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What Is the Keystone Pipeline?

How a single pipeline project became the epicenter of an enormous environmental battle.
Pipeline under construction in Alberta, Canada


On November 6, 2015, President Obama vetoed the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, also known as KXL, a project that would have jeopardized ecosystems, drinking water sources, and public health while increasing our reliance on dirty energy. Persuading the administration to halt the project capped a dogged, seven-year campaign by environmental activists and citizens concerned that its detriments to our planet would far outweigh the profits to its sole beneficiaries, Big Oil. But the battle will continue. The week after taking office, on January 24, President Trump signed an executive order to advance Keystone XL (as well as the Dakota Access Pipeline). Here’s an overview of the export tar sands pipeline that’s become one of the foremost environmental controversies of our time.

What is Keystone XL?

The Keystone XL pipeline extension, proposed by energy infrastructure company TransCanada in 2008, was designed to transport the planet’s dirtiest fossil fuel to market, fast. An expansion of the company’s existing Keystone Pipeline System, operating since 2008 (and already sending Canadian crude from Alberta to various processing hubs in the middle of the United States), it would dramatically increase capacity to process the 168 billion barrels of crude oil locked up in Canada’s boreal forest. To be precise, it would transport 830,000 barrels of Alberta tar sands oil per day to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Some 2.6 million miles of oil and gas pipelines already run through our country. But Keystone XL wouldn’t be your average pipeline, and tar sands aren’t your average crude.

Keystone and Tar Sands

The boreal forest

Gord McKenna

Beneath the wilds of northern Alberta’s boreal forest is a sludgy, sticky deposit called tar sands. These sands contain bitumen, a gooey type of petroleum that can be converted into fuel. It’s no small feat extracting oil from tar sands, and doing so comes with steep environmental and economic costs. Nevertheless, in the mid-2000s, with gas prices on the rise, oil companies ramped up production and sought additional ways to move their product from Canada’s remote tar sands fields to midwestern and Gulf Coast refineries.

Keystone Pipeline Map


The Keystone extension actually comprises two segments. The first, a southern leg, has already been completed and runs between Cushing, Oklahoma, and Port Arthur, Texas. Opponents of this project—now called the Gulf Coast Pipeline—say that TransCanada took advantage of legal loopholes to push the pipeline through, securing a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit and dodging the Environmental Protection Agency’s more rigorous vetting process, which requires public input. The second segment is the currently contested 1,179-mile northern leg—a shortcut of sorts—that would run from Hardisty, Alberta, through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska.

President Obama declined to grant the northern leg of the Keystone XL project the U.S. State Department Presidential Permit required to construct, maintain, and operate a pipeline across a United States border. Now that decision’s been reversed.

Keystone Pipeline Environmental Impact

Leaks and the pipeline

Tar sands oil is thicker, more acidic, and more corrosive than lighter conventional crude, and this ups the likelihood that a pipeline carrying it will leak. Indeed, one study found that between 2007 and 2010, pipelines moving tar sands oil in Midwestern states spilled three times more per mile than the U.S. national average for pipelines carrying conventional crude. Within its first year of operation, TransCanada’s original Keystone Pipeline System leaked 12 times; one incident in North Dakota sent a 60-foot, 21,000-gallon geyser of tar sands oil spewing into the air.

EPA staff perform oil and sediment sampling near Battle Creek, Michigan, after the Kalamazoo spill.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Lauren Jorgensen

Complicating matters, leaks can be difficult to detect. And when tar sands oil does spill, it’s highly volatile—posing an elevated risk of explosion—and more difficult to clean up than conventional crude. People and wildlife coming into contact with tar sands oil are exposed to toxic chemicals, and rivers and wetland environments are at particular risk from a spill. “It immediately sinks to the bottom” of the waterway, says NRDC staff attorney Kim Ong, “and there is, to date, no known way of cleaning up this oil.” (For evidence, recall the 2010 tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a disaster that cost Enbridge more than a billion dollars in cleanup fees and took six years to settle in court.) Keystone XL would cross environmentally sensitive and agriculturally important areas, including Nebraska’s Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for millions as well as 30 percent of America’s irrigation water. A spill would be devastating to the farms, ranches, and communities that depend on these crucial ecosystems.

What is tar sands oil?

The tar sands industry is just as hard on the cradle of its business. Its mines are a blight on Canada’s boreal, where operations dig up and flatten forests to access the oil below, destroying wildlife habitat. They deplete and pollute freshwater resources, create massive ponds of toxic waste, and threaten the health and livelihood of the First Nations people who live near them. Refining the sticky black gunk produces piles of petroleum coke, a hazardous by-product. What’s more, the whole process of getting the oil out and making it usable creates three to four times the carbon pollution of conventional crude extraction and processing. “This isn’t your grandfather’s typical oil,” says Danielle Droitsch, senior policy analyst for NRDC’s Canada project. “It’s nasty stuff.”

