A Spellbinding Review of the Keystone XL Pipeline: Sane or Insane?



Since 2012 there has been an ongoing battle between TransCanada and the general population over the proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline. This 1,179 mile infrastructure (approx. 327 miles in Canada, 875 miles in United States) is estimated to allow delivery of up to 830,000 barrels of the world’s dirtiest crude synthetic oil and tar sands per day (bpd). Those fuels are planned to be delivered from Alberta Canada traversing six US states and will:

  1. Cross Yellowstone River (approx 692 miles), considered a main tributary of the Missouri River all of which drain a wide area stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the vicinity of the Yellowstone National Park across the mountains and high plains of southern Montana and northern Wyoming.
  2. Cross the Red River (approx 1,360 miles), a tributary of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in the southern United States and is the second-largest river basin in the southern Great Plains.
  3. Cross the the Ogallala Aquifer located beneath the Great Plains in the U.S and is one of the world’s largest aquifers providing drinking water for more than two million people and provides 30% of ground water used for irrigation in the United States.

Finally, it will make it’s way all the way down South to the Gulf in Texas and Louisiana. According to the United States Department of State Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs executive summary, “The proposed Project route would avoid surface water whenever possible, but would cross approximately 1,073 surface waterbodies including 56 perennial rivers and streams as well as approximately 24 miles of mapped floodplains.”

As you can see this is not a simple project and there are critical high risks to be considered. Our top priority should be to do what is best for life and well-being. This means avoiding contamination of our water supplies and the surrounding habitat.


According to the United States Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), “The energy transportation network of the United States consists of over 2.5 million miles of pipelines. That’s enough to circle the earth about 100 times. These pipelines are operated by approximately 3,000 companies, large and small.” These pipelines exist in all 50 states and serve various purposes such as gas distribution mains, onshore and offshore gas transmissions, and hazardous liquid and carbon dioxide transport.

A shocking and informative must watch review of the Alberta tar sands

The primary modes of transport for crude oil specifically include barge, train, pipeline or truck. Each have different statistics around spill and safety. On the whole, oil spills and human related fatalities are trending down; however let’s take a closer look at pipelines specifically which are said to have the least number of incidents compared to all other modes of transport.

An incident is only reported if it meets specific criteria which means the total numbers are limited to those that fall within a specific description. For example, a spill is not required to be reported unless the “estimated property damage exceeds $50,000, including loss to the operator and others, or both, but excluding cost of gas lost”, as stated in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. The criteria has changed several times over the years. The criteria for reporting an incident can be reviewed in the section of definitions here.

The PHMSA statistics show that from 1994-2013 there have been approximately 10,620 pipeline incidents reported. Total property damage is a staggering $6,253,322,802 with a gross total barrels spill being 2,306,538. More than %55 (the majority) of the total number of incidents are hazardous liquid while the remainder is gas related. Pipelines account for more than %70 of all crude oil/tar sands distribution.

The pipeline mode of oil transport dominates all other modes by volume of oil it moves which you can review here. This seems to make any pipeline incident a higher risk to our habitat.

Another key reason for the interest in pipeline use is monetary savings. According to the Association of Oil Pipelines, “The cost to transport crude oil or petroleum products by pipeline is a fraction of the cost of other modes of transportation. The cost to ship crude oil by rail is generally $10 to $15 per barrel versus around $5 per barrel by pipeline.”

All Reported Pipeline Incidents: Source - U.S. Department of Transportation

All Reported Pipeline Incidents: Source – U.S. Department of Transportation

Oil transportation has never been safe or flawless. Incidents are forecasted and the reality usually far exceeds the forecast. It’s not really a matter of “if” there will be a spill from the Keystone Pipeline, it’s a matter of “when, where, how bad and how many”. A spill from the massive pipeline will have a much larger impact on us than any conventional spill. Tar sands oil does not float, it sinks, making cleanup very difficult to do a good job and costly. If you remember; “The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 people and spewing more than 200 million gallons (750 million liters) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.” Fast forward 4 years later to present day and it is still present on the floor of the ocean impacting wildlife and washing up on shorelines.


TransCanada positioned Keystone 1, the first crude oil pipeline running from Alberta to the Midwest and Oaklahoma, as a state-of-the-art pipeline which would “meet or exceed world-class safety and environmental standards.” In its environmental risks assessment, the company forecasted that it would leak no more than 1.4 times a decade and agreed to special safety conditions. Keystone I started having problems as soon as it commenced operations in 2010. In its first year, the pipeline leaked 14 times. Federal pipeline regulators were forced to intervene, issuing a Corrective Action Order (CAO) temporarily shutting the pipeline down as an imminent threat to life, safety and the environment.

