WTF Is The Keystone XL Pipeline?!?

The Keystone XL Pipeline – you’ve certainly heard that term before. ?What the hell is it, and why is everyone so wound up about the whole thing? ?I must state due to obligatory journalistic practices (not really), that what you’re about to read may shock you. ?It probably won’t, but apparently that’s a great attention-getter. ?Anyway, it’s time to answer some of the big questions surrounding the pipeline, and hopefully convince you that the issue is worth caring about.


1. What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

The Keystone XL Pipeline is, well, an oil pipeline. ?The portions already built are divided into phases. ?Phase I runs from east Alberta south into refineries located in Steele City, Nebraska; Wood River, Illinois; and Patoka, Illinois. ?The second phase of the pipeline branches off from Steele City and goes south to Cushing, Oklahoma. ?Phase III, which went live in January, runs?from Cushing, Oklahoma to Nederland, Texas. ?In case you’re more of a visual learner, I took the liberty of pulling a handy map diagram from the project’s website:

Map of the Keystone XL Pipeline
How crude.

The yellow dotted line to Houston is currently under construction. ?The blue dotted line represents the proposed Phase IV of the pipeline, but we’ll get to that in a minute. ?The pipeline carries crude oil and diluted bitumen from Canada to refineries in the United States for processing. ?You may have also heard the phrase “Tar Sands Pipeline.” ?This is in reference to the unusual method by which the oil is acquired. ?While this rarely happens in the US, in Canada, there is a huge industry in which oil is extracted from tar sands. ?Tar sand is exactly what it sounds like; a combination of clay, sand, dirt, and the aforementioned bitumen, before it’s diluted. ?The dilution process is the method by which this tar sand is capable of being transported. ?Once transported, the oil has to be extracted from the sand and clay, which is also exactly what it sounds like: complicated. ?I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that tar sand extraction and refinement is a much more complex and involved process than the standard methods by which we acquire oil.

2. If it’s already built, what is everyone screaming about?

This is where we get to the Phase IV I mentioned very recently. ?The fourth phase of the Keystone XL Pipeline project, represented by the blue dotted line in the above map, is a pipeline that would run from its origin point in Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. ?This phase of the project is over 320 miles long, and would pass through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska to get to its intended destination where contents could be distributed to any of the already established end points. ?While the pipeline system has been challenged from the start, it’s this expansion that is currently under debate. ?While there are several reasons for resistance, one of the key issues is that the Phase IV expansion would run over the Ogallala Aquifer that resides in eight states. ?More on that later. ?(I swear, I’m not procrastinating on these questions, I’m just building dramatic tension.)

The Ogallala Aquifer
The Ogallala Aquifer, now in blue raspberry and heavily diluted bitumen.

About three years ago, when President Obama was faced with the decision to approve or deny the pipeline, he stalled a bit – the problem was that Democrats were actually divided on the issue. ?Some were in favor, primarily due to the cost-saving measures and the number of jobs it would create. ?Others took the environmental approach, believing that the risks outweighed any benefit. ?According to NPR, when Congress attempted to force an answer by setting a deadline, Obama rejected the permit application. ?Now the pipeline issue is being brought before the Senate on Tuesday. ?Approval by the Senate means full approval for the project to start.

3. What are the economic issues being debated?

What a handsome question. ?There are two sides to every story, so I’ll show both. ?I’ll try to keep my personal views out of it until the end so you can read free and clear of my own insanity views until you’re ready for them.

Pro-pipeline:?According to TransCanada‘s website, the pipeline expansion project will create 9,000 jobs, using American workers affiliated with multiple labor unions. ?It also mentions that the property taxes gained from the pipeline once built will support local economies.

