STOP Keystone XL!

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Say No, Obama

Today, concerned citizens led by environmentalists from, Sierra Club, Greenpeace US, etc., will rally in Washington D.C. to protest the President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Just a year ago, President Obama denied TransCanada, a Canadian oil and gas company, permission to build a 1700 mile stretch of underground pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, on the basis that it needed to fully assess both health and environmental impacts of the project. Two months ago, TransCanada resubmitted its proposal providing an alternative route for its pipeline, one that “minimize(s) the disturbance of land and sensitive resources” in Nebraska. By early next year, President Obama will make his final decision regarding this permit, and this time, pundits predict, he won’t have a compelling reason to stop Keystone XL.

The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse seven Mid-western states, crossing sensitive ecosystems. Environmentalists fear toxic spills from the pipeline into waterways and habited land. In 2010, over a million gallons of diluted bitumen, a mix of tar sands bitumen and liquid chemicals, spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River due to a leaking Canadian pipeline. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is not only far more difficult to clean up than traditional oil, but it contains chemical additives, increasing its toxicity. In fact, it has been over two years and the cleanup of the Kalamazoo river system is still incomplete. Environmentalists worry about excess amounts of waste water generated during tar sands’ extraction process. They worry about the environmental injustices against Canadian indigenous populations and against Americans residing along the pipeline. But the biggest concern for environmentalists is increasing our dependence on a nonrenewable energy source that releases 3x  more CO2 emissions than crude oil. Although President Obama’s Copenhagen pledges for carbon emission reduction were not passed by Congress, his policies for supporting developments in natural gas, high fuel efficiency standards, and other emission reduction technologies did nonetheless put us on track for achieving those targets. But if he approves Keystone XL, we backtrack on the progress made on carbon emission reductions. Based on a report by the Canadian environmental ministry, by 2020, greenhouse gases from the oil and gas sector will have increased by one third of 2005 levels due to the extraction of tar sands, despite other reductions.

Despite the wake-up call from Hurricane Sandy, with no currently effective national climate change policy, President Obama likely will not deny Keystone XL on the basis of carbon emission reductions. Duke Professor and former American Diplomat Stephen R. Kelly argues that Keystone XL pipeline should be approved as it will increase our energy security. But the U.S has significantly decreased its reliance on “unstable” oil in the past decade, from 27% of our oil imports coming from the Persian Gulf in 1993 to just 18% in 2010. In fact, for the first time since 1949, U.S became a net exporter of oil. And with its domestic oil and natural gas production, U.S is on the path to becoming “the world’s top energy producer by 2020”. So regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved or not, we have firmly secured our energy resources. Moreover, misconceptions that Keystone XL pipeline will reduce American oil prices due to increased oil supply available to U.S consumers continue to be circulated. However, allowing Canadian private companies supply access through the U.S does not equate to American rights to that oil. If profitable to export its oil to other foreign markets like China’s, now accessible through the Gulf, Canadian oil companies will rightly do so.

Move forward

Arguments for and against Keystone XL have been played out in the past, in the 1960s over the Trans-Alaska pipeline and then in the 1990s over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Environmentalists’ rhetoric stresses health and environmental damage while industrialists depict it as critical for the economy and decreasing foreign energy dependency. But this time, rather than debating over these repeatedly unresolved arguments, we need to raise alarm on the implications of Keystone XL. Keystone XL sets a major precedent on how our nation will address climate change moving forward. Despite numerous bills issued in Congress, there remains a perpetual gridlock on the passage of any substantial climate change policy.We’ve only begun to realize that we need to take a whole different approach to reducing our GHG emissions. For example, President Obama’s CAFE standards have been major successful climate change initiatives under the pretense of “reducing our dependence on foreign oil”. Framing climate change measures under energy policy, by improving energy efficiency or investing in renewable sources, might just be our saving grace. But if President Obama signs the Keystone XL permit, he in effect curtails most arguments for investing in costly but necessary renewable projects. If passed, we get on the path that divests resources away from renewable energy, delaying critical carbon-free solutions. To keep moving forward as a nation in regards to reducing our impact on the global climate and our future, we must first to stop Keystone XL.



  1. Dhrusti, I agree with you that our current policies are delaying the development and use of renewable energy sources, but I’m not sure that stopping the Keystone XL will do much to promote the use of “critical carbon-free solutions.” I think before renewable sources become widely used, the United States must reach a point where supplies of fossil fuels become so limited that the market reaches a point where renewable sources can compete economically with fossil fuel sources. Unfortunately, I believe the US will explore and extract all possible fossil fuel options, and extracting and transporting oil via tar sands in Canada through the Keystone XL pipeline is inevitable. Hopefully, potential risks to the environment and human health will delay the construction of the pipeline long enough for renewable energy to become more widely used, and the construction of the pipeline will no longer be necessary.

