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Did You Know?
According to NASA scientist James Hansen, approving the Keystone XL project would mean 'game over' for the planet.
The Keystone pipeline project is a 2,100 mile-long pipeline that transports crude oil extracted in Canada. It is a venture of a Canadian company called TransCanada Corp. While the Keystone project began in Canada in 2005, the US Government gave approval for the construction of a trans-border pipeline in March 2007, that stretched from Hardisty in Canada to Patoka in Illinois. This pipeline began operations in 2010.

However, in 2008, TransCanada submitted a request for a newer fourth phase of the pipeline, that would again cross the international border. This shorter 'fourth phase', called the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, is planned through the Northwest of America from the West Canadian Sedimentary Basin of Alberta.

Ever since this proposal was received by the US Department of State, it created widespread controversy throughout the country. Environmental activists were aghast at the project, which passed through some of North America's most pristine landscapes. The pipeline plans to transport a type of crude oil, called tar oil or oil sands, from Alberta, where the world's largest deposits of tar oil occur. Due to the highly polluting nature of this oil, it is feared that this project would cause irreversible damage to the environment. On the other hand, industrialists argued for the project, saying that it provided a second chance of employment to some 25 million jobless Americans. Here are the pros and cons of the Keystone XL pipeline project, along with some other important facts.

Facts

Keystone

Background

The Keystone XL project is a proposed plan to construct a 1,179 mile-long crude oil pipeline across the US-Canada international border. The northern leg of the 36-inch wide pipeline plans to connect Hardisty in Alberta to Steele City in Nebraska. The Southern Leg connects Steele City with Port Arthur in Texas. Since the northern leg passes through the international border, it is pending approval from the Department of State of the US Federal Government, since 2008, when TransCanada first proposed it. The Southern Leg of the pipeline became operational in 2014. The Keystone XL project is expected to cost around US $7 billion.

Pros

TransCanada believes that the project will provide direct and indirect jobs to around 42,000 workers nationwide. It specifically states that around 13,000 US workers will receive manufacturing and construction jobs, and more than 7 million work-hours worth labor will be created.

The project claims to improve the energy security of USA. Currently, the Gulf Coast region depends on oil import from countries like Mexico and Venezuela; the amount of which has seen rapid decline over the years. Piped oil supply from Canada, which is believed to be the world's second most oil-rich region after the Middle East, will provide a stable oil source.

Besides energy security, the project will ensure that the entire North American region will become energy independent by 2035. This is because, the US, over the years, has been steadily increasing its oil production, and by 2020, the amount of oil produced per day is likely to reach 11.1 million barrels. The oil production in Canada has seen a similar rise, and linking the production of the two countries will confer independence from oil imports from distant, unfriendly countries.

The pipeline project will contribute more than $3 billion to the US GDP. The largest contribution to this will be through property tax collected at places the pipeline passes through.

Proponents of the project argue that, far from being environmentally harmful, the project will have the contrary effect. The world-class technology used will minimize the emission of greenhouse gases. Also, independent analysts have found that the chemical composition of the oil from this project will be identical to oil sources from regions like Nigeria, Mexico, and Alaska, which is piped inside the USA.

If the project is not approved, then US will still be dependent on its oil sources in the Middle East. Such transport of oil over long distances will definitely increase carbon footprint, compared to direct piping of oil from Canada.

It is much safer to transport crude oil by pipelines than by railroads or tankers, where the chances of explosions is higher. The chances of spillage is lesser in pipelines. In more than 80% spills from pipelines, less than 5 barrels of oil were wasted. The Keystone XL project would have one of the safest pipelines equipped with sensors that send data to monitoring satellites every 5 seconds.

Cons

Environmental Impacts

Studies claim that utilizing the tar oil supplied by the pipeline will result in a large amount of greenhouse emissions, which will end up raising the Earth's temperature by 2ÂșC. This will bring about a drop in the US GDP by about 2.5 %. In addition, such climate change will increase the frequency of extreme weather conditions, like hurricanes and sandstorms. This will cause large-scale damage to the economy, besides cutting thousands of jobs.

