In the fall of last year, the U.S. State Department permit review for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline by energy company TransCanada gained significant attention in the media and political debates. If built, this pipeline would move bitumen, thick and heavy oil, from the Canadian province of Alberta through the American Midwest to oil refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. In October, hundreds of environmentalists, including famously outspoken NASA scientist James Hansen, and Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, were arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the pipeline outside the White House. With climate change and clean energy as major drivers, environmentalists have focused on the Keystone XL pipeline protests as a means of preventing the transportation of oil to consumers and ultimately the extraction of tar sand.
Tar sand is a mixture of bitumen, sand, clay, and water, which must be processed and refined to extract oil from the surrounding substances. Roughly twenty percent of the U.S. crude oil imports are from Canada, much of which is derived from tar sands. In order to satisfy the steady U.S. demand for oil, TransCanada plans to build the Keystone XL pipeline to extend the existing pipeline system and transport bitumen to U.S. refineries. The Keystone XL pipeline has been a source of disagreement for several years between environmental groups and the oil industry. The main environmental concerns are threats to water quality from potential pipeline leaks and increased greenhouse gas emissions from burning and extracting the bitumen. In a well-to-wheel analysis, tar sands emit roughly ten to forty five percent more greenhouse gases than standard petroleum.
Pipeline supporters counter that the Keystone XL pipeline would provide the U.S. with a steady supply of oil from a politically stable nation. Proponents also argue that constructing the pipeline would create thousands of American jobs. Amid all the controversy, a Rasmussen poll found that fifty three percent of likely American voters at least somewhat support construction of the pipeline.
In November, the State Department postponed its review of the pipeline permit for 18 months. The Obama Administration’s decision was attributed to protests from environmentalists and concern from stakeholders in Nebraska about the pipeline’s proposed route in the state through ecologically sensitive areas and over the Ogallala aquifer. On November 30th, Senate Republicans pushed through legislation that overrode the 18 month postponement and forced the State Department to make a decision within 60 days. On January 18, 2012, the State Department rejected TransCanada’s permit due to the inadequate amount of time to accomplish a proper review of the pipeline.
Environmental groups celebrated the power of grassroots organizing and the role that the environmental movement played in this ruling. However, regional interests also played a central role in the pipeline permit rejection. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that the governor of Nebraska, among others, raised concerns over possible pipeline impacts on state air and water quality. In fact, some of the strongest opposition to the original Keystone XL pipeline proposal came from Nebraska Republicans concerned about contamination of the Ogallala aquifer, which provides crucial fresh water supplies to the Great Plains region. Many of these politicians have expressed support for a potential revised pipeline route, as long as it would not pass over their state’s sensitive aquifer region.
The Obama Administration’s decision emphasized that TransCanada can submit a revised permit application to the State Department provided that it proposes an alternate pipeline route. In an online statement released on January 18, 2012, TransCanada, pledges to “work collaboratively with Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality on determining the safest route for Keystone XL that avoids the Sandhills.” This would satisfy Nebraska’s Ogallala contamination fears, but it would not prevent the construction of another pipeline or the tar sand extraction.
The Nebraskan Government’s concern over regional water quality stands in contrast to the major issue for most environmentalists: the increase in greenhouse gases. Climate change concerns clearly played a limited role in the Obama Administration’s decision because TransCanada can reapply for a permit as long as it changes the proposed route of the pipeline. As exploitation of Canada’s tar sands continues to grow, the pipeline route and final destination of this polluting resource will have no impact on the overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
If the U.S. denies another permit, TransCanada has the option of selling its oil to China. This would require building a proposed westward pipeline, the Northern Gateway, to the Pacific Coast and the eventual transportation of oil by tanker ships to China. Environmentalists hope that indigenous tribes with rights to the land needed for pipeline construction will block the development of the Northern Gateway, but this is uncertain as nearly fifty percent of directly affected indigenous tribes support the pipeline due to the associated jobs and TransCanada’s contract offer of ten percent ownership of the pipeline. It appears likely that a pipeline will be constructed and that tar sand will be extracted regardless of the oil’s final destination.
While the Keystone XL protests gained attention as a fight over a single fossil fuel infrastructure project, many within the environmental movement mobilized around the pipeline as a symbol of the U.S. choice between two energy futures: continued reliance on increasingly expensive and polluting fossil fuels, or a transition to domestic renewable energy sources. The Obama Administration’s current rejection of the TransCanada permit should be seen as just one step toward building much-needed momentum in the U.S. to take real political action to fight climate change.