Summary: The State Department has postponed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial proposal to carry tar sands oil across the U.S. heartland. While opponents of the project view this as a major victory, the fate of the pipeline remains unclear.
Just south of the Arctic tundra, the boreal forest encircles the globe in an evergreen belt that is largely free of roads and other human development. Home to countless plant and animal species and indigenous peoples, Canada’s boreal forest is a natural and cultural treasure, but it also has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, second only to the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
These opposing concerns—preservation versus utilization of natural resources—underlie the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. Oil companies have begun developing these tar sands fields, but Canada lacks oil refineries to refine a high capacity of this oil. To increase production, Canadian pipeline company TransCanada has proposed building a pipeline to bring raw oil over 1,700 miles from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Environmentalists see the pipeline, called Keystone XL, as a major threat to environmental and human health.
First, oil from tar sands is particularly dirty because it is difficult to extract. Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, and a heavy oil called bitumen. The bitumen can be extracted by surface mining or by in situ production. Using the surface mining technique, companies first clear-cut the forest and dig open-pit mines, resulting in wholesale habitat destruction. The tar sands are then trucked away to processing facilities where they are super-heated to separate the bitumen from the clay and the sand. Using the in situ method, companies insert pipes into the ground and fill the pipes with super-heated steam. This heats the tar sands, liquefying the bitumen and allowing it to be pumped to the surface. Both processes require large amounts of water and energy and leave behind toxic byproducts. Additionally, since heat is used in both methods to separate the bitumen, the process results in 5 to30 percent more greenhouse gases emitted than by extracting conventional oil.
Extraction has already left large scars on Canadian ecosystems. Both processes have created miles of toxic tailings ponds, some large enough to see from outer space. Any increase in production, fueled by the pipeline, would exacerbate these problems.
If the pipeline is approved, it would threaten important ecosystems in the United States as well. It would bisect the country, crossing Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Although a spill anywhere along the route would be devastating, it could be catastrophic in the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region. The region includes the Ogallala Aquifer, a critical source of drinking and irrigation water for the Great Plains.
Perhaps most important, though, the pipeline would commit the United States even more to fossil fuels at a time when the nation needs to invest in clean energy. It would be a major step backward in the fight against climate change, linking this huge and unconventional source of oil (and thus carbon dioxide emissions) to America’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for gasoline. When asked how heavily tapping tar sands oil would affect the climate, Dr. James E. Hansen, one of the nation’s top climate researchers, said it would essentially mean “game over for the climate.”
Since the proposed pipeline crosses an international border, the U.S. State Department has been charged with making the decision as to whether to grant a permit to TransCanada. In August 2011, the department released its final environmental impact statement on the pipeline; bewilderingly, the department found that the proposed pipeline would have “no significant impact” on land and water resources along its route. Activists see bias in this decision, charging that TransCanada has a cozy relationship with the State Department. But in October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration was “inclined” to give TransCanada a permit to construct the pipeline.
However, after several large protests and increased political pressure from several Great Plains states, the Obama administration announced November 10 that it would delay a decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 election. The State Department said it needed until early 2013 to study the project’s environmental impacts and alternate routes to avoid the Sand Hills region. In particular, the department will more thoroughly review the potential impacts to climate change and the Ogallala Aquifer. Meanwhile, the State Department’s Inspector General is investigating allegations of a conflict of interest and improper political influence in the project’s environmental impact statement.
The Obama administration’s decision was a major victory for environmentalists, but the fight isn’t over. Many believe the pipeline has been fatally wounded, a view strengthened by signs that Obama’s decision will further fuel opposition in Canada and that the financial arrangements supporting the pipeline could unravel. The president’s decision has, not surprisingly, proved contentious, and proponents of the pipeline have been clamoring to force a quicker approval of the project. For instance, House Republicans are attempting to force the president’s hand by tying approval of the pipeline to his call for a payroll tax cut extension. The president has vowed to veto any attempt to link the two. Despite this political wrangling, environmentalists can now hope for an eventual defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline.