Keystone XL and the U.S. Dependence on Oil

On November 6, 2015, Obama rejected the proposed Keystone XL project.  Why did he do this, and what does this mean for the U.S.?  The Keystone XL Pipeline is subject to three permitting processes: the “presidential permit” for international borders, federal permits for intrastate borders, and state permits for interstate transport. In Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd. V Denbury Green Pipeline (363 S.W. 3d 192. Texas 2012), we see that interstate permitting is governed at the state level and really resolves to eminent domain, which is determined by the states. In Texas, it was determined that a proposed pipeline must be a “common carrier”, meaning a transport pipeline available for public use, in order for private lands to be expropriated. Many other states follow Texas in this regard; however, the Keystone XL is a common carrier, so there are no issues there. Ultimately, the full development of this project relied on the presidential permit. Up until this last week, Obama had not signed this permit and even vetoed a congressional bill relating to it.  In the past week, TransCanada Corporation – the Canadian company involved in building the pipeline – asked the U.S. to halt review of the pipeline altogether. Halting the review could have simply meant that this decision would be waiting on the next president to be elected.  But Obama was not on board with that.  He rejected TransCanada Corporation’s request and thus ended the seven year review process involved with this project.

Figure 1. Map of the existing and proposed components of the Keystone Pipeline.

To put into context, this pipeline is 1,179 miles long and connects the Alberta tar sands with the oil refineries in Houston (Figure 1). Part of this route is effectively already in place, however the new proposed Keystone XL would have expedited the connection between Hardisty, Alberta and Steele City, Kansas. This means that the tar sands could be transported more quickly and in bigger quantities to Texas.

The Keystone XL had several major concerning issues associated with it: first, the tar sands crude oil are significantly dirtier in greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude oil; second, the oil would largely be exported and sold abroad; third, the risks to the American people as a result of the pipeline are very real. The Alberta tar sands are known to have a much higher release of greenhouse gas emissions than U.S. conventional crude oil, with life cycle assessments such as that by Brandt[1] demonstrating that Alberta tar sands oil is associated with as much as 1.75 times more carbon dioxide equivalent per unit of energy than conventional crude oil. It is widely known that even conventional crude oil has a significant impact on our climate, especially as it relates to its contribution to climate change. How could we possibly allow the Alberta tar sands, which are notably worse for the climate, to be burned as a fuel source? In the U.S., we certainly have a dependency on oil, but we are getting better – yearly oil consumption is decreasing compared to recent years, and domestic production has increased. If we had allowed the Keystone XL to be built, we would be supporting an industry that we are ideally aiming to minimize our dependence on.  Supporters of the pipeline claim that the Keystone XL would have relieved our dependence on foreign oil from more unstable countries in the Middle East; however, I would claim that investing in the Alberta tar sands would have set us on a track to be more dependent on oil into the future, and when that supply ran low we would become desperately reliant on foreign oil.  Now that Obama rejected the Keystone XL, he has indicated to the world that the U.S. is serious about considering the consequences of climate change.  Although this is a step in the right direction, we should now push to invest in hybrid and electric vehicles so that our transportation fleet is less dependent on oil.

Furthermore, the Keystone XL would have ultimately just been a gateway for Canada to export its oil abroad in the international market, with most of the risk falling on the U.S.  Canada could build a pipeline going through Canada to their west coast, but has not done so. Both First Nations peoples and Canadians concerned about local and global environmental implications do not support that development.  If built, the Keystone XL would only be a part of the transport process in sending Canadian tar sands to the international market. If even some Canadians do not support Keystone XL, why then should the U.S. take on the grunt work to develop a pipeline that delivers a dirty fuel to a more oil-hungry world? Furthermore, why should the U.S. take on the risk of explosions associated with oil transport, especially considering that it will not largely benefit from the process?  To our benefit, Obama realized that the proposed Keystone XL is simply an infrastructure that would unnecessarily contribute to global warming and, without reaping any of the benefits, put Americans at risk.  Now it is time for the U.S. to kick its addiction to oil by investing in a vehicle fleet that relies less on it.


[1]Brandt, Adam R. “Converting Oil Shale to Liquid Fuels with the Alberta Taciuk Processor: Energy Inputs and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Energy & Fuels (2009): 6253-258. Energy & Fuels. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.