What is the Pipeline exactly?
The Keystone Pipeline already exists. What doesn’t is its proposed expansion, the Keystone XL Pipeline. The existing one runs from oil sand fields in Alberta, Canada into the U.S., ending in Cushing, Oklahoma.
The 1,700 new miles of pipeline would offer two sections of expansion. First, it would connect Cushing, Oklahoma, where there is a current bottleneck of oil, with the Gulf Coast of Texas, where oil refineries abound. Second, it would include a new section from Alberta to Kansas. It would pass through Bakken Shale region of eastern Montana and western North Dakota. Here, it will pass through a region where oil extraction is currently booming and take on some of this crude for transport.
The specific states the line would travel through are Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The line would cross through 16 counties in North and East Texas. (A map below lays out the existing and proposed routes.)
Besides revising the pipeline’s course, Keystone XL would also increase capacity by enlarging the size of the pipes’ diameter from its current 30 inches to 36 inches.
The multi-billion dollar project is being proposed by TransCanada, a Canadian energy company. TransCanada has been attempting to get a permit for the new pipeline for more than three years. Since the pipeline crosses international borders, TransCanada needs to obtain a Presidential Permit through the State Department for construction of the portion of the pipeline that goes from Canada to the U.S. “Quite frankly we need a Presidential Permit for about 50 feet of pipe. If we weren’t crossing that border then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” TransCanada Public Relations representative Jim Prescott told StateImpact Texas earlier this year.
Ever since the Obama administration rejected TransCanada’s original request for a presidential permit to pipe tar sands crude from Alberta to Texas, TransCanada officials have been planning to build the project incrementally.
A section of pipe from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast, called the Gulf Coast Project by TransCanada, is expected to be mostly operational by the end of 2013.
The northern segment, from Alberta to Texas, has been re-submitted for approval at the federal level.
Here is a map of the existing and proposed pipeline. The already existing pipeline is represented by the solid lines and the proposed pipeline by the dashed lines:
Map by TransCanada of the existing and proposed Keystone XL pipelines
How Many Jobs Will the Pipeline Create?
The amount of jobs the pipeline will create is a contested issue and differs from source to source. Some estimates have gone as high as 500,000, which is highly unlikely. TransCanada’s own evaluation estimates the pipeline would bring 20,000 new jobs to the US. (Factors such as direct vs. indirect employment and short-term versus long-term job creation fuel the discrepancies.) The State Department estimates that the pipeline would only create 5,000 to 6,000 jobs in construction.
What Kind of Environmental Impact Will the Pipeline Have?
Many critics of Keystone XL worry it will have harmful environmental impacts. The Sierra Club has said it opposes the specific use of tar sand, which is found in the deposits in Canada. The scientific name for tar sand is bitumen, a mixture of clay, sand, water, and oil that with modern technology can be refined into usable oil. Critics say that it is more corrosive than conventional oil. A report by a coalition of critics that include the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council claimed that “bitumen blends are more acidic, thick and sulfuric than conventional crude” and “contain significantly higher quantities of abrasive quartz sand particles.”
It is this corrosiveness that has certain parties concerned about leaks in the pipeline. A U.S. Department of State investigation shows that there have been 14 spills from TransCanada pipelines, though most relatively small. However, none of them were caused by corrosion of the pipeline but by faulty “fittings and seals at pump or valve stations,” the investigation reports.
For evidence against the transport of tar sands crude, environmentalists point to an event in May 2011, when 21,000 gallons of oil leaked in North Dakota. This was also due to a faulty valve. The State Department says the maximum amount of spillage in a worst-case-scenario of a Keystone Pipeline leak is 2.8 million gallons spread throughout a 1.7 mile area. TransCanada points out that this is significantly smaller than the amount that escaped during the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
A March 2013 spill of tar-sands bitumen in Mayflower, Arkansas put the Keystone XL pipeline back in the spotlight. An ExxonMobil pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada burst, sending more than 12,000 barrels of oil down residential streets and through people’s yards. The pipe was decades old. The spill was categorized as “major” by the Environemntal Protection Agency (EPA) and the cleanup is ongoing.
Debate about the environmental impact of the pipeline often uses Enbridge, another Canadian energy company that transports tar sands crude into the U.S, as a comparison. This competitor of TransCanada “has actually been transporting these types of products [tar sands crude] since 1999 in our pipelines,” said Denise Hamsher, Enbridge’s head of planning. Despite her claim, Enbridge is not without heavy public scrutiny. In July 2010, one of Enbridge’s pipelines ruptured in southern Michigan. Thousands of gallons of oil sands crude flowed into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Investigation into the cause of the spill is still ongoing.
