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Keystone XL Pipeline: Godsend or Good Riddance?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The contentious battle over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, slated to transport oil derived from Canadian tar sands down to the Gulf coast of the United States, continues to rage. With advocates on both sides of the issue perpetually raising the stakes and the vehemence of their dialogue, misinformation is bound to circulate.

Even as protestors of the pipeline chain themselves to excavation equipment to prevent the necessary digging to lay the pipe itself, how can we be sure KXL is such a bad idea after all? In fact, if everything it’s proponents say is true really is, maybe the pipeline is the exact opposite of the environmentally and anthropologically destructive travesty that environmentalists like Bill McKibben and have painted it to be. Let’s take a look at the biggest alleged benefits of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and see if maybe it’s time we stopped chanting “NOKXL” after all.

Americans need jobs, and KXL will provide them in spades.
At the beginning of the KXL battle, proponents such as presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said it would create more than 100,000 American jobs[1]. These incredibly high numbers have the same source in common – the pipeline’s parent company, Transcanada. If these numbers hold their salt, then the economic, job-creating boon of KXL might, arguably, be worth it. Right? Not so fast.
As it turns out, despite the high job numbers provided earlier in the KXL debate, even Transcanada is reneging on the efficacy of its project’s job-creating capacity. At present, a quick visit to the Transcanada website reveals that “if approved, Keystone XL will employ 9,000 Americans during construction[2].” Well it seems that that number is about 91,000 jobs less than we were told before. Can we even trust this new number?
Probably not. The job production calculations put forth by Transcanada turn out to be based on a vague concept called “person years,” meaning that if one person is employed for two years, that is counted as two job years – then presented to the public as two brand new jobs, not one job only two years in duration. Related research by scholars such as Sean Sweeney, director of Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute, find these numbers to be deceptive at best. Similarly, a State Department study estimates the pipeline’s job creation capacity at 5,000 to 6,000 workers during construction alone—once construction ends, almost all of these jobs would become obsolete. So what’s the score on the job-creating ability of KXL?
KXL: 0
Opposition: 1
KXL will increase our independence from Middle Eastern oil
American energy independence has become an increasingly central tenet of the present energy debate. President Obama himself has embraced the idea of seeking out North American sources of fossil fuels in the context of his “all of the above” energy policy. If the KXL pipeline will help us achieve this much sought after energy independence, then we should support it whole-heartedly! Again, not so fast.
Close inspection of the intended recipients of the KXL pipeline’s contents reveal that the U.S. is not one of them. In fact, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council Anthony Smith notes that in actuality “TransCanada refused to support a requirement that oil on Keystone XL be used in the United States in a recent Congressional hearing. Earlier this month, Representative Edward Markey asked TransCanada’s President Alex Pourbaix to support a condition that would require the oil on Keystone XL to be used in the United States. Mr. Pourbaix refused, saying that a requirement to keep oil on Keystone XL in the United States would cause refineries to back out of their contracts[3].” Well then, it would seem that maybe Transcanada is just using the United States’ land as a means to help stabilize its own energy export portfolio. With this as the case, were the KXL pipeline constructed, we would be no more energy independent than we are without it.
KXL: 0
Opposition: 2
Tar sands oil is a form of clean energy (No drilling! No oil spills from faulty rigs!), so supporting the pipeline is the environmentally conscious thing to do.
“Green energy” has certainly become quite the buzzword of late, even as certain members of the right wing consistently deny the negative effects of climate change that green energy alternatives would seek to halt. If tar sands energy is green, and if prominent members of the Republican party are so eager to support it, then shouldn’t we support their efforts to green our energy economy? Isn’t this compromise at its finest—green energy that is also a major job creator? Well, since we have already debunked the latter, let’s go ahead and take a look at whether the tar sands oil that the pipeline will transport is really as green as it seems.
According to the Sierra Club, tar sands oil is anything but green, starting with the production process all the way through its final use. Specifically, “greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production are three times those of conventional oil and gas production, and producing synthetic crude oil emits up to 20% more greenhouse gas emissions than low-sulfur, light crude oils.[4]” Additionally, the process of extracting tar sands oil is extremely water intensive – the production of a single gallon of oil requires thirty-five gallons of water[5]. This excessive water use coupled with the inefficiency of the entire production process, which requires about two tons of tar sands to produce one barrel of oil, renders the whole undertaking counter to the goals of the green energy movement. Throw in some highly toxic production emissions like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and formaldehyde, and KXL sure sounds likes a recipe for environmental disaster.
KXL: 0
Opposition: 3
New design technology means that the pipeline can’t ever leak!
Transcanada, after releasing its new and allegedly improved plans for the northern section of the KXL pipeline route, has begun heralding the pipeline as the safest pipeline that America has ever seen[6].  If the pipeline is actually so safe as to be leak-proof, an assertion which would essentially guarantee minimal to no habitat damage, contamination of the water table, etc., then why the big fuss from the environmentalists? Well, because when it comes to pipeline construction, there is no such thing as a guarantee.
For a purely anecdotal point of reference regarding the leak-proof capacity of pipelines in general, think about how often you have seen water pouring down a street as the inevitable result of a water main break. Water mains are, after all, pipes meant to carry a fluid substance over long distances, just like an oil pipeline. These water main breaks happen all the time, yet since water alone is not a contaminant, we spend little time acknowledging or panicking over these instances—until they affect our daily lives that is. But when the substance carried is as ecologically damaging as crude oil, and when even a trickle of a leak can have serious repercussions, the surrounding communities would not have the luxury of writing the leak off as an innocuous annoyance. The truth is that oil pipelines can and do leak quite frequently. In fact, a pipeline operated by Enbridge Inc ruptured just this past August near Grand Marsh, Wisconsin, spilling more than 1,000 barrels of oil before the flow could be halted[7]. The assertion that any pipeline is engineered beyond the capacity for failure is not only cocky, but impossible to guarantee.
KXL: 0
Opposition: 4
Is the KXL pipeline all that its supporters crack it up to be? The facts don’t merely suggest that this is not so, they declare it. A theoretically beneficial yet tangibly harmful project is unacceptable when the stakes are as high as the lives and health of the people and ecosystems that its very presence will endanger. According to the facts, it turns out that maybe Bill McKibben was right all along.


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[5] Ibid.


Cover photo courtesy of the Guardian