A Brief Chat About the Keystone Pipeline

Is the Keystone pipeline enabling our addiction to oil?

Highway and mountain
Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon / Getty Images

What is the Keystone pipeline?

The Keystone pipeline network carries oil from Canada into the United States. There are several existing segments of the pipeline, extending south from Alberta, Canada and across the U.S./Canada border to terminals in Illinois, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Segments of this pipeline network have been carrying oil into the United States since 2010.

A new extension of the pipeline, called the Keystone XL pipeline, would expand the reach of the Keystone pipeline network by adding a segment from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

The Keystone XL pipeline would also carve out a new route from Alberta to Nebraska. This extension would total over 1,700 miles of new pipeline.

Is Canada a big supplier of U.S. oil?

Yes. In fact, Canada is the single largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, providing more oil than even Saudi Arabia. Much of that oil, however, is known as "tar sands oil," a combination of clay, sand and bitumen. Bitumen is a thick, heavy black oil that needs to be heavily processed and refined to get the oil to a useable form.

Is oil from tar sands different from other oil sources?

Very different. Because tar sands -- also called oil sands -- aren't in liquid form, they can't be pumped out of the ground like other sources of oil. Instead, tar sands are mined using open-pit or strip-mining techniques. Getting the oil out of the tar sands is a more complex process, too, requiring extensive extraction, separation and refining before it can even be moved through a pipeline.

All this extra processing means that tar sands oil is more expensive to deliver and has a bigger environmental impact, with greenhouse gas emissions that are estimated to be about 20 percent greater than other oil sources.

Is that the only problem with the Keystone pipeline?

That's just one problem. A larger and thornier issue is the proposed route of the new Keystone XL pipeline, which travels directly over the Ogallala Aquifer, an enormous -- and enormously important -- underground lake of water that extends from South Dakota to Texas.

The Ogallala Aquifer provides drinking water for millions of people and irrigates a whopping 20 percent of America's agricultural harvest. An oil leak into the Ogallala would have devastating effects on residents, businesses and farmland in the Great Plains. (This NRDC report has a map of the Ogallala Aquifer and the Keystone pipeline network.)

But the Keystone pipeline would provide jobs, right?

Some jobs would certainly be created by the Keystone XL pipeline. How many jobs, and how long-lasting they would be, is the subject of an ongoing debate. TransCanada, the Canadian developer of the pipeline, estimates that the project would "create more than 20,000 high-wage manufacturing jobs and construction jobs in 2011-2012." The U.S. State Department, which is directly involved in the Keystone XL pipeline since it crosses an international border, places the number of jobs created much lower, in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 6,000 jobs.

Critics of the project, however, note that most of the jobs created are temporary jobs that would not last beyond the construction phase; the number of permanent jobs created is not expected to be more than 200 or 300 positions at most. And an analysis by the Washington Post finds that many of the jobs being hyped by supporters of the Keystone pipeline project include jobs like dancers, bartenders and hairdressers, which makes all these optimistic job estimates seem more than a little specious.

But America desperately needs to develop new sources of energy.

That's a fact that virtually everyone agrees upon. But TransCanada estimates that, if completed, the Keystone XL pipeline would provide just five percent of U.S. oil needs. That doesn't really give America a great deal of energy security, doesn't reduce our dependence on foreign oil (remember, Canada is a foreign country with its own government and its own priorities), and the Keystone pipeline won't lower prices at the pump in any meaningful way, if at all.

Critics of the project -- and there are millions of them -- note that the Keystone pipeline network will do little more than enable America's crippling addiction to oil, and further delay our development of less-polluting renewable sources of energy.

There has to be some way to address the environmental concerns.

Some efforts have been made to minimize the impact: The Republican governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman -- whose state is almost completely underlain by the Ogallala Aquifer and is utterly dependent on its water -- has insisted that the Keystone XL pipeline be rerouted to minimize the risk to Nebraska's land and water.

Even if it is rerouted, the oil industry has a miserable track record on health, safety and environmental issues. The State Department has found that the existing Keystone pipeline has already failed 14 times since it began operations in 2010 -- one of those leaks dumped 21,000 gallons of crude oil -- and the new Keystone XL pipeline could be reasonably expected to fail about two times a year each year of operation.

From the mining wastes created by strip mines and open-pit mines, to the water quality problems caused by oil leaks and pipeline failures, to the air pollution problems caused by an increase in greenhouse gases and toxic fumes, the Keystone pipeline network is fraught with real environmental hazards, both immediate and long-term.

Is that why so many people are protesting the Keystone pipeline?

Yes. Throughout 2011, thousands of people protested the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House, the Canadian parliament in Ottawa and other government offices, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

There are other political problems associated with the Keystone pipeline. The environmental impact report on the project was written by a consulting firm with a longstanding commitment to TransCanada, prompting several U.S. congressmen to call for an investigation into conflicts of interest.

Other sources have reported conflicts of interest between State Department officials and TransCanada, finding an unusual degree of support inside the department for the Keystone pipeline project. Some of these findings are related to people like Paul Elliott, now working at TransCanada. Elliott was a former campaign official with the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State who is intimately involved in the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

So where does the Keystone pipeline stand now?

It's an ongoing issue that's not likely to be resolved anytime soon. In January 2012, Barack Obama postponed a decision on approval of the Keystone pipeline extension, citing a number of factors including the time needed to do a thorough appraisal of the pipeline's environmental impact.

(The decision, for or against, might be made at some point in 2013.)

Though Obama's "kick-the-can-down-the-road" strategy may have been an election-year ploy, it set the stage for what promises to be a long and acrimonious debate over energy, jobs, governmental regulation, human health and environmental conservation.