Skip to content

COUNTERPOINT: Completing the Keystone XL pipeline

Environmental concerns are many, while job promises fall short

    A public works project that will create gaggles of jobs and help make this country more energy secure. Sounds great. Too bad the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is not that project.
p05 henderson    Oh sure, that’s what its backers swear up and down the line, but the truth is something different. And to understand why, it’s important to understand that the project is designed to move a very specific type of petroleum. Bitumen. In recent years the oil industry has decided to call it “oilsands,” though I prefer the word they have used in Canada for the better part of a century, “tar sands.” It is heavy stuff that has to be strip-mined or steamed out of the ground in Alberta and is often referred to as “the dirtiest oil on the planet.”
    But there is a lot of the stuff. And despite being difficult to transport and refine, not to mention super-expensive to extract, there has been growing interest in bitumen as oil prices have climbed. Most of it comes to the Upper Midwest where refineries like the one in Roxana have been modified to deal with the heavy stuff.
    And that is a problem for the oil industry.
    They want to sell more and more tar sands. But right now, we are the only real customers in the U.S. And we are using less and less oil due to, among other things, more efficient vehicles. So the oil industry is left looking for other customers. That’s right; Keystone XL is primarily an export pipeline. Ending in a tax-free international business zone outside Houston the pipeline goes through — not to — the U.S. and the oil that would course through it is intended to be burned largely in vehicles well outside this country. China and other developing nations are often put up as a boogie man — competitors for the oil coming out of Canada with statements along the lines of “if we don’t take this oil, China will…” That is exactly backwards. If you want this stuff to go to China and Latin America and Europe, by all means build this pipeline, because it’s about the only way tar sands oil can get there right now.
    You would think Canada’s oil industry would have excellent export facilities. But they don’t.
    A Canadian pipeline proposed before Keystone XL that would connect the Alberta oil fields to Canada’s west coast is hopelessly mired in controversy. Think about it … would you build a 2,000-plus mile pipeline down the spine of the continent if you could do something shorter and cheaper within your own borders? But to date, they have not been able to. And the business pages of many Canadian papers have posited that the Northern Gateway pipeline to British Columbia will never be built.
    The pipeline pushers wonder at all the jobs constructing a 2,000-mile pipeline would create! Well … it turns out not many really. There would certainly be construction jobs for a year or two, as you would expect putting together any big infrastructure project. But only a fraction of the initial giddy estimates that were offered to the public, which initially numbered in the hundreds of thousands. And when you look at permanent jobs, impartial estimates hover around 50. Yes … 50.
    And I very much doubt any of those jobs come from Metro East, as American mills like U.S. Steel in Granite City have not been tapped to build the pipes.
    As the main talking points promoting the pipeline have gotten weaker under scrutiny, a novel new argument has surfaced. The oil industry warns that if they do not get their pipeline, the oil will stream across our border in unsafe oil trains. And given the fiery messes news watchers have seen in Lac Megantic, in Virginia, and on the prairies of the Dakotas and Minnesota in recent months when oil trains have derailed, it’s a scary thought.
    But, like the other arguments, this one is malarkey, too. While there has been an oil train boom (literally and figuratively, I suppose), the oil riding the rails in America is almost exclusively the light sweet crude from the Bakken fields in the Dakotas. Tar sands are much heavier and require heated cars that make it far less economical to ship by train. Very little of it is moving in this way.
    Make no mistake, pipelines vs. oil trains is a false choice; the industry wants more of both. If we have concerns about the safety of moving oil on rails in this country, we should fix the trains which are largely unregulated, rather than foisting a pipeline that will largely move a completely different kind of oil (it’s worth noting that a half million barrels/day of pipeline capacity has been cancelled in the Dakotas due to lack of interest from oil producers).
    But there is a scary element to all of this. The tar sands represent one of the most carbon intensive types of oil on the planet.
    If you have concerns about climate change, tar sands should concern you.
    If you find alarming the recent federal report noting that we are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the form of weather patterns that will continue to bake our corn crops and make the Mississippi swing wildly between flood stage and a trickle, this pipeline should concern you.
    There is a reason it is called “Keystone” as it is essential to the unsustainable growth of tar sands production. Without it, the industry will be forced to take a step back and slow the disastrous pace of extraction that already makes the tar sands the fastest-growing sector of carbon emissions in Canada. Our neighbors to the North are already our biggest supplier of oil. That will not change. But our children and grandchildren cannot afford to bankroll a fuel source that worsens our climate problems. The time for climate action is upon us, and saying “no” to a pipeline that offers Americans little benefit is a step in the right direction.
    Taking our energy sector in a different direction, away from the dirtiest of dirty fuels and toward clean, efficient, modern technologies would actually fulfill the false promises of the pipeline backers: jobs and domestic energy security. That makes a lot more sense.
    Henry Henderson is Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a Granite City native.

Leave a Comment