The Keystone XL Pipeline: The Battleground of America’s Fight Against Climate Change

Jeremy Young'24

Black gold, Texas Tea, oil goes by many names across the US but, its impact is huge, and it has become the lifeblood of many communities across the United States. Unfortunately, this has also come with many controversies such as oil spills and their paths through Native American lands. The pipeline definitely is a controversial topic right now and the history of the Keystone Pipeline is incredibly complicated as well. On President Biden’s first day in office, he made an executive order to cancel the new proposed Keystone XL. This issue expands much larger than the pipeline itself as Republicans warn canceling the new extension could have dire consequences on the economy while Democrats fear that the pipeline would have a very negative impact on the environment. 

 

 

The Keystone Pipeline network was first proposed in 2008 by TransCanada Corp. and ConocoPhillips. The first phase of the pipeline was proposed as the pipeline network was going to run from the Tars Sands oil fields in Alberta to the refineries located in Texas before being shipped out through the Gulf of Mexico. On its way, it would pass through the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Another branch of the pipeline extending to Illinois would also pass through the state of Missouri. The pipeline extends 2,147 miles from Alberta to Steele City Nebraska as well as the branch which connected the pipeline to Illinois. The second phase, which was completed in 2011, extended the pipeline from Steele City to Cushing Oklahoma. Phase three included adding US made oil to the pipeline in Cushing before extending the pipeline 435 miles to Nederland Texas where it was sent to refineries and later transported to Port Arthur and later shipped to sea. This branch was completed in 2014. The fourth phase was proposed as Keystone XL, which would start in Hardisty Alberta (same as the original pipeline) but instead of going through Canada, it would cut across Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska before rejoining the other pipeline in Steele City. 

 

The construction of the pipeline has been controversial and in the 2014 midterm elections, it was one of the prominent issues at stake. During that year, Republicans won back both the House of Representatives and the Senate and once again were able to continue construction of the pipeline after it was blocked by President Obama. During that year's midterms, every single Representative of the areas which the pipeline crossed voted to continue construction. After President Trump won in 2016, he allowed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline once again. The Keystone pipeline carries 550,000 barrels of oil a day and the XL was supposed to carry 800,000 barrels a day.  

Many of Biden’s climate change policies are already being felt in areas such as Wyoming, where Biden has stopped allowing leasing for oil and gas on federal property. Since the majority of Wyoming is owned by the government it will have a huge impact on Wyoming’s economy. According to NPR’s Kirk Siegler, communities across Wyoming are bracing for job losses and school funding cuts. Wyoming was ranked 50th in state GDP in 2016 and now could be losing part of their biggest industry. While this issue may seem far away and distant to many of us it is important to remember that the oil and natural gas industry is the lifeblood of many parts of our nation. For example, in the state of Wyoming, the oil industry gave $705 million to public education, $621 million to the state general fund, and $157 million to cities, towns, and counties around the state according to the Keystone XL website. While we often think of oil and natural gas companies as giant corporations, which many of them are, it is important to remember that people in low-income areas are the people who will be the ones that have to pay the price. 

Many believe the cancellation of the Keystone XL is already being felt around the US but the exact numbers of people who will lose their jobs as a result of the cancellation range dramatically from 11,000 to 83,000, the fact is that many people in poorer states will lose their jobs and these numbers will continue to grow for now. TC Energy Corp.; the Canadian owners of the pipeline says that in late 2020 they gave 1.6 billion dollars in contracts to six major unions in the US. These unions would hire 7,000 union workers in 2021 to work on the XL pipeline but most people estimate that they would hire closer to 8 to 11 thousand workers. Over 1,000 people have lost their jobs to go along with the 10,000 people who were supposed to be hired and now will not be. 

