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Keystone XL Pipeline: A Risky Venture Essay

Throughout history, The United States has been much reliant upon oil rich countries for liquid fuel necessities. Current economic conditions warrant a domestic alternative, since oil is currently referred to as ‘black gold’. In recent years, pipelines have become a substantial transportation factor for liquid fuels throughout Alaska and the lower 48 continental states. Promises by President Barack Obama have given Americans the hope that one day the United States can be energy independent. Currently this is not plausible, but many believe the Keystone XL pipeline could lessen the dependency of foreign oil and produce many needed jobs within the United States. Controversial matters have led a Presidential Permit for the project to be declined due to the project currently not being in the nation’s best interest. Many debates have taken place over this decision and politics have become a key focal point. Some claim it is due to special interest groups, others claim it’s due to environmental matters. Regardless of the politics involved, the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline would be too environmentally detrimental and costly to pursue.

In 2005, the Keystone Pipeline System, labeled ‘Keystone XL’, was introduced by TransCanada following an expected production increase of crude oil from the Oil Sands region of Alberta, Canada (Parfomak, Pirog & Luther, 2013, p. 3). The expected cost of the Keystone XL pipeline would be set at seven billion dollars, with total distance of underground piping at 1,702 miles (Casey-Lefkowitz & Shope, 2011, p. 2). The pipeline would connect Alberta, Canada to advanced refineries in the Gulf Coast of the United States (Parfomak et al. 2013, p.1). Since the proposed pipeline system would connect the United States with a foreign country, a Presidential Permit would be required to determine if the pipeline was in the nation’s best interest (Montopoli, 2012).

In 2008, TransCanada applied for a permit to cross the international border with the proposed pipeline system and was subsequently denied due to the State Departments insufficient time for review and environmental issues with the proposal (2012). In 2012, TransCanada submitted a reconfigured proposal that would connect the pipeline from Alberta, Canada to an existing pipeline in Steel City, Nebraska. Again, this proposal was denied by the President with a response from the State Department that the pipeline was currently not in the nation’s best interest (Parfomak et al. 2013, p. 2). Many legislative methods to support the pipeline were addressed by Congress that in turn would transfer approval authority, although none thus far have been successful (2013, p.3).

President Barack Obama has been under public scrutiny for his decision in denying the permit by many respected members of government in favor of the pipeline. According to the Washington Post, Obama donor and billionaire Tom Snyder wrote an open letter stating that “Obama to reject pipeline or face backlash” (Bradley, 2013). Snyder, a self-proclaimed environmentalist has been linked to big oil by amassing a large portion of his fortune through investments in TransCanada’s competitor, Kinder Morgan (2013).

Republicans, such as frontrunner Mitt Romney, went on record by saying “it shows a President who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy”, and “if Americans want to understand why unemployment in the United States has been stuck above 8 percent for the longest stretch since the Great Depression, decisions like this one are the place to begin” (Montopoli, 2012). Struggles for and against the pipeline by members of government and special interest groups have led this decision to be viewed as politically motivated. With that being said, evaluating individual pros and cons concerning the project are necessary in order to justify whether or not the project should move forward.

Achieving energy independence is what President Obama stated that the United States is seeking to accomplish. To achieve this goal, the United States will be required to fulfill these necessities through domestic sources and renewable fuels. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that by 2040, only 16 percent of U.S. energy will be generated by renewable fuels (Bradley, 2013). Although independence from renewable fuels may be too far off to determine, the Keystone XL Pipeline would create a substantial growth in domestic oil production (2013). Along with increased production comes construction and manufacturing jobs for an estimated 20,000 American workers (2013).

Safety advantages from pipelines are also substantial compared to other modes of transporting oil. Low rates are achieved by a low loss and damage record, since weather conditions do not effect pipelines and mechanical failures are rare (Coyle, Novack, Gibson, & Bardi, 2011, p. 273). With piping being completely encased underground, the risk of terrorism and theft is also greatly reduced (2011, p. 273). Care is taken with the use of leak detection systems and aircraft monitoring, since environmental damage, lawsuits and product losses have been issues of the past (2011, p. 276).

In 2011, The State Department conducted an environmental impact study noting that annual carbon emissions would increase by only one third of one percent (Bradley, 2013). The American Petroleum Institute also estimated that American and Canadian reserves could provide all of America’s liquid fuel needs within 12 years (2013). Of course this would depend on if current infrastructure could support the increase (2013). Those for the pipeline have argued their case by stating that the pipeline will also assist through stronger relations with neighboring Canada and provide direct access to Canadian crude oil (Parfomak et al. 2013, p. 7).

TransCanada themselves noted that it would be in the nation’s best interest to reduce current dependency on foreign crude oil from Mexico and Venezuela in the Gulf by maintaining adequate crude oil supplies by pipeline for domestic refineries (2013, p. 20). Key issues from major crude oil exporters such as Mexico’s falling production since 2004 and Venezuela national oil company strike has also promoted TransCanada’s proposal (2013, p. 21). With Canada already being the number one import of crude oil in America, one would believe that furthering this relationship, along with lessoning the dependency on unreliable foreign oil would be a logical choice.

