Keystone XL Pipeline: Facts and Myths

(Updated 9-04-11.)

Political debates in the U.S. are often plagued by disinformation, and the TransCanada oil pipeline controversy is no exception. So here’s my humble effort to dispel a few misconceptions.

Myth: There is little to no chance of an oil spill. In fact, a University of Nebraska study found that the pipeline could have nine times as many spills as TransCanada estimated. The pipeline will carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands, and it’s possible that “DilBit” poses a greater risk of corrosion and spills that conventional oil (see the NYT article for details).

Myth: A Keystone XL oil spill would be harmless. The study mentioned above also said that a rupture could take ten times as long to shut down and spill six times as much crude oil as TransCanada predicted. Specifically, the XL could leak up to 7.9 million gallons in the Nebraska Sandhills, home of the world’s largest underground reservoir, the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala supplies drinking water to millions of people in eight states and provides over a quarter of U.S. agricultural water.

Myth: Oil spills are the worst problem the pipeline would cause. The Keystone XL would allow more oil to be pumped from Canada, which opens the way to expanding the tar sands. In case you haven’t heard, Alberta’s tar sands are the most destructive project on earth, covering a Florida-sized area that was once Boreal forest. The extraction process uses massive amounts of water and natural gas, and leaves toxic tailing ponds that are visible from space.

Even more importantly, the carbon footprint of tar sands production is three times that of old-fashioned oil. That’s why twenty top climate researchers wrote a letter to President Obama saying tar sands oil “does not make sense to exploit.” James Hansen, an eminent scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, has gone a step further:

Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts….Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.

Myth: The Keystone XL would lower gas prices. The Energy Department says the pipeline would have a minimal effect on national gas prices, and may even lead to an increase in oil and gas prices in the Midwest.

Myth: The Keystone XL would enhance our energy security. Nobody thinks it’s a great idea to rely on Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for our oil supply. That’s why the oil industry and its cheerleaders are spinning the KXL as an energy security issue. But, according to a report commissioned by TransCanada itself, building the pipeline would not reduce oil imports from “unfriendly” countries.

How is that? The Keystone XL is an export pipeline. As Oil Change International reported,

The Port Arthur, Texas, refiners at the end of its route are focused on expanding exports to Europe, and Latin America. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s heavy crude oil will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks.

If we want to achieve energy independence, we should start by promoting renewable fuels in the U.S., not by playing middleman in the Canadian oil market.

Myth: We need the Keystone XL because it would create jobs. Yes, building a 2,000-mile-long pipeline would create jobs. So would a high-speed railway, a wind farm, or a solar array. In fact, green industries account for more jobs than do oil and gas production. And don’t forget that TransCanada’s job estimates were greatly exaggerated. A Cornell University report found the pipeline would create far fewer jobs than TransCanada claims, according to the company’s own data. Most of these jobs would not be local and many would not even be American. Furthermore, the number permanent American jobs could be as low as 50, based on TransCanada’s figures of operating costs.

Still, some would argue that relatively few jobs are better than no jobs, and that temporary employment is better than none. Job creation is certainly a priority, but oil pipelines aren’t the only way to do it. Focusing on short-term benefits, however much-needed, while ignoring the long-term environmental and social impact is a risky strategy, to say the least.

Image: Tar Sands Action/Flickr

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6 thoughts on “Keystone XL Pipeline: Facts and Myths

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  5. How false – 440K miles of domestic pipelines, no leaks since 1978. Which is economically safer with less pollution – pipe in oil from Cda, or put it on boats to ship it from the other side of the world, risking spills and making pollution with each trip?

    • There have been leaks since 1978. The existing Keystone pipeline had twelve weeks in its first year of operation. Last July, a BP pipeline leaked on the North Slope, and an Exxon pipeline leaked into the Yellowstone River.

      True, the major oil spills have involved tankers or rigs, not pipelines. But, as the post mentioned, much, if not most, of the KXL oil would be exported. We’ll still be shipping oil in from the other side of the world, with or without KXL.

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