Mega myths of the Keystone XL pipeline


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Among hundreds of protestors who spent three days in jail in Washington D.C. for publicly opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile-long conduit planned to carry crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, was Bill McKibben, author and founder of

When he was released from the D.C. cell block, I asked McKibben why opposing this particular project is so important to him. “Keystone is a greatest hits of environmental disaster. You get leaks and spills, climate change and utter destruction at the source,” he says. (Read more on the pipeline protests and see a map of the proposed route here)

A Canadian energy company, TransCanada, wants to build the XL to supplement the existing Keystone pipeline—which began pumping 435,000 barrels of oil from Alberta to Illinois last year—to transport an additional 500,000 barrels through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Pipeline proponents say the XL will create jobs and lessen U.S. dependency on oil from hostile sources, while hardly disrupting the environment. In weighing whether the risks of the pipeline are worth the rewards, two questions arise: Who will it help? Who will it hurt? When answering them, several myths about the pipeline emerge.

XL myth #1: The pipeline will greatly reduce our reliance on crude from antagonistic nations. This is blatantly false. The U.S. imports 10 million barrels per day (bpd) of petroleum. The Keystone XL would have the capacity to transport 700,000 bpd. Even if every drop of that raw crude was refined in Texas and made it into U.S. fuel coffers—which, given the number of diesel-hungry nations in the world, ishighly unlikely—demand would not be significantly impacted. TransCanada’s literature itself says, “When completed, the Keystone Pipeline System is expected to provide five per cent of current U.S. petroleum-consumption needs.” Five percent does not security make.

XL myth #2: This new crude supply will precipitate a price drop at the pumps. A fuel supply of this size would barely alter consumer prices in the U.S. To the contrary, this project is vulnerable to two things that disrupt supply and cause cost spikes—hurricanes in the Gulf and leaks from the lengthy pipeline.

XL myth #3: This project means a huge number of American jobs. Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) recently told the New York Times that, “Instead of coming to the table with constructive ideas, environmentalists are using a 2010 pipeline spill…to foment opposition to the Canadian Keystone [XL] Pipeline project, which promises to create 100,000 jobs.”

Unfortunately, that’s a cruel exaggeration. In its literature selling the supposed benefits of Keystone XL, TransCanada talks about the number of “person years of employment” that the project will create – not the number of jobs. Montana, for instance, is supposed to see 5,500 person years of employment. That means if the XL lives a projected 50 years, and each person employed works on the project for 10 years, for example, 550 jobs would have been created.

The total “person years of employment” for all six states the pipeline would cut through is 89,500. If all the people employed worked for five years, 17,900 jobs  would have been created – not an insignificant number, but certainly a fraction of what Rep. Upton is using to justify the pipeline.

XL myth #4: The pipeline and the environment would be simpatico. This is multi-faceted fallacy.

The Department of State’s (DOS) recently-released report on the pipeline—the Final Environmental Impact Statement—says it would “have no significant impacts on most resources.” It’s a perplexing conclusion given some of the major weaknesses the report itself highlights. For example, the DOS notes that the existing Keystone pipeline has failed 14 times since it began operation last year. During each incident corrosive crude was spewed into the environment; 21,000 gallons of it during one incident. The agency estimates that the XL will fail from 1.78 to 2.51 per year.

Which areas (of the many with sensitive ecology) would be spoiled by these events is impossible to predict, but some places would be particularly undesirable. For example, the XL would cross the Yellowstone River in Montana, which has yet to recover from its last tainting, in which 42,000 gallons of ExxonMobil crude contaminated hundreds of miles of river.

The pipeline would also run over a massive Midwestern underground water source called the Ogallala Aquifer, which waters America’s breadbasket (accounting for about one-fifth the annual U.S. agricultural harvest and $20 billion worth of food on the world market). In a letter to the DOS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expressed concern about the Ogallala saying, “If a spill did occur, the potential for oil to reach groundwater in these areas is relatively high given shallow water table depths and the high penneability of the soils overlying the aquifer. In addition, we are concerned that crude oil can remain in the subsurface for decades, despite efforts to remove the oil and natural microbial remediation.” However, in its report the DOS says, “In no spill incident scenario would the entire...aquifer system be adversely affected.” That’s not exactly a reassuring statement.

Even some XL supporters in high-impact states are damning of the DOS analysis. The Northern Plains Resource Council, which is working to help landowners in the pipeline’s proposed path to protect local interests, says the DOS blatantly ignored their request for both emergency response plans and a blueprint for what will happen to the abandoned pipeline when it’s lost profitability.

Another major concern for XL opponents is what happens at the source of the crude mining, which has global implications. In addition to being a water-consumptive and energy-intensive process, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from drawing petroleum from tar sands are much higher than with conventional extraction. Per barrel of crude sands oil, the amount of carbon dioxide released is 15 to 40 percent higher.

In its letter of concern, the EPA also urged the DOS to press Canada on how it will mitigate GHGs (after which Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent said his government won’t release even draft regulations for new tar sands plants until the end of 2012).

But in its obfuscating treatment of the GHG issue, the DOS actually compliments the oil sands industry for being less filthy than it used to be. And yet, it estimates the annual CO2 emissions from the XL would be from 3 to 21 million metric tons. “This range is equivalent to annual greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fuels in 588,000 to 4,061,000 passenger vehicles,” it says. Adding the equivalent of 4 million vehicles’ worth of climate-altering gases to the atmosphere per year is hardly something to pat a company on the back for, nor is it the environmental albatross we want to hang heavily from our children’s necks.

I share the concerns of XL opponents—including the grandmothers, farmers and tribal chiefs that McKibben stood elbow-to-elbow with in D.C. A “keystone” is a heart, a linchpin, a guiding principle. To the contrary, the Keystone XL should not be central to our energy or environmental future. It’s a project that will likely hurt many more people than it helps.

In his examination of the pipeline plan, President Obama should not be deceptively drawn into XL mythology. The public can comment on the XL until October 9. A final decision on the pipeline is expected by year’s end.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

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