Keystone and climate change

A fully realized Keystone XL would lead to more mining of that “nasty stuff” by accelerating the pace at which it’s produced and transported. (Indeed, Keystone XL was viewed as a necessary ingredient in the oil industry’s plans to triple tar sands production by 2030.) It would also lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other types of crude, and building Keystone XL would equate to adding 5.7 million cars to the road each year (about as many cars as in the state of Pennsylvania). Over the pipeline’s 50-year life span, that means burdening the planet with an extra 1.37 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the pipeline would undermine efforts to prioritize clean energy like wind and solar and to minimize global warming. Leading climate scientist and former NASA researcher James Hansen has warned that fully exploiting Canada’s tar sands reserves would mean “game over” for our climate. In short, tar sands oil represents no small threat to our environment, and our best stance against it, as the rallying cry goes, is to “keep it in the ground.”

Keystone Pipeline Controversy

Opposition to Keystone XL centers on the devastating environmental consequences of the project. The pipeline has faced years of sustained protests from environmental activists and organizations; indigenous communities; religious leaders; and farmers, ranchers, and business owners along its proposed route. One such protest, a historic act of civil disobedience outside the White House in August 2011, resulted in the arrest of more than 1,200 demonstrators. More than 90 leading scientists and economists have opposed the project, in addition to unions and world leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former president Jimmy Carter (together, these and other Nobel laureates have written letters against the project). In 2014 more than two million comments urging a rejection of the pipeline were submitted to the State Department during a 30-day public comment period.

Rocky Kistner/NRDC

In the two years leading up to the November 2014 midterm elections, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $720 million to court allies in Congress. When industry-friendly politicians took charge of both congressional houses in January 2015, their first order of business was to pass a bill to speed up approval of Keystone XL. (That effort failed.)

“So what if there’s no pipeline . . . Big Oil will find a way.”

One of the central arguments by pipeline pushers is that tar sands expansion will move forward with or without Keystone XL. This has proved to be untrue. Dealing in tar sands oil is an expensive endeavor. It’s costly both to produce and to ship, particularly by rail, which would be an alternative to Keystone XL. Indeed, moving crude by rail to the Gulf costs twice as much as by pipe. For companies considering whether to invest in a long-lived tar sands project (which could last for 50 years), access to cheap pipeline capacity will play a major role in the decision to move forward or not. Without Keystone XL, the tar sands industry has canceled projects rather than shift to rail, subsequently leaving more of the earth’s dirtiest fuel in the ground where it belongs.

Keystone Pipeline Economic Facts

Will the pipeline create jobs?

The oil industry has lobbied hard to get KXL built by using false claims, political arm-twisting, and big bucks. When TransCananda said the pipeline would create nearly 119,000 jobs, a State Department report concluded only 3,900 temporary construction jobs would appear and that the number of permanent jobs would hover around 35.

Will the pipeline lower gas prices?

Dirty energy lobbyists claimed developing tar sands would protect our national energy security and bring U.S. fuel prices down. But NRDC and its partners found the majority of Keystone XL oil would be sent to markets overseas (aided by the recent reversal of a ban on crude oil exports)—and could even lead to higher prices at the pump.

President Trump and the Keystone Pipeline

When President Obama refused to grant the presidential permit necessary to build TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline in November 2015, he struck a blow against polluting powers and acknowledged the consensus on this misguided project from a wide swath of people and organizations. “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” he said. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” Obama’s decision echoed a seven-year State Department review process with EPA input that concluded the pipeline would fail to serve national interests.

Unfortunately, President Trump—with his pro-polluter cabinet of fossil fuel advocates, billionaires, and bankers—has been quick to demonstrate that his priorities differ. In his first conversation after the 2016 election with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump said he was “very supportive” of Keystone XL—not surprising, considering his enthusiasm for a fossil-fueled future and disdain for climate science. And on his fourth day in office, Trump signed an executive order that allows Keystone XL to move forward.

That said, he faces swift and strong opposition. As NRDC President Rhea Suh said prior to President Trump’s inauguration, “Whatever we voted on in November [2016], nobody voted for dirty water and air. Nobody voted to walk away from climate leadership and millions of clean energy jobs. And nobody voted to hand over our country to a pollute-ocracy that puts polluter profits first—and puts the rest of us at risk.”

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