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The wonderful and the glorious Keystone XL pipeline

The Keystone XL pipeline has been the topic in many conversations at my place of work, especially at our Greener Club, where people discuss their environmental anxieties and offer therapy-like support to one another to help cope with distress caused by coworkers that don’t recycle, office policy against double-sided printing, and constant use of Styrofoam cups at employee arrival and departure events.   Like most of the controversial issues here in US, there are proponents eagerly arguing for prosperity of corporations and independence from oil and there are opponents, who desperately defend the environment and the future of green energy.  So, what have you heard about the Keystone XL pipeline?  Maybe that it is one of the ways we can reduce our dependency on foreign oil, maybe that it will provide jobs and boost our economy, maybe that it is not environmentally harmful as some say…  But before an individual can decide whether (s)he supports the Keystone XL pipeline, it is important to look at both sides of the equation.  For those of you who are not familiar with the history of this expansion project, here is a little sketch of how it all began.

TransCanada Keystone Pipeline filed an application in 2008 to build and operate the Keystone XL Project (expanding the previously approved Keystone pipeline) which would consist of a 1,700-mile crude oil pipeline and related facilities to transport crude oil from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta, Canada to Oklahoma and Texas.  It was estimated to cost $7 billion and could potentially transport up to 830,000 barrels per day till at least 2030.[1]  To fully fathom how much oil this is, here is a little break down.  A barrel of crude oil converts to about 41.8 US gallons.  Refineries in the USA are yielding about 49% gasoline from a barrel (about 20.5 gallons) from the mix of crudes they process (2004 data).  An average non-hybrid sedan gets around 35.7 miles per gallon (mpg) city and highway combined.[2]  Therefore, on average, a car would be able to drive 606,902,142 miles per day or 505,752 sedans driving all day at 50 miles per hour![3]  This should convince us to have our pen ready to sign, right?  Let’s look further…

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline argue that it will create 20,000 jobs in the US, strengthen US energy independence from sources in unstable and unfriendly regions of the world, and will not have a drastic effect on the environment.[4]  Yet, just thinking logically, after the pipeline is finally built those workers will no longer be needed, so those 20,000 jobs are temporary (the state department now estimates that the pipeline will only create 5,000 to 6,000 jobs in actual construction).[5]  Also, when TransCanada’s president was asked whether he would support a legislation that required this Canadian oil and products refined from it to only be sold in United States, he responded by a blunt “No”.[6]  To me this shows a definite plan for the company to sell the oil where profitable, not only in US; and although this is a totally plausible strategy for a corporation, it invalidates the argument that US energy independence will strengthen since there is no guarantee that we will be the buyers of that oil.  Now, to the effects on the environment.

The Keystone XL pipeline project proposes to transport extracted tar sands oil from Canada all the way down to Texas.  Tar sands extraction in Canada destroys Boreal forests and wetlands, causes high levels of greenhouse gas pollution, and leaves behind immense lakes of toxic waste.[7]   Although the Keystone XL pipeline is not proposing to extract, only to transport, it is by definition supporting this type of dirty energy and it does have the potential to pollute its route to Texas.  This is the reason the original route in Nebraska was rerouted – it crossed Nebraskan Sandhills, a large ecosystem, and one of the largest water reserves in the world.  If there is a small leak of any kind in a pipeline, it can affect the ecosystem around its route.  And the leaks can happen from outside forces like excavators and earthquakes, which are common in that area; they can happen from faulty valves; and even human errors and corrosion.  And because the pipeline carries diluted bitumen, there is a risk of a highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially unstable blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate spilling in communities and ecosystems.[8]  Only in May 2011, 21,000 gallons of oil leaked in North Dakota…[9]  Some researchers even argue that this pipeline will increase costs of fuel!  Let us now go into every opposing argument to understand whether any of them hold water.

Extracting oil from tar sands is a long and gruesome process.  Just to make things a little clearer, I found this great visual diagram:

Canada’s oil sands are developed using open-pit mines and processing plants that spew carbon, which lay waste to millions of acres of the Boreal forest.[10]  If Keystone XL pipeline is approved, tar sand oil extraction by open-pit mining will expand because this will be their route to export the oil from Alberta, Canada, and their incentive to extract more.  Pipeline construction itself is also vicious – cutting through indigenous communities of Canada, trenching the Bakken Shale in parts of Montana and western North Dakota, ripping through private lands in Texas.[11]  And the company is proposing to use thinner steel and pump at higher pressures than normal, which means there is even more risks of leaks![12]

Now you’re probably asking, how is it possible that this pipeline will raise the cost of fuel?  The line would create a new way to carry Canadian imports outside the Midwest and reduce an oil surplus that’s depressing prices in the central US  Canadian producers will also be able to charge more for their oil after Keystone XL is built.  So completing the entire pipeline would raise prices at the pump in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains 10 to 20 cents a gallon.[13]

Now as I step away from this heart wrenching topic, I realize something…  Wouldn’t it be better to invest in greener infrastructure and greener transportation locally and nationally?  Wouldn’t it make more sense for people to invest more in green energy?  Rather than building a pipeline, build wind farms or solar farms on those routes instead, invest in green research…  This is where our money is needed most and this is what will make US become the leader in innovation and an example for developing nations.  And if the Keystone XL pipeline is built, we will be paying for it one way or another, either in taxes or higher prices, so why not invest in something that will keep paying off into our country’s future and not until we destroy the Canadian forests and suck out all the oil possible.  Our job as US citizens is to speak out against detrimental and irreversible damage that this dirty fuel represents and speak for what makes sense.

Here is where you can speak your voice against tar sands oil extraction and the Keystone XL pipeline:

You can also call the White House and urge Pres. Obama to reject the pipeline. It’s best to call during regular business hours (M – F, 9 am – 5 pm EST). Click below for a number and a script to call:

And if you are in Washington, D.C. for a few days between August 20th – September 3rd, consider joining the historic sit-in outside the White House, and risking arrest in peaceful protest, to make sure we have President Obama’s attention. Learn more and sign up to become a part of the sit-in here:

[3] 830,000bbl * 41.8gal * 49% * 35.7mpg = 606,902,142mi