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Keystone XL: Why the American debate over a Canadian pipeline hurts so good

Written by Megan Ruxton SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science.

Canada is getting awfully fed up with the U.S, and if the most polite people in the world are starting to get steamed, you know something big is going on.

The issue causing indigestion for our maple-endowed neighbors to the north is the glacier-like pace of any sort of resolution regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed project of the Canadian energy company TransCanada, which would connect the oil sands of Alberta to refineries in the United States through a 1,179 mile pipeline. This pipeline would move an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil per day to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would then be routed through several other existing pipelines, carrying the Canadian crude to refineries in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast region.

Because the project would cross the Canada-U.S. border, TransCanada was required to apply for a Presidential Permit, which they initially did in 2008. As part of the permit process, the president delegates his or her authority to the Department of State, which is then responsible for making a decision based on a number of factors. One of the most pertinent of these is the need for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Protection Act in order to – as the name suggests – assess what, if any, impact a proposed project will have on the environment. In addition to this, the Department of State must also establish whether the project is part of the “national interest” – a term giving the connotation that the national interest is a well-known monolithic concept, rather than a vague and undefined term that can take into account everything from economic concerns to relationships between the U.S. and foreign nations to larger issues such as climate change.

Such divergent considerations set the scene for a political debate that is as American as Paleo-friendly apple pie. Unlike the more closed nature of environmental policymaking in Canada, the permeability of the American political system not only allows groups and individuals to express their views on an environmental policy, but as part of the EIS process, the agency in charge is required by law to respond to each and every comment that comes in. In this case, pipeline proponents argue for the inflow of more than just Canadian crude – also thousands of jobs and around $3.4 billion to bolster our sluggish economy; the pipeline also offers energy security by strengthening our energy relationship with Canada, our primary source of imported oil. Opponents of the pipeline question the legitimacy of yet another project that nurtures our dependence on fossil fuels, exacerbates the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and in particular they question the rosy facts and figures coming from proponents regarding the purported boost to the national GDP, and the number of jobs created. President Obama has said he will only approve the pipeline if it does not “significantly exacerbate” climate change. The delays coming from the increasingly heated debate, now seven years running since the first permit request, have prompted the newly Republican-led Congress to pass bills in both the House and the Senate approving the pipeline, an attempt to bypass the Obama administration’s perceived attempts to stall the Presidential Permit process, bills which Obama has already said he will veto. What we have is a stand-off that could be considered monumental – if it wasn’t already a frequent occurrence in Washington.

The often unspoken irony of the current debate is the existence of the Alberta Clipper pipeline. Construction of the Alberta Clipper began in 2008 and became active in 2010, running from the oil sands of Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin, transporting approximately 450,000 barrels per day. Being an international pipeline, the Alberta Clipper received the required Presidential Permit without ever being debated in Congress, and receiving barely any attention by the U.S. public. Several other pipelines crisscross the country (what Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has referred to as a “Mario Brother level of pipey-ness”), a mode of transportation oil companies find efficient and prefer over the increasingly expensive, dangerous and sometimes deadly method of truck and rail transportation.

The question then follows: Why has the Keystone XL become such a political kerfuffle? Following the entrance of environmentalists into the fray circa 2011, the Keystone XL pipeline became more than a question of governmental action, regardless of whether that action was considered an economic boon or an environmental hazard. It became a symbol of a much larger issue, a proxy debate over questions of oil sand extraction, climate change, and the impact of human activity on the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This technological issue, supported on both sides by scientific information, has become a political debate larger than the issue itself. The rhetoric on both sides continues to take hyperbole to its extreme, with the political Right claiming that if the US does not build Keystone XL, the terrorists win, and the political Left claiming that by building the pipeline, we will be contaminating our children.

Do these arguments seem a bit extreme for a pipeline less than 1,200 miles long connecting oil extraction sites to a system of other pipelines already moving Canadian crude across the country? Absolutely. Do they address the legitimate concerns held on both sides regarding the analysis and interpretation of the impacts this pipeline will have on the areas it goes through, as well as the United States as a whole? Not even close. Have environmentalists turned this into a battle against fossil fuels, even going so far as to join with the strangest of bedfellows, conservative ranchers in Nebraska? You’re darn tootin’. This is the political system in America, one that proves frustrating enough to fluster even the most patient Canuck, particularly those whose financial interests are at stake. A spokesman from TransCanada expressed his frustrations, saying, “The need for Keystone XL hasn’t changed. Our customers continue to remain behind it. We need a decision and we need the politics behind it to stop.” However, this is the form environmental and sustainability issues often take in the United States, thanks to the system that has been created, where individuals and groups can protest, litigate, and weigh in on the governmental actions that impact the environment. In his segment on the Keystone XL pipeline, Jon Stewart summed it up well: “This is what victory sometimes looks like in a democratic system.” A final decision on Keystone XL could be a long time coming, but such is its fate in an open, democratic process for environmental policymaking in the United States. Sometimes no progress means victory, not just for environmentalists, but for American democracy as well.

Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 1. Proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline (Source: TransCanada, at

Figure 2. Canadian and U.S. Oil Pipelines (Source: Keystone XL Assessment)

Figure 3. Artistic rendering of a contaminated child.


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