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114th Congress Opens With Wrangling About Keystone XL

As newly elected members took their seats in Congress yesterday for the first time, Washington’s almighty kerfluffle about the Keystone XL pipeline resurfaced. Here’s some background.

Calgary-based TransCanada proposed several years ago to send oil from the Canadian tar sands terminal at Hardisty, Alberta, via a small-diameter Keystone pipeline routed over 1,100 miles, to the extensive and established US Gulf Coast refineries for processing. Much of that proposed pipeline network has already been completed. (See TransCanada’s map at right below.)

TransCanada's proposed KXL pipeline map (does not indicate post-Illinois connections)(

TransCanada’s proposed KXL pipeline map (does not indicate post-Illinois connections)(

However, the final section of it, Keystone XL (which would parallel the first pipeline between Hardisty and Steele City, Nebraska, on a shorter route and with larger-diameter pipe) remains under debate. The proposed KXL line would also run by Baker, Montana, to pick up crude oil from the Bakken formation and add it to the throughput of crude and diluted bitumen from Canada. Before KXL construction can begin, TransCanada needs a permit from the United States because its pipeline would cross an international border.

Protests against the proposed KXL pipeline originated with indigenous peoples in Canada, whose homes and health were demonstrably affected. Ranchers along the pipeline route also expressed early doubt. In the spring of 2011, respected climate scientist Jim Hansen drew attention to the massive amounts of carbon that could emanate from tar sands mining. Since then, other serious environmental impacts like increased methane release from hydraulic fracturing have been noted, upping the ante.

The oil and gas industry and many of its backers in Congress, especially the large Republican voting blocs in both houses, believe that KXL would create jobs and contribute to US energy independence by replacing Middle East oil. A pipeline would result in less damage to the climate than moving the same oil by rail, one government environmental impact statement has predicted. (Heavy oil transport by rail has notably resulted in extremely costly accidents during the past several years, notably the 2013 runaway train and fire that killed 47 people in Lac Mégantic, Quebec.) Other government estimates call for greatly increased rail transportation in coming years.

Pipeline spills also present significant threats—possibly more severe in the long run—to ground and surface water and ecosystems. The potential rail vs. pipeline debate is unsettled. Except for isolated hot news stories about locations like Lac Mégantic, the Kalamazoo River, and the Mayflower, Arkansas, neighborhood, it has hardly had media attention. Alternate pipeline routes, which would likely be much longer, have also been proposed and protested both in the east (across Canada, south through New England) and west (Enbridge’s Northern Gateway) through Canada. As for job creation, debate now seems to focus on the permanence of employment, e.g., the boom-and-bust cycle of the petroleum industry.

Keystone XL pipeline critics in government and science argue that tar sands mining and fracking themselves cause environmental damage, even before harmful effects of transporting 830,000 barrels per day are encountered. The damage perceived includes long-term pollution of groundwater, surface water spills, increased air and soil pollution, displacement and extinction of many species, entire ecosystems being erased, exacerbation of climate change, and very serious threats to public health, not to mention more cosmetic lifestyle changes. Yesterday, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee of the Senate cancelled today’s planned hearing on the pipeline project on procedural grounds.

Says Bill McKibben, founder and board member of the environmental interest group, in a letter today:

“By pledging to veto the Keystone XL bill, President Obama took an important step towards backing up his climate talk yesterday, and we should applaud that. He showed the kind of courage that will be needed to stop this pipeline and begin to turn the tide against the fossil fuel industry.”

One crucial and often overlooked point in the argument is that less than 8% of Keystone XL’s daily crude load would come from the US Bakken region: in other words, the pipeline would bisect the States, but most of its profits would go to Canada. Gulf Coast refineries would gain the secondary benefit.

US EIA estimates of petroleum supply domestic consumption and exports through 2040 (

US EIA estimates of petroleum supply domestic consumption and exports through 2040 (

Another point: export of more Canadian and Bakken crude through US refineries would probably not influence the presumed US drive to cut oil imports. Look at the EIA’s current to 2040 early production forecast numbers at right for evidence of this.

The bottom line of the Keystone XL controversy has moved several times during the past week. Pipeline talk cannot be dismissed as idle Capitol Hill posturing and gossip, having involved these important events:

  • First, the leaders of the new Congress have made very clear that the pipeline issue is high on their agenda, if not highest, for this legislative session.
  • Second, President Obama has come out swinging with a veto promise on an issue he has skirted for several years.
  • Third, as noted by Ron Fournier in the sassy National Journal, the President has a perfectly good technical reason for vetoing KXL, if it comes to that: “He can’t decide whether the project is in the ‘national interest’ until the [state] Supreme Court rules on whether Keystone’s route through Nebraska was properly considered.”

Oh, and there’s also an important Number Four. With its just-off-the-press 2015 State of American Energy Report, the petroleum industry has at last owned up to the fact that renewables are a vital part of the nation’s energy mix. As CleanTechnica points out elsewhere, the API report calls solar a “game-changer,” ranks it among the top four US energy resources, and devotes following sections to gas, wind, coal, and biomass.

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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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