Experts warn that the more acidic and corrosive consistency of the type of tar sands oil being piped into the U.S. as well as the risk of external corrosion from higher pipeline temperatures makes spills more likely, and have joined the EPA in calling on the State Department to conduct a thorough study of these risks.”


The advocates of the pipeline garner public support by touting the number of jobs it will create.

A study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute (GLI) examined the job creation claims made by TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute which states the pipeline will create 20,000 construction and manufacturing and 119,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs.

The report concludes that the job estimates put forward by TransCanada are unsubstantiated and the project will not only create fewer jobs than industry states, but that the project could actually kill more jobs than it creates. Main findings include:

  1. The project budget that has a direct impact on U.S. employment is between $3 and $4 billion or about half of what industry claims.
  2. 50% or more of the steel pipe, the main material input used for Keystone XL, will be manufactured outside of the U.S.
  3. Jobs will be temporary and between 85-90% of the people hired to do the work will be non-local or from out of state.
  4. The Perryman study, which estimates around 119,000 (direct, indirect and induced) jobs is a poorly documented study commissioned by TransCanada.
  5. Job losses would be caused by additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change. Even one year of fuel price increases as a result of Keystone XL could cancel out some or all of the jobs created by the project.
Source: 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts

Source: 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts

The GLI also claims that it’s clear that renewable energy provides a safer route to creating new jobs and a sustainable environment. The U.S. is currently number 2 behind China as a leader in renewable energy investments. This is where our focus needs to be based on guidance from science and social/environmental concern.

However, there are big profits to be made for fossil fuel industry stakeholders as well as political gains. In October 2013, U.S. energy consultancy PIRA reported that the United States had officially outpaced Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer. According to experts Charles Dewhurst and Lorraine Walker, Leader of the Natural Resources Practice and Canadian O&G leader, BDO USA and BDO Canada, “2012 was a blockbuster year for global oil and gas transactions, with energy industry research group and listing service PLS, Inc. recording 679 deals totaling $254 billion. The United States was the leader in transactions activity in this space, seeing 299 deals valued at $83 billion, accounting for just shy of a third of total deal value last year.”

Shocking aerial footage of the Arkansas Exxon oil spill


Approaching a project like this requires a lot of planning, technical expertise and a realistic impact analysis. So, who will make the final decision to move forward or not with this project? A team of scientists, engineers, maybe environmental specialists? As much as making decisions based on science and social concern might make sense, that is not the case. It’s actually in the hands of a politician who is not specialized in any of those things. Let’s quickly look at the definition of politics just to refresh ourselves of exactly what that means:

Politics is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a civic or individual level. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community, particularly a state. A variety of methods are employed in politics, which include promoting one’s own political views among people, negotiation with other political subjects, making laws, and exercising force, including warfare against adversaries. Politics is exercised on a wide range of social levels, from clans and tribes of traditional societies, through modern local governments, companies and institutions up to sovereign states, to the international level.”

Politicians might get insights from scientists and engineers, however that does not mean they take that advice and act accordingly. There are external influences that come into play which are encouraged by our socio-economic system. It’s no secret that decision makers are commonly paid off as a common byproduct of the monetary system. We have lobbying and campaign donations by corporations running wild. Policies, laws, court decisions, political decisions and media are all heavily invested in by corporations which essentially make them the decision makers. This is also known as a corporatocracy by some.

In 2011, renowned NASA scientist James Hansen joined the fight against the pipeline claiming that it would be “game over for the planet”. More than 30 years ago now, Hansen was one of the first scientists to warn that fossil fuels were warming the earth. Since then he has joined forces with 360.org CEO McPherson to fight the pipeline and protect the planet for us and future generations.

Lastly, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, consumption of petroleum and other liquids is on the decline. The Keystone XL pipeline is not meant to bring the United States energy, it meant to travel through the United States for export.

After reviewing the information detailed here we ask the following questions:

  • Are the “jobs” really what’s driving senators today to fight so hard for this pipeline?
  • Is this project being proposed based on human and environmental concern?

After doing the research I think it’s safe to say that as a species, we can live without dirty fossil fuels but we cannot live without our habitat, clean water, and clean air. Have we learned from history or are we repeating it? Everything around us is changing constantly with two major categories being technology and world population. What has not changed to adapt is our socio-economic structure which drives action based on monetary gain and power, not human and environmental concern. Today this outdated system is doing more harm than good and our planet is telling us exactly what is wrong with us. Large scale change starts with each individual and a deeper understanding of the underlying causes.


Our conclusion on the Keystone Pipeline XL = INSANE!

Click here to visit 350.org and join the world in signing this petition to tell President Obama to stop the pipeline!

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