress,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, “the president wouldn’t sign it.”
Of course this hasn’t stopped Republicans from moving forward anyway or for conservative pundits like Fox and Friends reporter Anna Kooiman from telling the President, “if you would just approve the Keystone XL pipeline, there would be tens of thousands of jobs created.”
Ms. Kooiman is technically correct. The Keystone XL would create tens of thousands of jobs. For about a year. And then those jobs would be gone.
“The Congressional aquifer and climate deniers need to swallow their pride and greed to do what is right for this country,” said Art Tanderup.
In an interview with Planet Experts, Tanderup said he was pleased that the President has stated he will veto any KXL legislation. “Not only does KXL threaten our water and land, it accelerates climate change. […] Farmers, ranchers and Native Americans are standing up to keep the pressure on our elected officials. We are calling and writing Congress. Over 750 ‘veto pens’ have been sent to the President by BOLD Nebraska supporters.”
The KXL legislation will likely be signed by the House tomorrow and President Obama will likely veto it as soon as it hits his desk. Either way, however, this will be a win for the Republican party. If the KXL is built, they can say they passed legislation that created jobs and brought oil into the country. If the KXL is vetoed, they can spend the next two years telling Americans that Obama cost the country 42,000 jobs.