Keystone XL pipeline (US & Canada)

Ava Rosenow

The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed massive tar oil sands transport system constructed by TC Energy, which has been the epicenter of a human and environmental rights debate since 2008. There is already one leg of the pipeline, which runs from Hardisty in Alberta, Canada, then branches off to Pakota, Illinois, and finally down to Port Arthur, Texas. The proposed controversial project is a second leg extension, meant to run from Hardisty straight to Steele City, as a shortcut. While the first section did technically have the permits and certification necessary to be completed, TC energy was able to sneak around the EPA’s thorough approval process, which would have been especially impactful given that it includes the public’s opinion. 

Many oppose the Keystone pipeline because it encourages fracking and the exploitation of our planet’s limited natural resources. This would have a detrimental effect on the environment, yet this is not even all of the damage it would cause. Installing the pipes would rip up the earth and disturb and destroy the land of many people. Arnold McKee, a horse breeder in Alberta, recounted his experience with the first leg of the pipeline to National Geographic with horror “Construction spooked three colts, who became tangled in new fences along the pipeline and died” and the trench “wafted dust for years before it healed, engulfing the ranch in dirt that…caused fatal respiratory failure in seven of his mares.” Additionally, McKee said that he has received no settlement or compensation, the company did not adequately describe what the project entailed before beginning, and they declined to listen to his requests to build in the fall to lessen the amount of dust. Just the pipeline, not even with any of the oil flowing through it, was able to cause that much damage to only one person, demonstrating the reach of its destruction had it been able to be fully completed. 

The type of oil that the pipeline was meant to carry isn’t just any normal oil, it’s tar sands from beneath the boreal forest in Alberta. Just extracting the bitumen, which is the valuable part, is environmentally costly, due to the immense amount of water that needs to heat up to melt the solid bitumen and get it to go towards the surface. This process results in rivers and streams being diverted and polluted, as well as leaving “cancer-causing chemicals… in the air, water, and local wildlife,” according to the NRDC, or the Natural Resources Defense Council. In addition to all of the flora and fauna that would be harmed if the Keystone XL project was approved, many First Nations communities live in and around the boreal, and the tar sands extraction pollution and ramifications would be severely detrimental to their ability to hunt, fish, and trap. Furthermore, “the EPA stated that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other types of crude and… the State Department…stated that the emissions could be ‘5 percent to 20 percent higher,’” meaning that the greenhouse gas impact from the pipeline would be enormous, with a massive impact on climate change.  

Another challenge that arises specifically with tar sands oil is the fact that it is “thicker, more acidic, and more corrosive” than normal crude, and it is more likely that its pipeline will leak. According to the NRDC, “between 2007 and 2010, pipelines moving tar sands oil in Midwestern states spilled three times more per mile than the U.S. national average for pipelines carrying conventional crude,” and “one incident in North Dakota sent a 60-foot, 21,000-gallon geyser of tar sands oil spewing into the air.” This issue is not just in the past, as in October 2019, more than 378,000 gallons were spilled from the current Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. Finally, once the pipeline inevitably leaks, it can be challenging to detect and clean up, given that the tar sands oil sinks to the bottom of whatever body of water it’s in. Considering the pipeline is meant to cross essential waterways like Nebraska’s Ogalla Aquifer, “which provides drinking water for millions as well as 30 percent of America’s irrigation water,” a spill would be catastrophic, as the spill in Kalamazoo Michigan.

The politics of the Keystone XL pipeline have been a back and forth battle since the extension was proposed in 2008. President Bush granted permission for the first leg of the pipeline to be built in March of 2009, much to the dismay of the many environmentalists and indigenous groups who had been pushing him hard to say no, and it started operating in 2010. In September of 2008, TC, or TransCanada, Energy filed for a permit to expand the pipeline. Environmentalists again pushed for Obama to decline the permit, in addition to the then-Governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman, as the pipeline was meant to go through the Sandhills, which is an extremely delicate ecosystem. After an environmental review done in 2013, Obama said “Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” and the State Department did another environmental impact survey, which concluded that the pipeline was fine.  However, Nebraska was still up in arms about allowing the pipeline in 2014, so the verdict was delayed. During this period many groups protested the pipeline such as the NRDC, Sierra Club, Nobel Women’s Initiative, and 10 Nobel Peace Laureates, including President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Finally, on November 6, 2015, Obama announced “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership,” and rejected the pipeline. However, once elected, President Trump reversed President Obama’s decision, and granted the permit to TC Energy for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, in addition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, despite further protests from the general public. Finally, on January 20, 2021, President Biden, re-revoked the permit, stating that “approval of the proposed pipeline would undermine U.S. climate leadership by undercutting the credibility and influence of the United States in urging other countries to take ambitious climate action,” theoretically ending the horrible project for good, though, with the pipeline’s track record, it might not necessarily stay dead. TransCanada Energy has stated that they are “reviewing the decision, assessing its implications, and considering its options.”

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