What Is The Keystone XL Pipeline?

Last week, President Obama made some pretty big news waves by promising to veto the (pending) approval bill for the Keystone XL Pipeline. The bill easily passed through the House of  Representatives last week with a vote of 266–153 (including 28 Democrats), and on Monday, the Senate advanced the legislation to debate with a 63–32 vote. Obama still has his Presidential power to veto the bill if it passes through the Senate, where voting on approval will take place this Friday.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is a pretty big deal, and unless you have been closely following it, or live in an area that will be directly affected, you may not know quite what it entails. Here is the breakdown of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and what you need to know while waiting for the Senate’s vote this Friday:

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Here’s the thing: About half of it is already built. Right now, the pipeline starts in the oil sand fields in Alberta, Canada, and cuts international borders, into South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, and, after a 2012 extension, finally settles in Cushing, Oklahoma. The current bill is proposing an expansion, which would add 1,700 miles. TransCanada, the owner and operator of the existing pipeline, have been trying since 2008 to create a direct pipeline from Alberta to Cushing. The entire pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil into the United States everyday.

Why is this such a huge political issue?

The U.S. Senate and the President need to approve the construction, since the pipeline crosses international borders. There are also concerns with some of the bigger issues: jobs, health, and environmental impact. It’s become a polarizing issue as both Democrats and Republicans have made it a campaign focus.

How could it help us?

Tar sands oil could provide the United States with enough oil for 30 years, in the form of 170-million barrels of oil (the tar sands are make up 99 percent of that 170-million barrels).

Currently, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria are the U.S.’s primary oil imports, but the pipeline would put far more reliance on Canada and less on other foreign oil resources.

It could also pump a whopping $3.4 billion into the U.S. economy, according to a State Department report.

What about the environmental concerns?

The tar sand oils are found within the boreal forests of Canada. To get to the tar sand oils flowing into the Pipeline, TransCanada can use two methods to separate the sticky bitumen (the tar) from the sand, clay, and water.

The first way uses water (three barrels of freshwater per barrel of oil) and natural gas to create and pump steam into the sands, thus extracting the bitumen oil and creating toxic runoff. Or, in the second method, Trans Canada can employ strip mining and heat within the boreal forests. This results in massive deforestation, and hundreds of acres of barren lands. The extraction and refining processes of tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon dioxide than processes used extracting other types of oil.

What about jobs?

The State Department has put the number at 42,100 temporary jobs over the two-year period it will take to build. Thirty-nine-hundred of the temporary jobs are construction, and the rest are results of food, entertainment, and health care services around construction sites.

The Keystone XL Pipeline will result in 35 permanent jobs, many of which are maintenance jobs.

Are there other risks?

The proposed route goes right through  one of the largest sources of freshwater in America: the Ogallala Aquifer, lying beneath many of the Great Plains states. It is estimated that the Keystone XL Pipeline could have more than 90 major spills within 50 years, which is bad news for the aquifer, the environment, and for public health.

Some environmentalists believe the transport of tar oil sands in pipelines is dangerous. While the processing method removes the clay, grit, and sand from the oil, the bitumen is more “acidic, thick and sulfuric than conventional crude.” This is concerning as it may be more abrasive against the pipe, resulting in more spills than found in pipelines transporting other types of oil.

Landowners are at risk as well: The proposed route cuts through private residences, and the bill would mean that they would have to give up their land over to a foreign company, while watching their land be dug up.

The Catch:

There is speculation that if the United States doesn’t utilize all of that tar sands oil via the TransCanada pipeline, then other nations will jump on it. Is this reason enough for Americans to okay the pipeline?

The proposed expansion bill has already gone through the House. Come Friday the Senate may very well approve it as well, but the final say lies with President Obama. The Keystone XL Pipeline has become a key issue in this age of environmentalism. However the bill passes, its effects will be felt for a long time.

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