Introduction to Keystone XL Controversy

Sable Liggera '17 Assistant News Editor 

For six years, the Keystone XL pipeline has been a subject of controversy among American politicians and constituents alike. On Jan. 29, the Senate officially approved the pipeline, leaving the Obama administration to make the final decision regarding its construction.

Keystone XL is a proposed oil pipeline system which would transfer crude oil from the Alberta Canadian tar sands through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, before connecting to the pre-existing Keystone pipeline. Technically, Keystone XL is the fourth phase of operation in the Keystone pipeline operation. The first three phases of the Keystone project have already been approved, constructed, and are now either already online or, in the case of phase three, scheduled to go online this year.

The total length of pipeline from all three phases amounts to 2,920 miles. The construction of Keystone XL would add an additional 327 miles to the system. What makes Keystone XL controversial in comparison to its predecessors is its route, which would travel over the Ogallala Aquifer and cross major rivers, including Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.

The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers, or sources of groundwater, in the world. Expanding underneath the Great Plains, the aquifer underlies eight states and accounts for 30 percent of the groundwater used in American irrigation.

Opponents of the Keystone XL risk argue that there is possibility of contamination from the pipeline. Because tar sand oil is composed of a mixture of crude oil, sand, clay and bitumen, the tar sand oil would sink instead of floating as typical in conventional oil spills. As such, in the case of leakage, remediation would be even more difficult and expensive than for conventional oil spills.

Not only are leaks more dangerous, they are also more likely due to the chemical composition of tar sand oil. The oil is extremely corrosive, which can damage the pipeline. Even without such a volatile substance, compromises in pipeline integrity are already frequent. In January, five major pipeline-related incidents took place; the last of which occurring in Brooke County, W. VA. after a natural gas pipeline exploded. Another leakage in North Dakota resulted in a three million gallon spill of petroleum and chemical brine, a byproduct of oil and natural gas drilling, into the Backtail Creek and Little Muddy Creek. With such frequent and recent instances of pipeline compromise, critics fear a similar fate for the Keystone XL.

Environmentalists also have reservations about the Albertan tar sands, the source of the crude oil the pipelines would be transporting. Tar sand extraction is energy and water intensive, requiring three barrels of water for every one barrel of crude oil produced. 95 percent of the water used in the process is polluted beyond recovery, necessitating storage in “tailing ponds;” due to lax government regulations of tailing ponds in the United States, 39 percent of tailing pond failures happens in the United States. Another concern is the refining process of tar sand oil, which, compared to conventional oil, results in higher production of byproducts such as sulfur and nitrous oxide, components of acid rain and smog.

Groups such as the Northern Plains Resource council have also expressed economic concerns. The council stated, “The Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest. This pipeline, which is proposed to carry Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast, is for the purpose of generating profit for a private company, it is for a private use. It will generate very few jobs, and the oil is destined for export markets.”