High Costs with No Chance of Refund or Return: An argument against the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone XL Pipeline is currently a hot button issue in the news owing to President Obama’s vetoing of a bill permitting TransCanada from constructing this oil pipeline.  Many are arguing the political implications of this gargantuan project, set to link Alberta Canada to the Gulf of Texas to gather and transport oil, without understanding much about the Pipeline, its purpose, and its implications.  To begin, the process the Keystone XL Pipeline will use to collect oil must be understood.  In order to obtain the oil in the ground, TransCanada has to extract tar sands from the earth first.  Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water, and a compound called bitumen.  The bitumen must then be melted and pumped out of the ground after the ground has been heated for several months.  Large amounts of water are required to extract the tar sands, and then large amounts of energy are required to heat the water and ground to separate the bitumen.  It takes four tons of bitumen-laden earth to produce one barrel of oil; only 10% to 15% of harvested sand contains bitumen (Palliser).  These tar sands are very dangerous, as is the oil itself while it is being transported.  The Keystone XL Pipeline should not be built because a spill would devastate ecosystems and the animals that live in them, its extraction of oil would harm public health, and it is another expensive and fiscally unwise quest in the insatiable pursuit of oil when the money could be better spent funding alternative energy solutions.

The Keystone XL Pipeline would have many negative environmental impacts.  Tar sands extraction will destroy forests where migratory birds nest and mining ponds that store toxic waste from the extraction will poison animals.  Furthermore, there is a high likelihood of leaks and spills given past similar projects.  The maximum spill volume from a structural failure of the Keystone XL Pipeline would be an estimated 2.8 million gallons, according to a consulting editor for the Science Scope journal, Janna Palliser.  Spills cause both immediate physical problems, such as drowning animals in oil or destroying landscapes, as well as toxicological problems, which can linger long after any leaks or spills actually occur.  “Toxic effects on animals include direct mortality; interference with feeding or reproductive capacity; disorientation; reduced resistance to disease; tumors; reduction or loss of various sensory perceptions… drowning and hypothermia” (Palliser).  Any animals that are affected may be scavenged by other animals, spreading the problem still further.  There will be habitat loss and barriers to wildlife movement that will result in reduced survival and reduced reproduction for many species.  Thirty-five state-protected species will be affected by the Pipeline, and twenty-three species protected by the Endangered Species Act (Slocum).  If the Pipeline were to cause harm to a generation or more of any of these species, the damage may be irreparable and the entire species unable to recover and pushed closer toward extinction.

Animals are not the only ones affected.  The Pipeline would cut primarily through grasslands, rangelands, croplands, forests, and wetlands.  Clearing bottomland hardwood trees for construction can result in permanent damage to the forests because many of these larger trees, shrubs, and grasslands require decades or even centuries to be reestablished.  With air quality damaged as well, many existing plants and trees are also likely to suffer.  Just as with animals, recovery could potentially be nearly impossible.  An investigative journalist previously published by the United Nations, Dan Lieber, found that in Alberta alone, the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline would mean the destruction of over 65,000 square kilometers of forest.  This is about the size of California’s Mojave Desert (Lieber).  Granted that the Pipeline has not yet been built so these are purely based on potential scenarios, but reliance on similar historical examples to predict what will happen shows evidence is strong that many animals and ecosystems will suffer if construction is permitted to continue.