Industry expert Oliver Moghissi of DNV, a risk management company, acknowledges corrosion’s ability to cause a pipeline rupture. “Corrosion tends to be [the] number two” cause of pipeline failure, he told StateImpact Texas. (Number one being “outside force damage, usually by an excavator.”) But he contends there’s nothing in Canadian crude that makes it any more risky than conventional crude to the long-term reliability of a pipeline. “I don’t agree that it presents a unique kind of corrosion threat,” he said.
Environmentalists also point to the process of refining tar sand saying it will create large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, though the exact percentage increase is debated.
Here is a map from the Department of State showing where the Keystone XL pipeline would go through Texas:
Opposition from Landowners
Some Texans oppose the pipeline. One of them is farmer Julia Trigg Crawford. After Crawford declined to sign an agreement with the company, they used eminent domain to gain access to her land. She responded by filing a temporary restraining order.
Since then, Crawford’s restraining order has gone through a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Here’s the timeline: Her first restraining order was dissolved by the courts in Feb 2012, and shortly after TransCanada announced it intended to go ahead and start construction on the southern leg of the pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Then in March 2012, an appeals court reinstated the restraining order after an appeal by Crawford, preventing construction from taking place. But it was later dissolved yet again for a final time.
Crawford was in Austin in mid April 2013 to testify before the State House Business and Industry Committee. That’s where a bill by longtime State Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, HB 3547, is currently being considered. It would significantly change how pipeline companies get eminent domain in Texas, with implications for both landowners and the oil and gas industry.
Why Was the Pipeline Delayed?
In the run-up to the Department of State’s decision on the pipeline, environmentalists and private homeowners in Nebraska joined forces to oppose Keystone’s route through their state. They argued that the intended route would run through the Sandhills area of Nebraska. This part of the state lies on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, where the majority of the water resources serving the Mid-West are located.
The Sandhills are home to a giant freshwater aquifer that is used for water supply. The ground is so thin in some parts of the area that groundwater on occasion rises to the surface. Water there is used primarily for irrigation, but some 2 million people also use it for drinking water.
In October 2011, the Obama Administration attempted to delay a decision on granting the pipeline a permit until 2013 at the earliest. In its statement, the White House said the reason for the delay was environmental concerns.
The Department of State issued their own statement, saying they will conduct an in-depth review to consider alternate routes in Nebraska. The Nebraska legislature called for a special session to discuss rerouting the pipeline to avoid the Ogallala Aquifer. They have also allotted up to $2 million to conduct an environmental impact study on the new route that will circumnavigate the state’s vulnerable Sandhills region.
There has been criticism from some members of Congress regarding the State Department’s handling of the initial environmental impact inquiry. An environmental group obtained emails sent between TransCanada lobbyists and State Department officials, purporting to show an over-eagerness on the government’s part to grant TransCanada a permit. Others have alleged that TransCanada was allowed to choose which company would evaluate the pipeline’s proposed environmental impact.
What Happens Next?
President Obama is not opposed altogether to the construction of the pipeline. In 2012, he endorsed the building of its southern half that begins in Cushing, Okla. – an important hub for petroleum processing and transportation – and ends at the refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Noting that there’s a bottleneck in Cushing of oil, coming in from places like the oil sands of Alberta and the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, the President said that he’s “directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done.”
TransCanada naturally provided a positive response to the President’s endorsement. “We appreciate his support for the Gulf Coast project,” TransCanada representative James Prescott told StateImpact Texas. “Our plan is to continue our efforts to secure the permits that are necessary, so we’ve already begun that process. So we appreciate his support for expediting that.” On July 27, 2012, TransCanada announced that they had all the permits they needed for the southern leg of the pipeline, and that construction could begin within weeks.
Despite ongoing lawsuits, the lower leg of the pipeline, the Gulf Coast Project from Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf, is projected to be operational by summer 2013. While the Obama administration delays OKing the portion of the pipe that would cross the U.S.-Canada border, some in Congress are considering legislation that could bypass the President.
Investigating the Keystone XL Pipeline
In April, StateImpact reporters in Texas and Oklahoma launched a five-part collaborative series on the Keystone XL pipeline. StateImpact’s multimedia narrative includes the following reports by Mose Buchele, Dave Fehling, Terrence Henry, Logan Layden and Joe Wertz.
Oklahoma is in an unlikely economic predicament: It has too much oil.
With the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has come the claim that the crude from north of the border is uniquely risky.
The pipeline will cross the property of 850 landowners in Texas. And not all of them are happy about it.
Oklahoma landowner Sue Kelso fought TransCanada and won … sort of.
Texas politicians love giving lip service to the sanctity of private property. They also talk a lot about the benefits of the state’s robust oil and gas industry. But what happens when those two things come into conflict?
Interns Jessica Mahoney, Daniel Ramirez and David Barer contributed research and reporting to this topic page.