SCIENCE MATTERS: FACT-CHECKING KEYSTONE XL

Segment of TransAlaskan Pipeline near Fairbanks

By David Dannecker
Senior Editor

The Keystone XL pipeline extension has been back in the news recently, thanks in part to an effort by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to hold a Senate vote on the project last month which ultimately failed by a razor-thin margin. For those who don’t know, the pipeline first proposed back in 2008 would run from Alberta to Nebraska, delivering crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project has been a major point of contention between environmentalists and the Canadian petrochemical company TransCanada since its first proposal. Polling suggests that the proposal enjoys majority support among Americans, although support has been slipping since a high about a year and a half ago. With the special interest proxy war in its seventh year, it is hard to get a handle on what the actual facts are surrounding Keystone XL and what effects it would have if it received the green light for construction. It seems that the level of misinformation in the debate could be a confounding factor when it comes to gauging public support; very few people are likely to know the details of the project, especially those that haven’t been following the issue. Figures for job creation vary wildly, as do claims about its safety, and the broader environmental impact the project could have. So without further ado, let’s delve into some of the arguments over Keystone XL.

Job creation is one of the primary arguments in favor of the pipeline. It’s true that infrastructure projects often are a big help toward creating jobs and spurring economic growth. However, reports of the number of jobs that Keystone XL could create are inconsistent. The figures on TransCanada’s website suggest an estimate of 9,000 construction jobs for the project, while other sources suggest a more modest 2,000 construction jobs, with those positions only lasting a couple of years. The State Department found that the number of permanent jobs created by Keystone XL (i.e. those jobs that would outlast the construction phase of the project) would equal a paltry 50 employees. To put those figures in some kind of context, the United States as a whole added 214,000 jobs in the month of October this year. Even the higher job estimates cited by TransCanada represent less than five percent of one month’s national job growth. If job creation is the main reason behind Republican support for the project, one has to wonder why other infrastructure initiatives with ostensibly greater job creation potential often meet with tepid Republican support at best.

Turning to claims about the pipeline’s safety, TransCanada appears confident that the new branch of the Keystone pipeline will be the safest ever constructed. Seeing as the new pipeline will have the benefit of the last few years of cutting edge technological advancements that weren’t available to the earlier phases of the pipeline, this may be the case. However, Media Matters points out that in spite of similar language before the original Keystone pipeline, it suffered a dozen spills in just its first year. Oil pipelines have a poor track record in the U.S. in general with over 110 million gallons spilled in the last 25 years. And while the pipeline has been rerouted to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area of Nebraska, the new route still threatens drinking water, including crossing an important aqueduct, which would be vulnerable to contamination should a spill occur in the vicinity. TransCanada has assured the public that it is committed to containment and restoration in the event of any spills or leaks, but even so, given the history of pipeline shortcomings and TransCanada’s own recent record of overselling the safety of its delivery infrastructure, treating safety claims with some modest skepticism seems appropriate.

What about the environmental impact of Keystone XL? Would it be the harbinger of climatic doom that environmentalists have painted it to be? Firstly, tar sands are one of the least efficient sources for obtaining fossil fuels. Because the crude oil is found in an amalgam of sand, clay, and bitumen, extraction is extremely difficult. The extraction process itself requires a great deal of natural gas and water to isolate the crude oil, and that’s before the transportation and refinement processes. So, yes, tar sands as a fuel source are pretty awful for the environment, and that’s not even taking into account the significant deforestation connected with mining tar sands. Some defenders of Keystone XL argue that Alberta’s tar sands are going to be utilized with or without Keystone, so the pipeline itself should be seen as a net zero as far as emissions go. It’s true that TransCanada is exploring other options for delivering the crude oil to refineries, including sending the oil by rail or by retrofitting Canadian pipelines to handle crude oil in a separate project known as Energy East. However, rail transport has been under increased scrutiny in the aftermath of a couple of explosive disasters, and neither of these alternatives would be as cost-effective as Keystone XL would be for TransCanada, which explains their dogged determination to see the proposal approved. Given the opposition that each of these approaches is facing, the development of Alberta’s tar sands is no sure thing. The value of extraction relies on the possibility and ease of subsequent transport, so while Keystone XL isn’t the only option Canadian energy companies have, its existence would likely facilitate and foster future development.

While disagreements over the merits of Keystone XL continue to exist, and are likely to persist until the project is either approved or denied for good, it is possible to isolate some plausible parameters to frame the debate. Sourcing tar sands for crude oil is bad for the environment. While Keystone is not the only option for crude oil delivery, it would likely speed up tar sand development in Alberta and so hasten the release of their greenhouse gases. The prospects for Keystone job creation are not likely to be very significant, and there are plenty of non-fossil-fuel-related infrastructure alternatives to consider if temporary job creation is the goal. It’s hard to predict the exact likelihood of pipeline malfunctions, since accidents are by their very nature unpredictable, but the position of the pipeline route and the recent history of pipeline technology do not support the idea that Keystone XL would be as safe as TransCanada claims. As the facts surrounding this project find their way into the public debate, we might expect that the polls will continue to decline. President Obama has recently signaled his own awareness of the project’s shortcomings. While the proposal itself is tied up while a legal challenge is settled in Nebraska’s Supreme Court, Obama’s opposition to Keystone XL looks like it will be the deciding factor, even in the face of a new Republican-controlled Congress. Since Canadian oil companies are the only certain beneficiaries of Keystone XL’s construction, the project seems unlikely to move forward, what with Obama positioning climate change as one of the defining issues of the final years of his presidency.

Image by Maureen

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