A case of tar sands extraction in Alberta (which is exactly where the Pipeline will start and exactly what the oil companies will be doing there) shows an extremely similar situation to what will happen if the Keystone XL Pipeline is allowed to be built, and foreshadows exactly what will happen to the health of those living near the Pipeline.  The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious and oldest peer-reviewed medical journals, did a case study in Northern Alberta where people living near a site of tar sands extraction began reporting ill health effects.  The heavy oil production nearby caused them dizziness, headaches, muscle spasms, vomiting, sinus infections, and throat congestion.  One individual was even believed to have a terminal illness until he moved away from his farm and his symptoms disappeared.  Residents in the Peace River Valley of Alberta initially welcomed the Baytex Energy oil company to their area, believing that it would bring jobs and boost their economy.  When they complained to Baytex of their health problems soon after tar sands extraction began, they received little response and no offers of assistance.  A researcher in toxicology and human health, Margaret Sears, stated that bitumen, a product of tar sands extraction, contains compounds that can be acutely toxic to human health (Edwards).  Bitumen contains aromatic hydrocarbons and reduced Sulphur compounds, both neurotoxins.  Some of these compounds are carcinogenic, others have endocrine toxicities, and still others have neurodevelopment toxicities.  Bitumen also contains heavy metals including mercury, lead, and cadmium, the peer-reviewed investigative Lancet writer Jocelyn Edwards writes (Edwards).  What happened in the Peace River Valley is not unique, nor are their tar sands very different from what would be extracted by the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Not only would those near extraction be at risk, but also all of those near refineries or anywhere where bitumen emissions would be released.  “People living in areas surrounding the refineries had experienced difficulties breathing and nausea, symptoms in some ways mirroring those of the residents in the Peace River region” (Edwards).  A particularly sad point to note is that landowners would have their health put at risk without any say of their own.  Many landowners would have their land claimed via eminent domain and would not be able to do anything about it, posing a risk not only to agricultural land but also property rights.  In fact, many Native American tribes have already spoken out against the Pipeline because eminent domain will force them to give up rights to a number of sacred tribal grounds, including the Ponca’s Trail of Tears (Graef).  This Trail of Tears, in which the Ponca people were forcibly removed from their homeland in 1877, is one of two other Native American treaties that would be violated by the Pipeline; the Oceti Sacowin Treaty and the Laramie Treaty are the other two (Boos).  Many tribes have banded together in protest against the Pipeline for this disrespectful treatment by the United States government in disregarding treaties.

The harm to public health does not only come from extraction and refinery points.  The proposed pipeline route would pass through the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the largest sources of fresh drinking water in this country as well as 30% of the country’s groundwater for irrigation.  A spill in this essential body of water would contaminate drinking water for millions of Americans.  There is a unique chemical makeup of tar sand oil that causes it to sink in water, meaning that any spills that would occur in the Aquifer would be particularly difficult to clean up and would have long lasting impacts on the supply of drinking water for all of those that depend on the Aquifer.  Unless construction is prevented, the Keystone XL Pipeline will more than likely produce detrimental health effects to all those living along the pipeline.  This includes parts of Alberta, Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska (Slocum).

There are many dire repercussions of exasperating our fossil fuel dependency by constructing the Keystone XL Pipeline, including detrimental effects on the environment that will start out badly and only continue to get worse.  The Pipeline will add greatly to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a compound at the forefront of climate change, historic global weather extremes, and major declines in this planet’s ecosystems: more than 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the course of the pipeline’s lifetime, or the equivalent to the emissions from an extra ten million cars annually (Lieber).  Tar sands oil is even worse than conventional crude oil because of the complicated process of extracting bitumen.  If the Pipeline were to be built, it would set the precedent for more tar sands development and therefore impede progress toward sustainable energy and economic renewal.  In fact, the tar sands industry has already stated that they want to expand to producing 7.6 million barrels per day, or the equivalent of the emissions of 38 million cars per day (Lieber).  Not only would the Pipeline put more carbon dioxide into the air, but it would also be destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of forest that turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, exponentially exacerbating the problem.  Climate change means not only environmental and ecological destruction, but also agricultural impairment, which could potentially have a devastating effect on global food production.  It is not only environmentalists that are arguing against the Keystone XL Pipeline because of the resulting climate change contributions.  A group of scientists from Carnegie, Stanford, Princeton, and other universities and research institutes came together last year to write to the President to warn him of the climate catastrophe that will ensue, stating that “it’s imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy instead – and that we leave the tar sands in the ground” (Lieber).  Just as with the direct environmental harm of bulldozing forests to make room for construction, damage to the climate is something for which there is no recovery.  The consequences would not only have to be dealt with in this generation, but would worsen for every future generation to follow.

The main arguments coming from proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline are that it will create a substantial number of new jobs and will give the United States and Canada more energy security and independence.  Many politicians and big oil companies argue that the demand for oil is already there and cannot be ignored, and it would be cheaper and more ethical to have more of our own oil in the United States rather than continue our dependency on international sources, particularly those in the Middle East.