Anti-pipeline:?According to the Natural Resource Defense Council?(NRDC), the increase in jobs claimed by TransCanada is only temporary, with all but 35 of those jobs disappearing once the project is complete (expected construction time is about a year). ?Also, they claim that most of the oil will be shipped overseas for a higher profit, though TransCanada dodges?this, as they don’t own any of the oil that will be running through the pipeline. ?Valero, one of the companies purchasing the Canadian crude, has stated that less than 10% of?the oil extracted is shipped overseas.

4. Economics are boring. ?What’s going on with the environmental stuff? ?And what about that aquifer thing you mentioned?

Trying to get to the heart of the matter, eh? ?Alright, I’ll play ball. ?Probably the largest source of controversy on this project is the growing environmental concern. ?Oil spills, though rare, are devastating to the ecosystem, and having such a major oil pipeline running over a massive source of drinking water is causing alarm.

And you thought the coffee at the office was bad before...
And you thought the coffee at the office was bad before…

Pro-pipeline: TransCanada claims that the Keystone XL Pipeline will be “the safest pipeline ever constructed in the United States.”? They plan to use satellites to monitor the pipeline, build remote shut-off valves for emergencies, bury the pipe deeper, carry out frequent inspections, and more. ?These are four entries out of “57 new safety procedures to provide even greater confidence regarding the operating and monitoring of Keystone XL.” ?The site also claims full responsibility for any oil spills or leaks, touting an advanced emergency response protocol into which they’ve invested $900 million annually.

Anti-pipeline: According to NPR, the production of crude oil from tar sands results in 17% more greenhouse gasses being emitted, due to the need to heat the oil to separate it from the sand. ?Now, if you’ve read this far and have two brain cells to rub together, you’ve probably guessed the other major point of contention: if the pipeline leaks over the Ogallala Aquifer, the results could be disastrous. ?The water from his aquifer is the primary source of water in the high plains area, which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming (per the map above, Nebraska is by far the biggest user of the water, though all the states use it for drinking and crop irrigation to some degree). ?The NRDC also ads that the mining process is tearing up the Canadian boreal forest, which is home to several endangered species, and that a leak could contaminate water and food for millions of Americans, to include several Native American populations in the area.

5. Got anything else to add about it?

TransCanada states on its website that there is a high demand for crude oil, whether to produce gasoline or other products, and therefore this pipeline is crucial to the economy. ?Nhe NRDC criticizes this stance, saying that by building the pipeline, the US is committing to the continued use of crude oil, which damages the environment, instead of committing to finding cleaner sources of energy. ?Also, NPR states that with gas prices falling, the appeal of tar sands oil will drop, since it is more expensive to produce, and a price drop causes the cost-benefit ratio to go off-kilter.

6. Okay, so you’ve shown both sides. ?Should I be worried or excited at the prospect of this new pipeline?

Now you’re asking my opinion. ?I know I said I wasn’t going to reveal my personal thoughts until the end, but if you’ve read the captions beneath the illustrations in this article, you probably already guessed that I’m against it. ?Between the cost of gas falling, the intense environmental hazards that would exist even if the pipeline?wasn’t being built atop the Ogallala Aquifer, the environmental hazards of refining tar sands, and the fact that the jobs being produced are extremely temporary, my personal risk-benefit analysis puts me at odds with the pipeline’s construction. ?Call me an old-fashioned hippie or a bleeding-heart environmentalist, but I believe we can?and will?destroy this world if we’re not careful – it’s not under any kind of divine protection that will safeguard it from stupidity. ?We’re advanced enough as a species now to try and look for alternative sources of energy that won’t worsen climate change or leak carcinogens into drinking water.

Of course, my inspirational little speech is moot at this point, for all intents and purposes. ?The senate makes their decision tomorrow for better or worse. ?Keep an eye out for the final decision.

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David Pham is a proud Gaytheist and Gaymer, and an Iraq Veteran who staunchly supports LGBT rights and the separation of church and state. When not reading or researching, he's usually found with his nose in his Kindle or Wii U Gamepad. He studies Psychology with the intent to provide therapy to Veterans and teach at the college level.