The pollution caused by extraction of tar oils is thrice that which is caused by conventional oils. Tar oils have routinely been described as the 'dirtiest fuel' that can be used. Also, there are fears that by approving this project, US technology will become almost completely dependent on such polluting energy sources.

The planned pipeline travels through very sensitive terrain which can't afford any adverse impacts. An example is Canada's Boreal forests, a region said to be the world's most intact ecosystem. Extracting the oil requires pumping steam directly into the ground for a long time. This process will cause fragmentation of the forest, besides killing many species of migratory birds and interfering in animal life cycles.

In case of spills and leaks, conventional oil-cleanup technologies may not work efficiently in this project, because the physical properties of tar oil differ from that of conventional oil. The main difference is that tar oils, rather than floating on water, sink to the bottom. Also, this acidic oil is corrosive in nature, which increases chances of spills.

If past examples are anything to go by, oil companies have extracted tar oil from a 700 sq. km area in Alberta. The waste from the extraction, called tailings, is dumped in open ponds. It is so toxic that the fish living in the pond have developed tumors, and any freshwater birds that land in the water die instantly.

Approving the project will reduce investment in 'cleaner' technologies that focus on minimizing environmental impacts.

Oil spills can damage underground drinking water supplies. This can cause the spread of diseases, while affecting the crop yield of the land, which is mostly agricultural.

Social and Economic Effects

Most Americans, especially the ones living in the planned site, strongly disapprove of the project. In fact, some polls indicate that only 56% of all Americans support the pipeline, despite its heavily-advertised economic benefits.

Indigenous tribes of the region and financially backward sections make up most of the local population. Despite being most vulnerable to the negative impacts of the project, they have been systematically ignored by decision-makers and oil companies. Already, diseases like renal failure and cancer are being reported in large numbers by such populations.

The creation of jobs is the biggest driving force for the project. Proponents of this pipeline have given differing estimates for the number of jobs expected, which ranges from 20,000 to half a million. However, independent studies call this misleading, saying that most of these jobs are temporary and low-wage in nature, and involve foreign labor. Moreover, once the pipeline is ready, only about 50 workers would be required to operate it.

Contrary to the myth of job creation, oil companies lobbying for the project are themselves responsible for large-scale job cuts in the past. Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP have laid off around 11,200 US workers in the period between 2005 to 2010, despite making profits of around $546 billion.

Controversy

Environmental Resources Management, an environmental consultancy, was assigned with the task of preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Keystone project on behalf of the US State Department. This report is a prerequisite for any project that needs government approval, as it examines any future effects that the project is likely to have on the environment. Finally, on March 1, 2013, the US State Department published its report, which depicted the Keystone project favorably.

It was later found that the consultancies that were hired by the government, such as ERM and EnSys Energy had, in fact, worked with many oil companies in the past, including the one behind the Keystone project, TransCanada Corp. This created a conflict of interest.

ERM was even accused by many activists of having received an 'undisclosed amount' of money to alter the findings of the report, which is now an official document.

There have also been allegations that TransCanada has been given preferential treatment due to close ties between the company's lobbyists and the former Secretary of US Department of State Hillary Clinton.

Political Aspects

The company behind the project, TransCanada, submitted its proposal before the US Federal Government, because the said pipeline crosses the international boundary that the US shares with Canada, making US approval mandatory.

The Department of State of the US Federal Government is entrusted with examining the project before deciding on its approval. It considers issues such as economic, environmental, health impacts, and impacts on foreign policy of a project. The US Congress has no jurisdiction on such approvals.

The political atmosphere is divided over the issue. Democrats argue that the project should be canceled due to its adverse environmental impacts, while Republicans want the President to approve it, citing the number of jobs that it will create, arguing that it should have been approved much earlier.

President Barack Obama, seemed to disapprove of the project in the beginning, calling himself a 'firm believer of climate change.' However, since his 2012 presidential win, he is appearing to be leaning towards approving the project, especially after a part of the pipeline was rerouted. On April 18, 2014, the Keystone project was placed under an indefinite period of review.

With the long-standing controversy over the Keystone XL project, it remains to be seen, what the ultimate decision of the US Department of State would be. However, one thing is clear - the outcome will reflect the US Government's approach towards environmental issues.