The Keystone XL Pipeline: A Dismaying (but not Final) Setback

Mar 5, 2013

The State Department’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

Last Friday afternoon, the State Department Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental Affairs issued a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) on the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL). FCNL is dismayed with the content of the State Department’s findings, which assumes that this ecologically destructive and carbon-intensive extraction and processing of highly corrosive oil, would develop at roughly the same pace regardless of whether the United States issues a permit for this pipeline. These findings are particularly disconcerting when contrasted against President Obama’s soaring rhetoric about his commitment to address climate change and the appointment of Secretary Kerry, who as a Senator, remained even during the days of deafening silence on climate change, one of the most steadfast and passionate advocates for action.

Would the rate of oilsands development would be affected by the Pipeline?

According to a study by the Canadian Pembina Institute, if constructed, the Keystone XL pipeline would be the largest and most significant proposed oilsands pipeline in the world with a capacity of 830,000 barrels per day. The pipeline would enable a 36 per cent increase in oilsands production, the equivalent in annual greenhouse emissions of over 4.6 million passenger vehicles. Currently, no other avenues for oilsands transport are of similar scale or in this advanced stage of development.

Are there potential negative consequences due to accidents?

Tar Sands Oil Spill in the Kalamazoo River, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Ecowatch.

The SEIS also does not adequately consider the demonstrated higher risk of pipeline failure due to external corrosion in high temperature pipelines like Keystone XL. The spill of 1.2 million gallons of oilsands into 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River in 2010 tangibly demonstrates the expense ($800 million) and unprecedented difficulty in cleaning up this kind of oil. TransCanada, which would construct the Keystone XL pipeline, is currently under a sweeping audit for systematic violations of minimum safety regulations in the construction of its pipelines. Furthermore, American taxpayers, not oilsands refiners, foot the bill for spills of tar sands oil on US soil. An IRS decision exempts tar sands refiners from paying the 8-cents-per-barrel excise tax applied to other crude oil and petroleum products that funds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

What about the potential jobs?

The job creation figures are a pipedream. The SEIS, based on TransCanada’s own numbers, shows that at the most 3,900 temporary, construction jobs, only 35 permanent jobs will be created by the pipeline, and that only 10% of the total workforce will be hired locally. Most of the oilsands is destined for export, contradicting the claim that KXL will improve the US’s energy independence.

Industry advocates point to growing demand for oil sands crude and jobs as justification for KXL’s construction. First, based on the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events and projections supported by a near consensus of the scientific community, the world needs to wean itself off of fossil fuels quickly and dramatically, not continue its development. Notwithstanding a climate crisis, fossil fuels are a finite source, thus this industry will inevitably be a failed business model. Wind, solar, and geothermal are infinite sources which we must rely on in the future, and therefore must point ourselves in that direction.

The legacy of fossil fuel development, including for oilsands, is dirty and grim. These oil sands lie under approximately 140,000 square kilometers of the boreal forest in northern Alberta, which is being destroyed for its extraction. The development is the largest source of GHG emissions in Canada, and is sickening the peoples and ecology around it.

Athabascan Delta. Photo courtesy the Pembina Institute.

Syncrude oil sands operation. Photo courtesy the Pembina Institute.

The Good News – You Can Act

Fortunately, this SEIS is not the final word. A final decision is not likely until sometime in mid-July at the earliest, for the SEIS is subject to a 45-day comment period, a final EIS likely to at least 30 days of public comment, and then another 45 days for public comment on a national interest determination. Please consider providing your comments to the report to the State Department at and also coming to our Spring Lobby Weekend to help us lobby for a new US approach to climate disruption.

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