Suncor mine and tailings ponds near Ft McKay in Alberta, Canada. Photo: Aaron Huey

Your Keystone Cheat Sheet

President Obama on November 6 rejected a request from TransCanada to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, capping seven years of heated political debate about the project's viability as a potential boon to the U.S. economy. Obama said the project "would not serve the national interests of the United States," and sought to dispel claims that the pipeline would be a major job-creator, lower gas prices nationwide, and increase the country's energy security. Throughout its controversial history, Keystone XL has become a proxy for our country’s debates over energy, climate, and the economy. Here, we seek to unpack the arguments for and against the project.

President Obama has signaled that he will veto any bill compelling construction of the Keystone pipeline if it comes to his desk. Photo: Matt Wansley/Flickr

What to Expect From the Debate in 2015

After 6 years mired in political turmoil, the controversial pipeline proposal could be concluded this year.

President Obama on February 24 vetoed the Keystone pipeline proposal, a move which doesn’t close the book on the pipeline but concludes a six-year chapter of political posturing.

Debate over the $7 billion, 1,700-mile proposed project, which stretches from the tar sands mines of northern Alberta south through the Great Plains to refineries on the Gulf Coast, has raged for six years now. Along the way, it has become a line in the sand for environmentalists who staunchly oppose the pipeline and a nonnegotiable demand for supporters who claim it will finally end our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. As the proposal has crept through multiple State Department review processes, Native American land and treaty rights’ disputes, and major court battles in Texas and Nebraska, the petroleum industry has complained that Keystone is now the most debated pipeline in history. They say it’s time to build.

Republicans in Congress argue that Keystone XL is a much-needed infrastructure project that will provide tens of thousands of jobs and keep gas prices low. Obama has signaled that he disagrees and has ridiculed Republicans for citing the State Department’s assessment that Keystone XL would create roughly 42,000 jobs, pointing out that TransCanada, the company that would oversee the project, projected those jobs would last less than a year. After that, just 35 permanent jobs would remain. As for claims about gas prices or the larger economy, the president has been blunt. “It’s good for the Canadian oil industry,” he said at a press conference last month, “but it’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to U.S. consumers.”

Despite Obama’s veto threat, the House of Representatives approved the Keystone XL Pipeline Act on January 9, with 29 Democrats voting in favor. On January 29, the legislation passed the Senate on a 62-36 vote—still five shy of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

Now we can expect intense horse-trading in the effort to muster the remaining votes. But New York Senator Chuck Schumer has promised that the Democratic caucus can sustain Obama's veto. If they do, it will be up to Obama alone to decide whether to reject Keystone XL outright or to approve it as part of a larger energy package. For those hoping for a definitive statement about which way he’s leaning, Obama was frustratingly vague during his January 20 State of the Union address. He touted the fact that the United States is now the top producer of wind energy, but he also praised our place as the leading producer of oil and gas. Economic growth in the new century will require wholesale rebuilding of our infrastructure, he said. “So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year and make this country stronger for decades to come.”

What shape such a plan might take—and what part Keystone XL will play—will be the subject of furious debate in the coming months.

Ted Genoways (@tedgenoways) is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, as well as a contributing writer for Mother Jones and editor-at-large of onEarth Magazine. He wrote about Alberta's tar sands in the December 2014 issue of Outside.

Canada's tar sands are among the most important fossil fuel deposits that need to be left alone if we want to tackle climate change, according to a recent paper in Nature. Photo: dan_prat/iStock

This Decision Will Unlock Emissions Endgame

Research continues to reinforce long-standing claims that tapping Canada’s tar sands will push global temperatures to scary heights

Early in January, a team of researchers from University College London published a paper in the key scientific journal Nature. It took the most important fact about global warming—that the world’s fossil fuel companies have already located five times more carbon than scientists say we can burn without overheating the planet—and added a new layer of detail, exploring precisely which deposits should be left untouched. High on the list is Canada’s vast tar sands, which the authors said should be tapped for only a “negligible” amount of oil going forward if we are serious about dealing with climate change.

The paper came as vindication, as the long fight over the Keystone pipeline finally seems to be drawing to a close. The fight started with brave resistance from First Nations people in Alberta and ranchers in Nebraska, but it went global in 2011 when former NOAA climatologist James Hansen, the planet’s premier climate scientist, published a paper showing for the first time that a vast pool of carbon lay beneath the tar sands. Pump it all, he said, and it would be “game over” for the planet. Despite that warning, everyone thought Keystone was a done deal. In fact, a National Journal poll of “energy and environment insiders” in October 2011 found that 91 percent expected that TransCanada would receive its presidential permit in short order.

That the company hasn’t been awarded a permit is a triumph of organizing: Keystone has drawn more Americans into the streets than any environmental issue in a generation, produced more comments to the government than any infrastructure project in history, and spawned more arrests than just about any cause for many years.