To address the first claim, independent researchers have found many flaws in TransCanada’s calculations as well as the State Department’s findings that the Keystone XL Pipeline would create tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of new jobs.  Based on the current budget, Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute has determined that there simply is not enough funding nor enough need for there to be so many positions opened.  The project would create no more than 2,500 to 4,600 temporary construction jobs for two years, and likely less than 34 total permanent jobs (Cornell University Global Labor Institute).  Even indirect labor, such as the construction of the primary material inputs for the pipeline (namely, steel pipe), would not increase employment in the United States.  The Global Labor Institute has found that there is a strong evidence to suggest that the majority of this steel pipe has already been manufactured in advance of the issuance of the permit to begin construction, and it was produced in China and India.  In addition, the likelihood that there would be spills and other accidents, as evidenced earlier in this paper, means that the project could actually kill jobs because of the bonus costs of clean-up operations and spill damage that diverts public funds away from productive economic activity.  In 2010 alone, “US pipeline spills and explosions killed 22 people, released over 170,000 barrels of petroleum into the environment, and caused $1 billion dollars’ worth of damage in the United States” (Cornell University Global Labor Institute).  To reference back the argument posed earlier that our country’s finances and efforts would be better focused on the green economy, the Global Labor Institute has determined that green energy has already generated 2.7 million new jobs within the United States and would generate many more with this sector’s growth (Cornell University Global Labor Institute).

As for the argument that the Pipeline would offer energy independence, this is also an unsubstantiated claim made by the oil companies.  There should be no mistake that the Keystone XL Pipeline is a global project that is driven by global interests.  It has attracted investment capital from mainly Chinese corporations, and the main refinery (located in Port Arthur, Texas) for the oil that will be extracted is half-owned by the state-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia (Cornell University Global Labor Institute).  If that were not enough evidence as to the multinational interests at stake, it needs to be noted that the Pipeline will divert tar sands oil exports from refineries in the Midwest to these Golf Coast refineries, meaning that oil will be actually taken away from the United States rather than added to it.  “That diversion will enable tar sands oil to be exported and to be priced in accord with a much higher international benchmark price” (Slocum).  Owing to this, the price of heavy crude oil in the Midwest can be expected to increase by almost $2 billion dollars annually and escalating for several years, and consumers in the Midwest can expect to pay 10 to 20 cents more per gallon for gasoline and diesel fuel, adding up to $5 billion to the annual US fuel bill (Cornell University Global Labor Institute).  The Keystone XL Pipeline is an oil pipeline THROUGH the United States, not TO the United States.

Although there is truly no telling exactly what would happen were the Keystone XL Pipeline to be built given that no one can tell the future, there are enough examples of other cases of tar sands extraction and oil production that can predict what will likely happen.  Even if the Pipeline were to run flawlessly and never have any spills or other accidents, there are many other factors that prove this is a very bad idea for a plethora of reasons.  There is a substantial amount of both current and historical evidence from a collection of differing viewpoints that the Keystone XL Pipeline would be harmful for animals, ecosystems, public health, the climate, and the environment as a whole, and it should therefore not be built.



Boos, R. (2015, February 19). Native American tribes unite to fight the Keystone pipeline and government ‘disrespect’ Retrieved April 15, 2015, from http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-02-19/native-american-tribes-unite-fight-keystone-pipeline-and-government-disrespect

Cornell University GLI. (2011, September 7). Pipe Dreams? Retrieved March 29, 2015, from https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/sites/ilr.cornell.edu/files/GLI_keystoneXL_Reportpdf.pdf

Edwards, J. (2014). Canada’s oil sands residents complain of health effects. The Lancet, 383(9927), 1450-1. D+-oi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(14)60703-0

Graef, C. (2014, September 22). Nebraska’s Cowboys And Indians Unite Against Keystone XL Pipeline. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from http://www.mintpressnews.com/nebraskas-cowboys-indians-unite-keystone-xl-pipeline/196821/

Lieber, D. (2012, Mar). KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE CLIMATE CATASTROPHE. E : The Environmental Magazine, 23, 27-28. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/963765159?accountid=3783

Palliser, J. (2012). The keystone XL pipeline. Science Scope, 35(9), 8-11,13. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1021785153?accountid=3783

Slocum, T. (2013, April 15). America Can’t Afford the Keystone Pipeline. Retrieved March 29, 2015, from http://www.citizen.org/documents/Keystone_Report_4.15.2013.pdf

High Costs with No Chance of Refund or Return: An argument against the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline