The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Is Still a Bad Idea

President Trump’s advisors have signaled that he is considering signing an Executive Order that will exempt the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and projects like it from having to show that they are in the national interest of the United States. Keystone XL was a pipeline that would have transported 830,000 barrel per day of carbon intensive tar sands from Alberta through the breadbasket of the United States breadbasket to the Gulf Coast where it could be refined and exported internationally. President Obama rejected the pipeline’s permit after finding the project’s significant risks outweighed its very limited benefits. The risk of Keystone XL to our waters, land and climate far outweighs the relatively few jobs that it will create. Rather than focusing on a project that will only generate thirty five jobs after it’s been built, the President and Congress should focus on real job creating opportunities, like efforts to make repairing our homes and businesses more energy efficient and expanding our clean energy economy. This is simply doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry and is not a national jobs creation program.

Trump’s plan to eliminate the cross border permitting process established by Executive Order 13337, which has been used by both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades, would cede control of our borders to multinational corporations. Why is it important that decision makers have a process to ensure that cross-border projects are in the nation’s interest based on the best information available, rather than relying on industry interests and their talking points? The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline’s national interest determination process provides an answer.

Total Jobs: 35

Contrary to industry claims that the project would be a jobs creator of national importance, the company that sought to build the Keystone XL—TransCanada—told the U.S. State Department the pipeline would only create 35 jobs after it is built. (Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement: Executive Summary: pg. 20). That's about half as many jobs as it takes to run a McDonald's restaurant. While building the pipeline would generate more jobs—according to the State Department almost 2,000 over two years—this is on par with building a medium sized shopping mall, not a national jobs program. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy reports that in the last year the economy has created 230,000 new clean energy and efficiency jobs, accounting for 10% of the nation’s job growth.

Threatening the American Breadbasket . . .

The real jobs on the line here are those supported by the ranches and farms—110,000 of them—that produced $41.6 billion worth of food in 2012 in the three states where the tar sands pipeline construction would be focused—Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

. . . and the Waterways it depends on . . .

In those three states, the pipeline would cross 1,073 rivers, lakes and streams—from the Yellowstone River in Montana to the Platte River in Nebraska—along with tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, including those in the famed Prairie Pothole Region that makes up 10 percent of the waterfowl breeding habitat in the Continental United States. It would run within a mile of more than 3,000 wells that provide drinking and irrigation water in those states.

. . . with tar sands spills.

In a report released last year, the National Academy of Sciences found that tar sands spills pose new and greater risks to waterbodies than historically transported oil—risks that our regulations and spill responders do not have the techniques to address. Much of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River is still suffering from a tar sands pipeline blowout that contaminated 38 miles of water in 2011 in what has become the most expensive onshore pipeline spill in U.S. history, with over a billion dollars spent on cleanup. More than 200,000 gallons of tar sands crude polluted the tiny community of Mayflower, Arkansas, when a pipeline blew out there in 2013. Rare accidents? Hardly. Between 2006 and the middle of 2015, there were nearly 3,800 pipeline blowouts or other incidents serious enough to require reporting to the U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And they spilled a cumulative 37.5 million gallons of oil and other hazardous liquids, 23 million gallons of which were never recovered.

Keystone XL is not going to take tar sands off the rails—tar sands isn’t on the rails

The choice between a tar sands pipeline and unregulated crude by rail has always been a false one. Despite what many of Keystone XL’s proponents have claimed, tar sands is not a significant part of the crude by rail boom—it’s difficult and expensive to move thick, heavy tar sands by rail and the companies that first tried to make it work are either struggling or bankrupt. And Keystone XL’s rejection didn’t cause more crude to go on the rails—in fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, the relatively small shipments of Canadian crude by rail to the Gulf Coast have declined since Keystone XL was rejected. Even the tar sands industry tacitly admits that rail is not a viable expansion plan – which is why it companies cancelled expansion projects and some even pulled out of the tar sands after Keystone XL’s rejection rather than shift wholesale to rail.

Keystone XL is a pipeline through the United States, not to it

The Keystone XL pipeline was supported by refineries in the Gulf Coast that export the majority of their product internationally. This was the case in  2015 when the Gulf Coast exported about 3 million barrels of crude oil and refined products—and U.S. exports have only increased since then. In a world where the United States regularly exports over 5 million barrels of crude oil and refined products from its coastal refineries, it time to stop pretending that those same refineries need Canadian tar sands from Keystone XL to provide for U.S. consumers.

Expanding the tar sands undermines efforts to limit climate change     

The damage from tar sands is global. Because producing tar sands consumes so much energy, it also generates vast tons of the dangerous carbon pollution that is driving climate change. As a recent report by Oil Change International shows, emissions from planned tar sands expansion would exhaust 16% of the world’s total carbon budget for staying below 1.5°C. The State Department found that the emissions associated with the production, refining and combustion of the tar sands in Keystone XL would result 147 to 168 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide per year (equivalent to the emissions from as many of 35.5 million cars). Simply displacing conventional crude with dirtier tar sands, the project would result in up to 27.4 MMT CO2e of additional emissions.

And it is clear that Keystone XL would enable addition tar sands expansion, as Canada’s pipeline system has sufficient capacity for existing production and projects that are already in construction. Tar sands projects are some of the most expensive, longest lived oil projects on the planet—building more will lock in high carbon production for decades to come at a time when the world needs to be transitioning away for high carbon fuel sources.

Obstacles remain for Keystone XL

While a decision to eliminate the National Determination process would clear an obstacle for Keystone XL, it will not clear the way for the pipeline. We will join with our Native American allies, landowners, ranchers and the broader public to fight this project, which would put our waters, lands and climate at risk, supporting the strong opposition along Keystone XL’s path—including in Nebraska where the project’s route was never approved.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

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