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The Keystone XL Pipeline: What's Next, and What You Can Do About It

The most talked about energy pipeline in the world, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline has become a political hot topic, but the public remains largely confused and misinformed about its impact.




Keystone XL is a proposed 1,700 mile pipeline that would bring 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast of the United States.   The pipeline would be a $7 billion extension of an existing pipeline that runs from Alberta to Illinois and Oklahoma. 




Those in favor of the pipeline argue that this project will create tens of thousands of US jobs and tap into one of the biggest oil reserves in the world, slashing our dependence on oil from overseas. 





Environmentalists point out that the processes used to extract tar-sands are far more damaging to water and land resources- as well as emit more greenhouse gases- than methods used to extract conventional oil.  Environmental groups also cite the existing pipeline's abysmal record of leaks and spills.  As for jobs, the projected number of jobs created by the pipeline is said to have been greatly exaggerated, with some estimates suggesting it could kill more jobs than it creates, and at most 50 long-term jobs will be created (involving pipeline maintenance only).   Keystone opponents also note that the oil to be sent through the Keystone XL pipeline is not destined for U.S. markets. TransCanada (the company behind Keystone XL) has publicly admitted that most– if not all– of the extracted and refined oil would be exported to overseas markets. In addition, TransCanada will be allowed to export domestic oil in addition to the newly extracted and refined oil which will raise gas prices in the United States.


How We Got Here


The State Department, which must review the project because it crosses an international border, issued an Environmental Impact Statement in late August of 2011, and it was assumed by many that the Obama administration was well on its way toward approving the pipeline until activists called out President Obama on the project during campaign rallies and events across the country.  In addition, field hearings on the project elevated concerns from Nebraska residents about the pipeline’s proximity to the state’s Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 1.5 million people. Less than a week after the White House protest in early November, the State Department said it was ordering a new route for the pipeline, delaying the administration’s decision until after the 2012 presidential election. 


In June of 2013, during his long-awaited speech climate change, President Obama said he would approve the pipeline only if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."  


As those in favor and opposed to the pipeline awaited the release of the State Department's final environmental assessment, the review process itself came under intense scrutiny because the firm contracted by the agency to prepare it- Environmental Resource Management (ERM)- had worked on another TransCanada project during the period covered by their conflict of interest disclosure statement, and "had worked for TransCanada, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies that have a stake in the Canadian Tar Sands."    While the State Department's Inspector General’s office has launched an investigation into the contracting process, the final supplemental EIS was released to the public on January 31, 2014.


What's Next?


The final environmental impact statement concluded that, even though crude extracted from the oil sands produces 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of crude currently used in the United States (and 2 percent to 10 percent more than the heavy crude it would replace at Gulf Coast refineries), and even though bitumen, the substance that is extracted from tar sands, is more difficult to clean up than lighter crude in the event of a spill, the proposed Pipeline would be unlikely to impact global greenhouse gas emissions because TransCanada would likely ship the crude to US refineries by rail anyway.


Russ Girling, chief executive of TransCanada, said “We’re very pleased with the release [of the EIS] ... The case for the Keystone XL, in our view, is as strong as ever.”


Environmental activists immediately responded with  250 actions across the US to coincide with the President's State of the Union address.  Thousands of people attended, including a crowd that stood outside the White House and asked President Obama: "Will you be a climate champion or the pipeline president?” 


Beginning on February 5, the State Department opened a 30-day comment period, and other federal agencies began a 90-day period to weigh in.  


Environmental groups are rallying supporters to protest the pipeline during the public comment period, declaring that  "even the oil-industry written, sham FSEIS couldn’t deny that Keystone XL does have an impact on carbon pollution."    


The EIS is not an automatic approval of the Keystone project, according to Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.   Jones said that the final EIS “is not a decision document ... It does not answer the broader question about how a decision on the proposed project would fit into the broader national and international efforts to address climate change or other questions of foreign policy or energy security.”


Once the State Department issues its decision, other agencies have 15 days to object, and if that happens, President Obama will make the decision whether to issue the permit.


What You Can Do


You can submit comments to the State Department before March 7, 2014.


Members of the public are encouraged to submit comments to


Comments may also be mailed directly to:

U.S. Department of State

Bureau of Energy Resources, Room 4843

Attn: Keystone XL Public Comments

2201 C Street, NW

Washington, DC 20520


You can also send a message to the State Department through:


Kristen Milhollin also contributed to this article.