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Debate: Keystone XL US-Canada oil pipeline

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Background and context

TransCanada Keystone Pipeline filed an application in 2008 for a Presidential Permit with the Department of State to build and operate the Keystone XL Project.
The proposed Keystone XL Project would consist of a 1,700-mile crude oil pipeline and related facilities that would be used largely to transport Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin crude oil from an oil supply hub in Alberta, Canada to delivery points in Oklahoma and Texas. The project would also be capable of transporting U.S. crude from places like North Dakota and Montana to those delivery points. The project could transport up to 830,000 barrels per day and is estimated to cost $7 billion. If permitted, it would begin operation in 2013, with the actual date dependant on the necessary permits, approvals, and authorizations.[1] The project has generated significant debate in the United States regarding the extraction and use of oil from Alberta's tar sands, which generally results in greater environmental issues and greenhouse gas emissions than conventional reservoir extraction. Pipelines are also fairly vulnerable to spills. But, supporters argue it will create 100,000 jobs and strengthen US energy independence from sources in unstable and unfriendly regions of the world. The pros and cons are considered below.
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Environment: Is the Keystone XL pipeline tolerable for the environment?

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Pro

  • Keystone XL will not appreciably add to global emissions. A 2010 assessment of a US Energy Department study found that Keystone XL would "not appreciably increase" global life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions. These findings were reinforced by the final Environmental Impact Statement from the State Department in August of 2011. Overall, it will simply be a drop in the bucket relative to global supply.[2]
  • Climate targets could still be met with oil sands. Brad Carson, the director of the National Energy Policy Institute, said to Living on Earth in June of 2011: "I have no doubt that if you look at the amount of resources that are talked about with the tar sands, or around the world, if we were simply to burn all of these oil reserves, we could probably still meet some of the climate targets of two degrees or three degrees Celsius. You know, scientists say that we can release only another 500 billion tons of carbon, and if you look at natural gas or oil, we can probably burn through most of that and still meet those numbers. We can’t do that plus burn all the coal in the world, of course."[3]
  • Keystone pipeline important as long as economy depends on oil. Brad Carson, the director of the National Energy Policy Institute, said to Living on Earth in June of 2011: "The larger debate [...] is whether we need to wean ourselves off of oil in the near term, period. And that is a debate worth having. But so long as we’re an oil addicted economy, the tar sands I think can play an important role in the world oil market."[4]
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Con

  • Keystone taps Alberta tar sands, the world's dirtiest fuel. "Keystone XL Pipeline." Friends of the Earth: "Pollution from tar sands oil greatly eclipses that of conventional oil. During tar sands oil production alone, levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three times higher than those of conventional oil, due to more energy-intensive extraction and refining processes. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 900,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil into the United States daily, doubling our country's reliance on it and resulting in climate-damaging emissions equal to adding more than six million new cars to U.S. roads."
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Safety: Is the Keystone XL pipeline safe for human communities?

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Pro

  • Keystone XL would be one of the safest pipelines ever. Russell K. Girling. "The proposed Keystone XL pipeline will be built responsibly." TransCanada Corporation. July 13th, 2011: "Using the most advanced technology, the pipeline will be monitored 24 hours a day through a centralized control centre. 16,000 sensors embedded in the pipeline provide data via satellite every five seconds. If the slightest drop in pipeline pressure is detected, remote valves are automatically closed, shutting off the flow of oil within minutes. Our pipeline would cross Montana’s Yellowstone River. As Governor Brian Schweitzer (D) pointed out, Keystone XL will use the most advanced construction techniques, including horizontal directional drilling that allows us to drill under the river a minimum of 25 feet. The pipe will be built with thicker steel, operate at a lower pressure and use advanced coatings to protect the surface from abrasion – all in an effort to further improve safety. To ensure the integrity of our pipelines longer term, they are cathodically protected, which means a low-voltage electric current runs through the pipeline, inhibiting external corrosion."


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Con

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Economics: Is the pipeline economically vital?

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Pro

  • US pipeline strategically taps huge Canadian oil reserves. Brad Carson, the director of the National Energy Policy Institute, said to Living on Earth in June of 2011: "It is now estimated that Canada has the world’s second largest oil reserves, only after Saudi Arabia. So, from purely the perspective of the oil market, Canada’s role and the United States’ interests in those tar sands is a very important one - a very important public policy issue for this nation."[5]
  • Keystone XL helps US avoid buying oil from volatile regions Brad Carson, the director of the National Energy Policy Institute, said to Living on Earth in June of 2011: "the dynamics of the oil market are important to remember here. Because right now, we are sending trillions of dollars a year to often hostile regimes, or regimes that are ambivalent toward the United States."[6]
  • Keystone XL replaces lost supplies from Venezuela, Mexico. The United States Energy Department study concluded that construction of the pipeline is necessary to replace the declining imports of heavy crude from Venezuela and Mexico.[7]
  • Keystone XL could create 100,000 jobs. "Jobs in the Pipeline." Wall Street Journal Editorial. July 7th, 2001: "With 9.1% unemployment and gasoline prices in the stratosphere, President Obama must sometimes wish that some big corporation would suddenly show up and offer a shovel-ready, multibillion-dollar project to create 100,000 jobs and reduce U.S. reliance on oil from dictatorships. Oh, wait. His Secretary of State has had that offer sitting on her desk since she was sworn in."
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Con

  • Oil pipelines are very expensive. Brad Carson, the director of the National Energy Policy Institute, said to Living on Earth in June of 2011: "it’s very, very expensive. The oil infrastructure in this country and around the world is billions, if not trillions, of dollars of investment."[8]
  • Keystone XL places profits before environment. Mitt Bittman. "Profits before environment." The New York Times. August 30th, 2011: "I wasn’t surprised when the administration of George W. Bush sacrificed the environment for corporate profits. But when the same thing happens under a Democratic administration, it’s depressing. With little or no public input, policies that benefit corporations regardless of the consequences continue to be enacted."
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Pro/con sources

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