While those who support the pipeline base their arguments on increasing the U.S. petroleum supply, creating additional jobs and other economic benefits, those who oppose the pipeline are mainly environmental organizations and community groups (2013, p. 18). Their concerns stem from environmental issues, such as toxins, spills, adverse greenhouse emissions and the unconventional and costly method of mining and refining tar sands oil (Casey-Lefkowitz & Shope, 2011, p. 2). Tar sands extraction in Canada is already known for destroying Boreal forests and wetlands, creating high levels of greenhouse gas pollution and producing toxic waste dumps called ‘tailing ponds’ that currently cover around 65 miles (2011, p. 2).

The destruction of the Boreal forest is killing many types of species and utilization of the Athabasca River for mining is harming humans as well (2011, p. 2). Tar sands extraction uses large amounts of water from the Athabasca River, and studies have shown that thirteen primary pollutants under the U.S. Clean Water Act, such as led, mercury and arsenic are being released into the river (2011, p. 2). Concerns with the Fort Chipewyan community downstream from the river include increased cancer rates, heart and lung disease, as well as asthma (2011, p. 2-3).

Not only is the process more costly than extracting and refining crude oil, but tar sands oil also contains toxins such as bitumen (Swift, Casey-Lefkowitz, Shope, 2011, p. 3). Bitumen, or “DilBit” is a highly corrosive and acidic blend that contains volatile natural gas liquid condensate (2011, p. 3). Increased risk from the corrosive and volatile substance could pose significant risks of increased spills and ruptures that could damage communities and fresh water supplies in America (2011, p. 3).

Highlighted in the Keystone XL final Environmental Impact Study shows a primary environmental concern by TransCanada stating, “the greatest concern would be a spill in environmentally sensitive areas, such as wetlands, flowing streams and rivers, shallow groundwater areas, areas near water intakes for drinking water or for commercial/industrial uses, and areas with populations of sensitive wildlife or plant species” (Parfomak et al. 2013, p. 30). Higher operating temperatures and pressure is required to move the thick material through the piping, which could cause leak detection problems and safety issues due to the unstable blend (Swift et al. 2011, p. 3). In correlation, the Alberta pipeline has had approximately sixteen times as many spills than U.S. pipelines due to the corrosive issues of tar sands oil (2011, p. 3).

In the first year of the TransCanada Keystone pipeline, there were fourteen spills (Parfomak et al. 2013, p. 31). Although technological leak detection is considered to be efficient, many spills were reported by witnesses and went undetected by release detection equipment (2013, p. 31). Incidence like this have caused much concern over spills since DilBit is a heavy crude mixture that is much more difficult to clean up than regular crude oil (2013, p. 31). Heavy damage to waterways and air pollutant such as benzene caused by spills from the Keystone Pipeline and other pipelines have already incurred (Swift et al. 2011, p. 7).

With the proposed pipeline plotted in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Ogallala Aquifer, a pipeline leak would have devastating effects, not to mention immense cleanup cost, time involved and irreparable harm to the environment and communities (Casey-Lefkowitz & Shope, 2011, p. 3). In addition to these possible affects, the creation of this pipeline would not lower the price of fuel to the consumer at the gas station, as fuel prices are based off the national and international market (Parfomak et al. 2013, p. 23). Only big oil would benefit from the pipeline, along with additional jobs to Americans, but would ultimately secure the continued destruction of the Earth.

In a public forum in 2010, Secretary of State Clinton stated, “we’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the [Persian] Gulf or dirty oil from Canada … until we can get our act together as a country and figure out that clean, renewable energy is in both our economic interests and the interests of our planet” (2013, p. 29). The real question is if this pipeline is in our nation’s best interest and the best interest of Mother Nature. Those who stand to make a profit off destroying the planet have voiced their opinions, but the President made the right decision politically and, in the long term, for America. To form a relationship with a company that will incur this type of damage would only encourage more detrimental acts in the future. Although Canadian companies will continue to mine this toxic DilBit and sell it to other markets, the nation should not lock itself into a long term relationship with toxic oil, or oil in general. As Secretary of State mentioned, the United States is in need of focusing on clean renewable energy and green initiatives that will save the planet and generations of Americans to come.


Bradley, Jr., Robert. (2013). Keystone xl amounts to america’s pipeline vs. president obama’s cronies. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertbradley/2013/08/20/keystone-xl-amounts-to-americas-pipeline-vs-president-obamas-cronies/ Casey-Lefkowitz, S., Shope, E. (2011). Say no to tar sands pipeline: Proposed keystone xl project would deliver dirty fuel at a high cost. Natural Resources Defense Council. Retrieved from http://www.nrdc.org/land/files/TarSandsPipeline4pgr.pdf Coyle, J.J., Novack, R. A., Gibson, B.J., & Bardi, E. J. (2011). Transportation: A Supply Chain Perspective. 7th edition. South Western College Publishing. Montopoli, Brian. (2012). Obama denies keystone xl pipeline permit. CBSNews. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57361324-503544/obama-denies-keystone-xl-pipeline-permit/ Parfomak, P. W., Pirog, R., Luther, L., Vann, A. (2013). Keystone XL pipeline project: Key Issues. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41668.pdf Swift, A., Casey-Lefkowitz, S., Shope, E. (2011). Tar sands pipeline safety risk. National Resources Defense Council. Retrieved from http://www.dirtyoilsands.org/files/tarsandssafetyrisks.pdf

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