 

The Keystone XL project, when it was first proposed said they would hire 10,240 people to maintain the pipeline and support 42,000 jobs both directly and indirectly in the US. According to Keystone XL themselves, the pipeline would pay 2 billion dollars to its workers. Keystone Xl has invested 42 million dollars in communities in the US as well as 16 million dollars indirectly to Native American communities. The question that remains is how will canceling the Keystone XL pipeline affect climate change? Many argue it will have no effect at all and that Canada will find other ways to export their oil and the US will have to find a different energy supplier, namely Iran. President Biden will likely ease restrictions on Iran assuming they rejoin the nuclear deal, in return, Iran will be able to export oil to the international market, according to Market Watch. After all, the US still consumes 19,687,287 barrels of oil per day. The US has increasingly become energy independent meaning we are less reliant on other countries for fuel but with the cancellation of the Keystone XL, this could all change. If the US is not able to produce as much oil due to the cancellation of the Xl pipeline and because experts believe the demand for oil in the US will only increase, the US will still need to get oil but will have lost its biggest provider. Canada, on the other hand, is not happy about the decision either, as they were one of the biggest supporters of the project. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted to hearing Biden had canceled the permit by saying, “We are disappointed, but acknowledge the president’s decision,” Canada has recently discovered a boom in the fossil fuel market which is expected to nearly double by 2030. This pipeline not only benefited the United States economy but also Canada’s as well.  

 

Many people see the cancellation of the Keystone XL as a step in the right direction such as Dr. Sidle who is the faculty leader of the Eco-Justice Club. He says, “The pipeline is going to be carrying Tar Sands crude oil which is particularly problematic because it is toxic and would be going through wetlands in Nebraska that are delicate ecosystems.” The plan for the XL pipeline has been stuck in limbo for quite some time now as the State Department first was trying to block the XL pipeline in 2011 during the Obama Administration. Back then, they were trying to block its construction due to its potential impact on the fragile Sandhills region in Nebraska. It also has garnered the criticism of many due to the development of the Alberta oil sands. The drilling of oil in Alberta also had negative impacts on the environment as well. Some of the most vocal activists against the XL pipeline, in general, have been Native Americans, whose land is often passed through by the pipeline. Dr. Sidle says that running a pipeline through their sacred lands represents, “Another broken treaty between the US and Native Americans.” Many of them have seen the number of sexual assault and murder cases climb as workers on the pipeline travel through the Native American lands. Like many other pipelines, the Keystone has experienced many cases of oil spills. In 2010 (the first year of its existence), it spilled 31 times and in 2019 an oil spill leaked 400,000 barrels into North Dakota. The number of oil spills would undoubtedly continue to rise with the addition of the XL pipeline. One of the main concerns caused by the cancellation of the Keystone XL is how it would affect gas prices all over the country. But Dr. Sidle says, “Gas prices were going to rise regardless of the pipeline or not.” This is because fossil fuels are not renewable energy so there is a finite amount of fossil fuels to be used. He would go on to say that the oil running through this pipeline isn’t even American oil.

 

 The other cause for concern from many is the job loss that will result from the cancellation of the pipeline especially now, when finding a job is incredibly difficult. But, as Charlotte Carr, student head of Eco-Justicetice Club argues, “The pipeline mainly supports part-time time jobs while clean energy would provide full-time jobs and benefits for people who work in that field.” Instead many would rather see the US use more renewable energy sources that are already starting to pop up around the country. Dr. Sidle says, “Probably the best option for that area are wind turbines. Jobs from the pipeline could be jobs constructing environmentally friendly alternatives and as we get better at constructing them, the prices go down.” Charlotte Carr agrees with this saying that both wind and solar are viable solutions that could fill the gap left by the pipeline jobs. This shows that there are now becoming cheap alternatives that would be able to make up for the jobs lost on the pipeline while doing a better job of helping the environment. 

Many people in the US and around the world see the coming years as the time to act against irreversible climate change. Canceling the XL pipeline is seen as a major step in the right direction for these people such as Dr. Sidle, “We are on the right track, a track we simply have to be on, one we should have been on decades ago.” Others criticize this move due to the job losses caused by it such as Nebraskian Chris Olson, "Any of these people that work on the pipeline, all the sudden they're not making money so they're not spending money," Olson told Fox News. "So the community they live in is going to have less money coming in." This topic represents a tough decision that America and its leaders will have to make as to whether America should turn all to renewable energy sources or whether it should continue and expand its fossil fuel extraction. This is a choice all of us will have to make; whether we should let people from the most vulnerable areas of the country continue to lose their largest source of revenue and their chance at well-paying jobs or whether we should turn to the future and prevent the possibility of catastrophic climate change.

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This image was taken October 29 2019 after the oil spill in northeastern North Dakota which affected about 22,500 feet of wetland.