If President Obama does the right thing, it will be the first time in history that a world leader has said, “Here's a big project I'm not going to approve because of the climate.” As the Nature article makes clear, this carbon deposit must remain substantially untapped if we’re to have a prayer of holding temperature increases to two degrees Celsius—the internationally recognized red line for climate. It’s not the only carbon pool we must leave alone. There are also the coalfields of Wyoming and Australia, the fracking zones of California and Poland, and the deep-sea deposits off Brazil and the Arctic. But Canada’s tar sands are a good place to start.

Author Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and founded In 2014 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the "alternative Nobel," in the Swedish Parliament.

Blocking a pipeline (pictured: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline) won't necessarily stop the oil from getting to the pump, but it will change its mode of transportation—the alternative, rail cars, are more risky. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey/Flickr

Blocking the Pipeline Won’t Slow Global Warming

Climate change and the global demand for oil will persist whether or not Keystone is built

Global warming is one of the world’s most important policy challenges, but blocking the Keystone pipeline is not an effective way to address it. Government interference in what should be a purely commercial decision about building the pipeline is likely to harm the environment over the long haul, and it won’t make a meaningful dent in the market for oil.

Regardless of whether Keystone is built, market forces can’t be ignored: If it makes economic sense to produce oil from a particular shale-oil resource, that oil will inevitably make its way to the pump. The main effect of blocking Keystone wouldn’t be to keep this carbon in the ground or to reduce emissions. Instead, blocking it would mean that oil will be transported on rail cars, which are much riskier than a pipeline. In recent years, several oil-train derailments and spills have harmed local communities around North America.

Sure, rail cars are more expensive, and that extra cost could theoretically hinder the production of shale oil, but it’s more likely that the extra costs will cause only a hiccup. Regardless of transport method, the economics of shale will likely set the price at whatever level is needed to pump new supplies while rendering only minimal effects on the actual volumes pumped.

Whether a slightly higher oil price will lead to lower emissions is hard to pin down. On the one hand, more expensive oil encourages efficiency. But on the other, slightly higher oil prices will have little direct impact on the fuels that matter most for warming emissions—coal, gas, nuclear and renewables used for electricity.

Outright refusal to approve Keystone would also give away some leverage the United States might have on Canada, a country that, today, doesn’t have a serious national climate policy. Canadian officials have signaled that they would do more to form a cohesive climate strategy in exchange for U.S. approval of the cherished pipeline. Getting serious about climate change requires getting serious about strategy and about using leverage where it exists.

The use of simple slogans is good for rallying people to the streets and donors for election campaigns. But on Keystone the simple slogans lead to exactly the wrong environmental policy.

David Victor is a professor at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, and the director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation. He is also the author of Global Warming Gridlock.

"The tragic irony is that no country on earth is better positioned to pioneer the transition to renewable energy than Canada." Photo: tarsandsaction/Flickr

The New North American Petro-State

Canada has the potential to lead the world in renewable energy—if only the government will listen

The Keystone XL pipeline is only one aspiring tentacle of Alberta’s tar-sands octopus. There are other appendages struggling to reach out to any overseas market that will buy the stuff. So far only two are operational: Kinder Morgan’s 60-year-old Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries petroleum products to the port of Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Enbridge line feeding the Koch brothers’ Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota. All the others—a proposed line to B.C.’s north coast, another to the Arctic Ocean, an oil-train scheme to Hudson Bay (along tracks compromised by melting permafrost), and a proposed eastbound line to Canada’s Atlantic coast—have encountered determined and growing opposition. From the indigenous Hold the Wall initiative to French-Canadian resistance to TransCanada’s planned Energy East pipeline, citizens have realized that bitumen—the heavy, viscous crude produced by tar-sands excavation—is a highly toxic substance that pollutes at every step, from mining and dilution for pumping to refining and burning, not to mention spilling, as in rivers like the Kalamazoo

But at a time when most advanced nations are sincerely grappling with climate change, Canada has dropped out, vying with Australia for top enviro-pariah status. In less than a decade, the country has been transformed, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, into an aspiring neoliberal petro-state, its currency tied to the price at the pump. Harper’s contempt for science and the environment, and his eagerness to accommodate foreign oil companies, has had a profound impact on both the economy and the character of what was once a fairly progressive country. His plans—and perhaps his leadership—have been thrown into disarray by the current crash in oil prices, but the multinationals, including Koch Industries, who are excavating central Alberta beyond all recognition are invested to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. While they may retract, they will not be retreating anytime soon.  

The tragic irony is that no country on earth is better positioned to pioneer the transition to renewable energy than Canada. With its vast land area, abundant natural resources, low population, high level of education, and deep pool of immigrant wealth and talent, it is arguably the richest, luckiest nation on earth. It has enough wind, water, solar, geothermal, and tidal energy potential to power the planet. For this reason, stopping Keystone and its northern counterparts is not only crucial for the environment, but it also sends a clear and unified message that North Americans are ready to embrace a renewable future. In this sense, blocking Keystone XL is much more than the sum of its single part. Its fate will have a profound influence, not only on other proposed pipelines, but on the future of the entire planet.

Vancouver-based John Vaillant (@johnvaillant) is the author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce. His first novelThe Jaguar’s Children, was published in January.

