Where Obama stands now: The Keystone XL pipeline

By Claire McNear, on 6 March 2014

By Aydan Sarikaya

An oil sands extraction plant in Alberta, Canada.

An oil sands extraction plant in Alberta, Canada.

The Keystone XL pipeline is and has been perhaps the most controversial environmental and energy debate for President Barack Obama’s administration in the United States. The proposed pipeline stretches from Alberta’s tar sands fields to the Gulf of Mexico. It would cross a number of states, laying 1,179 miles of pipeline through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, and would connect to a series of existing pipeline segments in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Ultimately, the pipeline would carry up to 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil a day from Canada down to the southern United States. Because of the pipeline’s trans-boundary nature, the last 875 miles of the pipeline still need to be approved by the President, a decision he will base on the recently released Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) distributed by the State Department.

The EIS is a compilation of research done by a third party on the environmental impact of the extraction, transportation, and possible leaks of the heavy tar-like black oil, bitumen, one of the crudest forms of oil. The EIS raised no major environmental objections to the pipeline. However, the third party firm that conducted the EIS, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), is shrouded in controversy. Typically, an EIS is paid for by the applicant, in this case the energy company TransCanada, in order to avoid costs to taxpayers. TransCanada previously offered up a different third party to conduct the EIS, but it was found that there was a conflict of interest between the two, leading to ERM as the next viable candidate. Since then, news outlets including Bloomberg Businessweek, CNN, and the BBC have uncovered that ERM listed TransCanada in its promotional materials a year before beginning work on the EIS. In response to the controversy, the State Department, which awarded the EIS contract to ERM, has assured the public that ERM conducted an unbiased EIS. As it stands, the EIS is now open for a 90-day comment period, allowing other US agencies and the general public to raise their concerns.

The Keystone XL pipeline has created huge divides between environmentalists, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and energy companies. Extraction of tar sands oil requires one of the most environmentally detrimental procedures of any type of oil collection, involving the clearing of plants and churning of topsoil, leaving a barren landscape behind. Environmentalists worry that though the extraction is occurring on Canadian soil, a sign-off on the pipeline would encourage American oil and energy companies to begin tar sands oil production within the United States. Others see the potential for policy backpedaling or worse from President Obama, including Arizona House Democrat Raúl Grijalva, who wrote an op-ed for the New York Times reiterating that President Obama has consistently stressed the importance of strong policies on climate change and environmental preservation, beginning in his 2008 presidential campaign and carrying through to his most recent State of the Union address. The result, Grijalva argued, is that the Keystone XL pipeline may be the President’s most important decision related to the environment since arriving in office.

After years of delays, the Keystone XL pipeline proposal is on its way to approval by the State Department. After the 90-day comment period, a review of the Environmental Impact Statement may be made. Once that is completed, the EIS must be accepted by the State Department, leaving the final decision on approval of the pipeline to the President.

If the President wishes to maintain his reputation as a champion of green issues, then it is vital that he understand what opening a tar sands oil pipeline across the United States will mean for the future of the American oil industry. There are both costs and benefits related to environmental degradation, as well as the prospect of jobs and energy independence. Obama’s decision may affect Congressional elections as well as pave the way for tar sands oil production in the US. Oil extraction and climate change go hand in hand; the trouble is that there is more money in the oil industry than there is working toward mitigating climate change. Obama must consider the consequences carefully and decide how much he is willing to risk on one of the most important and controversial environmental decisions of his presidency.