The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

A Keystone Timeline

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The issue with the Keystone Pipeline has been going on for about six years now. As the story approaches what may be its climactic conclusion, this seems like a good time to review everything that has happened thus far.

In 2008, TransCanada applied for permission from the U.S. State department to build a pipeline across the border from Canada into the United States. The pipeline was to be one segment of a network of pipelines designed to carry both American and Canadian crude to American refineries and ports in Texas. The other pipelines in the network did not cross international boundaries, so they didn’t require State Department permission, only approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. The critical southern portion, from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast, received approval without incident. The ongoing political struggle concerns only the northern leg.

Initially, the U.S. State Department was supportive. In April of 2010, it issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that predicted only “limited adverse environmental impacts during both construction and operation.” In October of that year, Secretary of State Clinton indicated she was leaning towards granting approval.

From a certain perspective, the Keystone XL Pipeline looked like a win/win. Canada would benefit from better access to market for its oil and the U.S. would benefit from buying oil from a friendly neighbor. And since American companies could also use the pipeline, the project would benefit the domestic oil market as well. Construction of the pipeline was predicted to create over a thousand temporary jobs (a number drastically inflated in some rosy estimates). In the depths of the Great Recession, the U.S. needed extra economic muscle badly.

But there were problems. Most tangibly, oil pipelines leak. They are not supposed to leak, of course, just like cars aren’t supposed to crash and houses aren’t supposed to catch fire. Accidents happen. We can minimize risk, but sooner or later the accident will happen. That’s why we have fire departments. Among other problems, the proposed route for the pipeline crossed some of the most important groundwater reserves in the country. The consequences of a serious leak into the Oglala Aquifer would be horrific.

The pipeline would also facilitate exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the largest remaining oil deposits in the world. Tar sands mining is extremely environmentally destructive and seriously threatens the health and livelihood of nearby First Nations communities. Because of the size of the Alberta deposit, tar sands oil could also dramatically lower the price of fossil fuel, to the point where sustainable power sources wouldn’t be able to compete.

By 2010, widespread protest had erupted across both the United States and Canada.

In 2011, the State Department issued a second and final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and solicited public comment. Massive protests erupted, including ten thousand people who turned up at the White House in November. President Obama indicated that he would not approve the pipeline if it would damage American drinking water or American farmland. The State Department announced that it would not make a determination until it could assess alternative routes for the pipeline. The DOS wanted to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills of Nebraska.

In December, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, a law requiring a decision on the pipeline within sixty days. A month later, the State Department rejected the pipeline because the deadline did not allow adequate time to look at alternate routes. However, the Administration encouraged TrtansCanada to reapply. A month after that, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would have taken the pipeline out of the president’s hands entirely.

March of 2012 found Present Obama actively lobbying the Senate not to strip his power over the pipeline. At the same time, the President also attempted to claim political credit for construction of the southern leg of the pipeline, which he described as a boost to the American economy. He was frustrating both supporters of the pipeline and protestors. 2012 was an election year, and many of the people who supported Obama in his first presidential campaign considered withdrawing their support over the pipeline issue. In May of 2012, TransCanada reapplied for permission to build the northern leg of the pipeline along a new route.

The new route avoids the Sandhills, but still crosses rivers that flow into Native American communities. It also crosses areas that may contain important archeological sites and culturally important sites. While TransCanada has expressed interest in working with tribal leaders to find and avoid sensitive sites, the company might not be allowing enough time for leaders to make a full review of the area. For this and other reasons, some indigenous groups in the United States, like those in Canada, decide to treat opposing the pipeline as an important battle for their rights and sovereignty.

More protests erupted, including large marches in multiple parts of the country and deliberate civil disobedience by high-profile activists. I was at one of those protests, though I did not participate in civil disobedience.

In March of 2013, the State Department released a report saying that the new route would cause “minimal” adverse impact. Protestors cry foul. Congress passes laws urging the prompt approval of the pipeline.

In June of 2013, the president announced that he will not approve the pipeline if it would have an adverse effect on climate change. His use of the word “if” makes protestors scoff.

Protest leaders begin making plans for massive acts of civil disobedience to stop the pipeline even if the President does grant approval. A series of high profile oil train wrecks and pipeline leaks galvanize both sides. Protestors see the leaks as proof of the danger of transporting bitumen crude while supporters argue that a new pipeline would be a safer form of transport than the trains.

Meanwhile, the Southern leg of the pipeline has been built and went into operation in January of 2014. A week later, the State Department issued its final EIS on the new route, saying that the pipeline will not directly increase global warming because the tar sands will be exploited either way. Massive coordinated protests erupted across the country and received no mention whatever in the media.

The EPA questions whether the report has fully taken into account the risks associated with possible spills. There are definite hints of conflict of interest and other ethical issues that have not been thoroughly investigated yet. Not all landowners along the proposed route are willing to grant permission for the pipeline to cross their land and Nebraska, at least, cannot use eminent domain to force them to do so.

Those who object to the pipeline are still a minority, but they are a sizable minority, almost a third of the total U.S. population, according to some polls. The relative quiet of the media on the subject is disturbing, as is the fact that a Google search on anything related to Keystone yields mostly neutral or negative results but the accompanying paid-for results are all pipeline-positive. Somebody is spending a lot of money on this.

The State Department is accepting public comments until March 7th. Let’s make some noise.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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