The Ogallala aquifer supplies the Great Plains and is one of the world's largest aquifers. Photo: Kelly DeLay/Flickr

The Aquifer Claims Are Overblown

A hydrologist lays out why Great Plains groundwater is safe from possible leaks in the pipeline

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline contend that a leak in the line would almost certainly ruin one of the country’s largest and most important aquifers. Their contention is incorrect.

To understand just how the Ogallala Aquifer works requires a brief introduction to its geology. The Ogallala is a rock formation made of varied layers of sandstones, conglomerates, and siltstones. These layers were created from deposits laid down by ancient rivers flowing off the Rocky Mountains. Held within this rock formation is the fresh, abundant water that gives the High Plains one of the most reliable water supplies in the world. The water flows at varying rates, depending upon the nature of the materials hosting it. In some places, the flow might be just a few feet a year—in other places, a few hundred feet a year.

This subsurface water is not wide-open like a lake; it is held within the pores of sedimentary rocks. Nebraska is particularly fortunate because 66 percent of the water in the Ogallala Aquifer is within the state. This water is prevented from flowing southward into Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas by the deeply incised Republican River. So although the aquifer’s water is being heavily depleted in states to the south, there is abundant water in Nebraska that is currently being managed in a wise and sustainable manner.

Here’s why this water is not at risk from a leak in the Keystone XL pipeline:

About 75 to 80 percent of the aquifer’s groundwater lies upgradient, or uphill, from the revised pipeline route. As water engineers have pointed out, an oil spill would move downgradient, so groundwater wouldn’t be contaminated by leakage from the pipeline.

For nearly all of the 20 to 25 percent of the aquifer that is downgradient, the top of the aquifer is separated from the pipeline by 50 feet or more of unsaturated material that contains enough fine-grained sediments to protect the aquifer from the effects of a leakage.

Extrapolating from U.S. Geological Survey studies in Minnesota and from my own field experience (I have drilled and logged and analyzed more than 1,100 Ogallala test holes), leakage from the pipeline would be localized within a short distance from the pipeline, greatly limiting any deleterious impacts. These conclusions are similar to the conclusions from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the formal federal reviews of the project coordinated by the United States Department of State.

Knowing the aquifer as well as I do, I encourage everyone to look at the science rather than be swayed by emotional misconceptions, well meaning though they may be.

James W. Goeke is a retired Professor Emeritus who worked as a research hydrogeologist for 41 years with the University of Nebraska Conservation and Survey Division.

Filed To: Politics, Science, Nebraska

A family of sandhill cranes. The birds live throughout North America, including along the proposed route of the Keystone pipeline. Photo: Stepan Mazurov/Flickr

A Toxic Threat to Wildlife

Putting pipelines through sensitive ecosystems has led to catastrophic oil leaks before. The threat from Keystone is no different.

An underreported fact about Keystone is that the pipeline and the carbon-intensive tar sands oil it would carry would pose a dire risk to wildlife, communities, and landscapes every step of the way.

At the mines in Alberta, tar sands developments are transforming formerly pristine boreal forest into toxic tailings ponds and open-pit mines in an area the size of Florida. This forest provides critical habitat to numerous species of waterfowl and songbirds, as well as the Canadian lynx, woodland caribou, and many other species. Producing a barrel of tar sands from the sticky bitumen found beneath the forest generates three times as many greenhouse gas emissions as producing a barrel of conventional oil–meaning Keystone would also exacerbate climate change, the single greatest threat facing wildlife today.

Transporting this dangerous oil would also pose a threat to wildlife along the entire proposed route, where impacts from construction and the inevitable spills that come with tar sands pipelines would imperil species like the tiny swift fox, the elegant whooping crane, and the endangered pallid sturgeon.

The Enbridge pipeline in Michigan leaked nearly a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010, poisoning people and wildlife for miles around. Because tar sands oil is so heavy, it sank to the bottom of the river, making cleanup nearly impossible. Keystone would pump more than 800,000 barrels of this heavy, toxic oil across 1,073 rivers, lakes, and streams and near the precious Ogalalla Aquifer in Nebraska, home to the iconic sandhill cranes and hundreds of family-owned farms and ranches.

Finally, tar sands oil threatens communities and wildlife at the end of the line, on the Gulf of Mexico, where tar sands refineries spew an array of toxic air pollutants known to cause cancer, birth defects, and respiratory conditions like asthma. The refineries also produce a by-product known as petroleum coke, or pet coke, a heavy black coal-like powder, often stored in uncovered piles along rivers, where a small mistake could be costly to local ecology. Pet coke can also be burned to generate electricity, though it is an extremely carbon-intensive fuel source, further adding to tar sands’ contribution to climate change.

Keystone would imperil wildlife and communities along the entire proposed route. It’s time for our leaders to stand up for our country’s wildlife, communities, and landscapes and say no to this toxic project once and for all.

Lena Moffitt (@LenaMDC) is the manager of federal policy on climate and energy program for the National Wildlife Federation.

Filed To: Politics, Science, Nebraska

Big. Crazy. Opinionated.

Thank you!