Keystone XL pipeline: Biting bitumen

TransCanada has been working tirelessly over these last few years to bring Canada’s crude oil resources to American soil. Moving forward despite environmental and political grievances, the Canadian Pipeline and Energy Company has lain down thousands of miles of pipeline.  These oil ways pump millions of gallons of crude material from the bitumen rich oil fields of Alberta, Canada, running south-eastwards where it enters America through North Dakota and flows south to Steele City, Neb. From there, the main pipeline continues east to Illinois, while the Keystone-Cushing Extension instead runs further south to Cushing, Okla. This expansive system has been dubbed the Keystone Pipeline.

But the Corporate Goliath is in no way done. Approximately 1700 miles of new pipeline has been proposed, fittingly called the Keystone XL. Though it shares the same beginning and end as the original pipeline, it cuts a much more direct route from Canada to Texas, entering the country through Montana and meeting up with the original in Steele City. TransCanada was ready to build. There was only one major dilemma. Since the pipeline crossed international borders, it required an okay from the White House. Amidst public outcry of the enormously negative environmental potential of the project, not even the strong-arming attempts of Congress were able to get Obama to sign off on XL’s construction. The president has however agreed that it is a necessary step to reduce American reliance on oil overseas, inviting the company to resubmit its appeal and encouraging the beginning of a fourth extension that will run the rest of the way from Cushing to oil refineries in Texas. This he believes will help relieve a bottleneck in oil reserves in Oklahoma that cannot be used in their current state.

But why has there been such protest to begin with? Simply put, bitumen, the main item of pipeline dispersion, is dirty. A combination of sand, clay, sediment and petroleum, the process of extracting usable oil from the unusable debris brings the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to even higher levels than shipping it halfway across the world. By the time that every last accessible drop of oil has been ripped from the earth underneath Alberta’s once pristine boreal forests, the global level of carbon dioxide, a well-established greenhouse gas, would rise from approximately 400 parts per million to 600 parts per million. Now, to put that seemingly tiny number in perspective, in the time that life has inhabited Earth, the most common causes of such dramatic rises of atmospheric carbon have been volcanoes and meteorites, resulting in mass extinction the world over. Well known environmental activist Bill McKibben puts the carbon dioxide tipping point, the point where carbon dioxide levels would spiral out of control without any further human emission, at 350.

Air pollution is, of course, only a problem if TransCanada can even get the oil to Texas without issue. The existing Keystone Pipeline has suffered over a dozen instances of oil spills, one of which spewed over 21,000 gallons in North Dakota. The corporate response was typical; that the spill would have been much worse had it not been for state-of-the-art safety systems that shut down the valve soon after the breach was reported. TransCanada still claims that the Keystone Pipeline is the safest pipeline in the United States.

Protest was not solely among the left-winged. Conservatives across the nation were in uproar over work that has already begun on the line running from Cushing to Houston and Port Harbor, Texas. Work that was almost not possible to begin with, given that nearly one hundred landowners in Texas denied access to property that the pipeline would run through. But one does not simply stop a moving train. TransCanada moved to claim eminent domain, a legal position usually practiced by governments to make way for civil projects. Texas has special laws that allow oil pipelines to fall into acceptable criteria for eminent domain, allowing the Canadian company to force Americans to sell parcels of their land. They have won almost every case, based on the concept that eventually the product they ship will be of use to the general public. Investigations are only now being made as to whether TransCanada ever had a legitimate claim to this.

TransCanada has made several claims as to the benefit their pipeline would bring the American people, but they have all fallen rather flat. The largest argument was the creation of jobs. Though numbers as high as 500,000 new jobs have been thrown out, even TransCanada claims that only about 20,000 new jobs would be created and sustained. The State Department, of course, claims that the number of full-time jobs would be closer to 5,000, over the two years they project would be needed to build Keystone XL.

This is one of those games where the only way to win is to not play. TransCanada has proposed a scheme to line their pockets with profit, hiding behind the usual façade of job creation and economic stimulation. The only slightly long-term benefit would be the supply of enough oil to fuel a fraction of this nation’s consumption, furthering the addiction to a non-renewable energy source that has quickly swept across the global market. There is no winner here, only short-term profit, and short-term energy, all the while affirming the suspicion that humanity doesn’t need a meteor to wipe itself out.