24n,Alberta,Aurora Mine,boom,Ca
The source: the Fort McMurray tar sands. (Larry MacDougal/AP Images)

Presidential Pipe Dreams

A brief guide to the biggest environmental issue of the 2012 election

24n,Alberta,Aurora Mine,boom,Ca
Larry MacDougal/AP Images

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Pipe Dreams

Presidential candidates don’t usually squabble over underground infrastructure. So how did the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline become the biggest environmental issue of the election?

SEPTEMBER 2008: Energy company TransCanada applies for a U.S. permit to build Keystone XL.

FEBRUARY 2009: The State Department launches an environmental-impact study with Cardno Entrix—a consulting firm hired by Trans-Canada in the past. 

AUGUST 2011: The study finds that Keystone will have “no material impact” on the environment.

NOVEMBER 2011: Some 12,000 protesters encircle the White House. Days later, President Obama postpones his decision and requests further environmental review.

NOVEMBER 2011: Republican lawmakers introduce legislation aimed at forcing Obama to make a decision on Keystone.

JANUARY 2012: The president rejects TransCanada’s application; Mitt Romney refers to the pipeline for the first time, slamming Obama.

FEBRUARY 2012: TransCanada announces that it will split the pipeline in two and build the section from Oklahoma to Texas, which doesn’t require a permit to cross the U.S. border.

MARCH 2012: Obama fast-tracks the southern leg of the pipeline, boasting that his administration has laid enough pipeline “to circle the earth.”

APRIL 2012: Romney tells an Arizona crowd that he will “build that pipeline if I have to do it myself.”

Whether Obama or Romney wins may hardly matter: insiders say the pipeline will probably happen either way in early 2013. If he’s reelected, chances are Obama will let the second environmental-impact study run its course, then approve a plan, albeit with conditions. (He could, say, tie it to new vehicle emissions regulations.) And if Romney is elected? Despite his campaign promises, he can’t make Keystone his first order of business. He, too, will have to wait for the study.

Loaded Questions

Essential info on what’s in the pipe

The projected path of the Keystone XL.
The projected path of the Keystone XL.

Didn’t they alter the route for Keystone XL?
Yes. TransCanada has proposed rerouting a 100-mile section around Nebraska’s Sandhills wetlands. But the new route still crosses the 174,000-square-mile Ogallala Aquifer, a source of drinking water and irrigation for eight states.

Who gets the oil?
Refineries in Texas, many of which are owned by three big companies—Valero, Total, and Shell-Saudi Aramco—that export much of their product to Latin America and Europe.

Who loses?
Midwesterners accustomed to cheap gas, thanks to a supply glut at the refinery hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, which Keystone XL will relieve. Some experts think prices could jump 50 cents a gallon in the Midwest.

What’s in the stuff?
Tar-sands oil, or bitumen, is a nearly solid fuel laden with sulfur and heavy metals. To make it flow through the pipe, diluents are blended in. These are often natural-gas liquids, which can include the carcinogen benzene.

If we don’t build Keystone, won’t the oil just go to China?
It’s true that China is very interested in Alberta. But the U.S.-or-China equation is simplistic—this is about the global oil market. “North America is in the hot seat to turn on more oil than we could need for the next 100 years,” says Deborah Gordon, a climate expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But if we turn it on all at once, we’re going to crash the market.”

From Outside Magazine, Nov 2012 Lead Photo: Larry MacDougal/AP Images