Proposed Keystone XL crude oil pipeline plugged with problems. // Martin Wightman The Argosy (Mount Allison University)

SACKVILLE, N.B. (CUP) — As any self-respecting plumber will tell you, pipes are complicated.

There’s hardly a pipe in the world that is currently as plugged up with problems as TransCanada’s Keystone XL: a 36-inch wide, 2,700-km long, $7-billion pipeline project that, if built, would span Alberta to Texas, eventually taking heavy bitumen crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the refining heartland of the American Gulf Coast.

TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline system went operational last year by converting an old natural gas pipeline to carry crude oil. This second pipeline, the XL, would double the capacity of the Keystone system to 1.1 million barrels of crude each day.
It’s hardly the first oil pipeline in North America. In fact, pipelines are generally one of the safer means of moving oil from one location to another. Still, the pipeline has been slammed with a myriad of environmental complaints.

First, there is the possibility of leaks, possibly into significant water resources such as the Yellowstone River or the Ogallala Aquifer in the American Midwest. Second, there’s the source of the oil itself: the Canadian tar sands, which are mined, rather than pumped, and widely considered one of the more environmentally destructive sources of oil, globally. And finally, there’s the statement it makes about America’s continuing commitment to petroleum, rather than climate-friendly alternatives.
There are other concerns, too: because there is already significant pipeline infrastructure between Canada and the U.S., the Keystone may run at less than full capacity; local communities may not receive fair remuneration (granted, it’s a vague complaint, but often true); and on our side of the border, some believe this project provides little benefit to Canada — only the possibility of a few more tar sands jobs.

But there are arguments for it: pipeline leaks are usually small and unlikely to cause excessive ecological damage, at least compared with tanker accidents such as the Exxon Valdez. There are an estimated 13,000 jobs available for Americans should the project proceed: an attractive proposition when the unemployment rate hovers close to 10 per cent. It also increases the Canadian percentage of America’s oil imports, easing America’s dependence on undemocratic nations that have less-than-stellar human rights and environmental records. Additionally, this particular project may have very little impact on greenhouse gas emissions: TransCanada has argued that the tar sands oil will be mined either way and shipped other places (read: China) if not to the U.S.

The pipeline has cleared most regulatory hurdles but isn’t out of the woods yet due to the conflicting goals of the American government. The U.S. Department of State and President Obama now face the dilemma of deciding whether the pipeline is in the national interest. Approval would create “shovel-ready” American jobs, but would alienate Obama’s supporters in the environmental lobby and undermine his commitment to clean energy. Is Obama against jobs for Americans? Or does Obama hate the Earth? At a time like this, it’s difficult to envy the president.

A final decision is expected by late November, and approval now appears to be likely, as the pipeline has passed a State Department environmental assessment. It seems that in the face of massive economic and geopolitical realities, the goal of making America a clean energy superstar is, for now, a pipe dream.

//Martin Wightman
The Argosy (Mount Allison University)

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