A section of BP's Trans-Alaska oil pipeline

A section of BP’s Trans-Alaska oil pipeline

Earlier this month, a measure that would have ensured the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate, falling one vote short of the sixty vote majority needed to win its approval. With the support of Republicans and some Democrats, the bill passed in the House of Representatives but would likely have been vetoed by President Obama had it been approved .

The pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day – extracted from northern Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico – has become a focal point in the debate over whether the United States will respond to the threat of climate change or whether the fossil fuel industry will be enabled to continue extracting its product from increasingly extreme and environmentally perilous sources. The stakes are high both politically and economically, and so far Obama has taken a cautious approach towards the pipeline, which requires a presidential permit to cross the Canadian border.

TransCanada, together with the oil industry, has engaged in a public relations war over the project. Documents leaked last week to Greenpeace (drafted at TransCanada’s behest by Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm) outline a strategy aimed at discrediting critics of the Keystone XL, including the use of third-party proxies to undermine scientists and environmental campaigners.

“TransCanada spokesmen have said they hadn’t implemented the third-party strategy,” Canada’s CBC reported, “although some of Edelman’s advice is in play. The company will collect publicly available information on its opponents and has started an extensive social media campaign.”

TransCanada is not alone in pushing for the Keystone XL’s approval. As the documents note, Edelman has managed similar campaigns in support of the Keystone XL for the American Petroleum Institute — to the tune of $51,917,692.

Lacking the funds at the disposal of fossil fuel corporations, opponents of Keystone XL have protested and been arrested by the thousands through acts of civil disobedience targeting TransCanada, the project’s investors (TD Bank, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase), and the State Department, which is currently reviewing public comments on the pipeline.

And the battle over the Keystone XL promises to intensify in 2015.

Supporters of the pipeline in Congress have received a combined total of $89.2 million from fossil fuel companies and have vowed to make green-lighting the Keystone XL a top priority this January. Undisclosed White House sources have indicated that Obama would be willing to strike a deal with Congress on the pipeline if it allows him to proceed with other aspects of his climate change agenda, including emissions curbs at coal-fired power plants.

“Sources close to the White House say Obama believes that both pipeline opponents and proponents have exaggerated the significance of their claims about the pipeline, turning it into a political symbol,”  Reuters reported on November 19.

Few on either side of the pipeline debate would contend that the battle over the Keystone XL is a struggle over political power between the environmental movement and the multi-billion dollar oil industry, but just who is exaggerating what?

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s in the Keystone XL

Maude Barlow, the former UN Special Advisor on Water, has likened the terrain in Alberta where the oil is extracted  — originally boreal forest and wetlands — to Mordor, the fictional hell-scape in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. In open pit mines spanning across thousands of acres or through steam injection wells hollowed into crevices of deforested earth, each day oil companies harvest tens of thousands of tons of tar sands, a silty mixture of sand, clay, and oil. Roughly 370 million cubic meters of water are drained from Canada’s Athabaska River every year to process bitumen from open pit mines and to produce the steam that liquifies underground tar sands deposits before it can be pumped to the surface.

Oil sands - © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Oil sands – © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

Large quantities of natural gas go into producing tar sands oil, as well. Data compiled by the Post Carbon Institute finds that tar sands has an energy return on investment (EROI) ratio of approximately five to one through open pit mining and of 2.9:1 utilizing steam. In other words, for every unit of tar sands oil extracted through steam injections, an energy equivalent of more than a third of that amount in natural gas goes into capturing it. Conventional oil, by contrast has an EROI of 20:1.

Climate Change

A report published in September by the Carbon Tracker Initiative finds that by intensifying tar sands extraction the Keystone XL will add 181 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, – equal, researchers cautioned, to the emissions of 51 new coal-fired power plants.

John Abraham, a professor of thermal and fluid sciences with the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota, estimates that if all the oil located in Alberta were burned, it alone would heat the planet 0.4 degrees Celsius. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that the planet has warmed just 0.8 C since the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago and we are already experiencing an uptick in floods, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather events.

Writing in the New York Times in 2012, James Hansen, formerly with NASA’s Goddard Institute and one of the first scientist to start ringing climate alarm bells when he testified before Congress on the threat of global warming in 1989, painted the threat posed by Alberta’s tar sands oil in even starker terms.

