Most people have heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. To many though it’s not clear why there’s so much controversy about the project.
The basics are simple: The proposed pipeline to be built by TransCanada would carry 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the oil sands down to Nebraska. Supporters contend it will create jobs and bolster the flow of oil from a friendly neighbour. Opponents say all the extra fossil fuel will only add to global warming.
1) What is the Keystone XL pipeline?
Keystone XL refers to a proposal for a 1,179-mile pipeline between Hardisty, Canada and Steele City, Nebraska. It would cost $8 billion to build and carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day — mostly from Alberta’s oil sands, but also some from North Dakota.
Most of this system was built with little fanfare, including a smaller pipeline from Alberta to Illinois. But there was a fourth and final phase: an even bigger pipeline that would stretch down to Steele City, Nebraska, and eventually take 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.
Since Keystone XL crosses the US-Canada border, the State Department has to approve it first. TransCanada applied for a permit in 2008, not expecting much trouble.
2) How did Keystone XL become so controversial?
Around 2011, Keystone XL caught the eye of environmentalists. They noted that oil-sands crude is worse for global warming than regular crude because of all the extra energy it takes to extract. NASA scientist James Hansen warned that burning every last drop of oil in the vast oil sands would mean “game over” for climate change.
3) What’s the argument for the pipeline?
The US economy is still massively dependent on oil. In recent years, both Canada and the United States have seen a boom in unconventional oil production. It has bolstered the economies in Alberta (with its oil sands) or North Dakota (with its fracking boom) and kept global oil prices from soaring too high.
In order to nurture this boom, proponents say, improved infrastructure is needed to handle the flow of crude. Plus, getting oil from Canada — as the US is increasingly doing — seems preferable to getting it from, say, Saudi Arabia.
The Keystone XL project would also create jobs. The U.S. State Department review estimated it would support 42,000 jobs over its two-year construction period (35 permanent jobs, 3,900 temporary construction jobs, and the rest support jobs or indirect jobs resulting from employee spending).
4) What’s the argument against the pipeline?
Opponents of the pipeline look at it from the standpoint of taking global warming seriously. In order to avoid a drastic rise in temperatures, humanity needs to shift away from fossil-fuels. That means leaving a lot of our current reserves of oil, gas, and coal in the ground.
Canada’s oil sands get special attention, because it takes a lot of energy and water to extract usable oil from the region. When considered across the entire life-cycle — from mining to use in your car — a barrel of oil-sands crude creates 17 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than the average barrel of oil.
With Keystone XL, there are also concerns about leaks. TransCanada, says it has new technology to detect leaks — including 16,000 sensors on its existing Keystone pipeline that, in theory, allow it to shut off the flow of oil in 15 minutes. But a U.S. State Department review found these sensors wouldn’t be able to detect smaller, pinhole-sized leaks.
5) How bad would Keystone XL be for climate, exactly?
If you just consider the pipeline in isolation, the climate impacts would be significant. According to the U.S. State Department’s review, the 830,000 barrels of oil that the pipeline would transport each day would add an extra 1.3 million to 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. That’s equal to putting an extra 250,000 to 5.5 million cars on the road.
But there’s a twist: The U.S. State Department analysis then went on to argue that most of this oil will get burned regardless. If Keystone XL gets blocked, oil companies will likely just ship the crude by rail or alternative pipelines instead. The U.S. State Department concluded the pipeline itself ultimately wouldn’t have a “significant” impact on emissions.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to settle on a precise climate impact. What we can say is this: If Keystone XL is blocked, that will make it harder at the margins for oil-sands producers to get their oil to market. But as long as there’s high demand for oil around the world, there will also be pressure to get that oil out, pipeline or no pipeline.