  2. If the Keystone XL pipeline is indeed constructed, what will happen if/when a leak occurs? A pipeline through sensitive ecosystems of seven U.S. states is a political and environmental recipe for disaster if such a catastrophic event were to occur. Would the Canadian government be liable, or would the clean-up fall on the shoulder of the state governments? Even if Canada paid damages, would it be the US EPA and workers that have to take the time to clean up the spill? If the Canadian regulations for what is considered ‘cleaned up’ are looser than the US’s, would they only be liable to restore the damaged ecosystems to their standards? I do not believe it is acceptable to harm ecosystems (and human lives) in US territory to construct a foreign pipeline that we won’t even necessarily be receiving oil from.

  3. This is a huge decision for Obama in the near future, but I am failing to understand why we would pursue canadian construction of this pipeline. It would benefit the Canadians far more than it would benefit us while we would be the country bearing the brunt of the environmental impacts. I suppose part of the deal must be US special access to these resources but I still fail to see a significant argument of how this would substantially benefit the US. The one argument in this article that I would question is that it would increase our dependence on non-renewables. I understand how it could decrease our use of renewables but I do not believe that is equated with increasing our dependence on oil.

  4. When it comes to energy availability and security, local is the way to go. The more the US relies on domestic sources of fuel, be they fossil or renewable, the less political leverage we give to the nations that control our international sources of energy. In addition to security incentives, local sources are also optimal because they have less of an environmental impact associated with transportation. Any fuel the US purchases overseas must travel thousands of miles to reach us and this has a huge carbon footprint. Additionally, plain and simple, the shorter distance our fuel travels, the cheaper the transportation costs.
    The Keystone XL pipeline is no exception to the rule- it is an easy target for terrorist or other malevolent attack, and because of the distance it would span (1700 miles) maintenance costs are expected to be high, and failure somewhere along the pipeline at some point in time is inevitable. Especially disconcerting in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline is that it will be carrying tar sands, which are carbon intensive, require large amounts of water during removal and processing, and are very difficult to clean up if spilled.
    The most important point you made was that Americans are overestimating the benefit our country will receive through building Keystone XL. It may not necessarily lower oil prices (by increasing supply) and it may not necessarily mean more oil for the US either. Though Canada will likely supply to the US, we have no binding contract for them to do so. All in all I agree that the Keystone XL pipeline should not be approved. We need to continue to push for fully domestic, less carbon intensive sources of energy.

  5. I find it incredibly frustrating that many have subscribed to the belief that Obama has no choice but to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. As you make so devastatingly clear in your post, such a project will only lead to an increased dependency on dirty, destructive fossil fuels. The economic resources being pumped into the construction and development of this project, valued at over $7 billion, are completely misdirected and short-sighted. Assuming that a 2 MW wind turbine costs around $2 million to install, the construction costs of the pipeline alone could fund over 2000 turbines. That would be 4000 MW of clean, domestic, renewable energy. How anyone could argue over the tradeoffs completely escapes me.

    Yet, I realize that partisan issues will make it difficult for our country to abandon fossil fuels anytime in the near future, but Obama approving this venture would simply negate his promises for a green future. I have now voted for Obama twice and I sincerely hope he will make the right decision in vetoing the Keystone XL pipeline.

  6. Obama will have to make a tough decision on this one, although it does sound like the project will go through next year. There are guaranteed to be leaks or at least some seepage that occurs from transporting tar over such a large distance. I realize that the US will benefit economically from the refinement and processing of these resources. However, almost all of the environmental risk is being absorbed by the United States, while in the meantime Canada will bring in much larger revenue than we will. From what I see, it seems that Keystone XL will represent a large step backwards considering the favorable trajectory we are heading on now. I agree with you that this decision will help define our stance on the more costly route towards climate change prevention. I also respect the idea of energy independence. Being in debt or dependent on another country for such an integral resource is dangerous. However, as you pointed out, we have in fact reached our goal of energy (at least oil) independence and seek to become a net exporter. If we have already checked that off of the list, why can’t we continue to make a stronger transition to green energy?

  7. On often overlooked aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline is source from which it would draw petroleum and the environmental impacts of its recovery. The pipeline would send crude oil recovered from tar sand fields in Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The process of recovering oil from tar sands is even more environmentally undesirable than traditional drilling methods. The sands are “washed”, a process which requires huge amounts of water and the burning of fossil fuels to power machinery. Also, oil from tar sands is generally low quality, requiring substantial refinement which releases toxic substances into the atmosphere. I wholeheartedly agree with Dhrusti that Keystone XL doesn’t make economic nor environmental sense for the US and hope that Obama uses the issue to tangibly demonstrate that the future of American energy is in renewable sources.

  8. There are a lot of reasons both economically and environmentally to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. Personally, I oppose more fossil fuel pipelines and definitely tar sand refineries. However, I’d like to explore why Obama should approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Might there be an underlying reason allow it? Obama can’t simply squash out all opposition and expect cooperation for later positive environmental and renewable energy policies. Politics requires a compromise and a give-and-take on issues. This might be seen as weakness or hypocrisy, but no body wants to play with a bully. Then again, I won’t pretend to know the inner workings of Washington or the thoughts of the President, but it is important to think of reasons against one’s personal stance.

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