“If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now,” wrote Hansen. “That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Jobs and Gas

But for some, the future collapse of civilization is dwarfed by more immediate concerns: employment and the price of gasoline. Downplaying the climate emissions associated with the Keystone XL and tar sands production, the pipeline’s supporters have portrayed it as an economic lifesaver for the struggling U.S. economy.

Commentators on the Fox News network have variously claimed the pipeline will create between 50,000 and a million jobs. House Speaker, Republican John Boehner has suggested the pipeline will deliver 100,000.

On November 16, two days ahead of the Senate vote, TransCanada CEO Russ Girling assured viewers of ABC”s This Week the project would spawn 42,000 “ongoing, enduring” positions. Indeed, the State Department, in a review the Keystone XL’s environmental and economic impacts released in January came to the same conclusion but, as This Week host Martha Raddatz accurately pointed out, those figures only pertain to jobs lasting one year. The pipeline itself, Girling conceded, would only employ about 50 people.

A previous study from the Cornell Global Labor Institute published in 2011 found that the Keystone XL “will create no more than 2,500-4,650 temporary direct construction jobs for two years, according to TransCanada’s own data supplied to the State Department.” The study also warned that the majority of steel used in the project will likely arrive from overseas and that the pipeline will actually raise the price of gas, offsetting and even surpassing its potential economic benefits because the Keystone XL will divert oil from consumers in the Midwest to processing plants in the Gulf Coast and onto foreign markets where it will fetch a higher price.

With U.S. oil production at a 21-year high and yielding oil of a finer quality than what Alberta has to offer, the “Keystone XL would better serve China’s energy ‘independence’ than America’s,” Brad Wieners wrote at Bloomberg Businessweek.

The KXL's path over the Ogallala Aquifer (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

The KXL’s path over the Ogallala Aquifer (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

The Pipeline’s Path

Further detracting from any potential economic stimulus the Keystone XL could provide, refineries and transport facilities in Texas and Louisiana will have to upgrade in order to manage the Canadian bitumen coming their way. They are slated to receive generous taxpayer subsidies in order to do so. In one illustrative example provided by Wieners, “Houston-based Motiva, which operates major storage facilities and scores of Shell gas stations…is slated to receive between $680 million and $1.1 billion from U.S. taxpayers so it can deal with tar sands oil.”

As the Keystone XL makes its way to the Gulf Coast it will pass through the Ogallala Aquifer, which irrigates approximately 13 million acres of farmland and serves as a source of drinking water to two million people in eight states from North Dakota to Texas.

A 2013 Congressional report warned that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration generally lacks the capacity to monitor and regulate the existing 500,000 miles of oil and gas pipeline under its charge, employing a measly 135 inspectors. The report specifically cites a 2010 incident in which a TransCanada pipeline spewed one million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River as an example of what can go wrong given the U.S.’s lack of pipeline’s oversight. The fact that the Keystone XL will be carrying tar sands oil at an even greater volume than any pipeline before it has farmers, ranchers, and indigenous tribes in the Keystone XL’s path up in arms.


Nearly 100,000 people have signed an online pledge committing themselves to non-violent civil disobedience prior to the final verdict on the Keystone XL from the president. Whether or not Obama allows the pipeline to cross into the U.S. may still be up in the air, but there is certainly one border it will not be crossing.

Earlier this month when the House of Representatives voted to approve the Keystone XL, Cyril Scott, president of the Rosebud-Sioux nation near North Dakota where the pipeline is due to travel, called the vote a declaration of war.

“We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL,” Scott said in a statement. “Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.”

Given the climate and other ecological perils associated with the project, the pipeline’s approval could be construed as a declaration of war against us all.

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3 Responses

  1. guest says:

    This Pipeline will have no effect what so ever on this planet

  2. I B CHOUDHARY says:

    I am not sure about the environmental damage that it may cause, but sure it may bring lot of oil to the supply stream. I don't see a substitute, a sustainable, affordable substitute to fossil fuels, at least for next couple of decades. So let us exploit these resources, and at the same time develop technologies to decarbonise these sources. And by the way, the contention that oil has an EROI OF 20:1 perhaps no longer holds. The cherry picking days are over now, oil and gas are now found in locales which are technologically and commercially very challenging.

  3. Guest says:

    When will the infringement of other countries stop? The Rosebud-Sioux even threatened war. Why should we keep investing in this unsustainable and drastically non-environmental resource too?

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