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The Strategic Importance of Keystone XL

Obama's decision on the Keystone XL pipeline could make or break the future of tar-sands oil.

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 3:52 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Presidential decisions often turn out to be far less significant than imagined, but every now and then what a president decides actually determines how the world turns. Such is the case with the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, is slated to bring some of the "dirtiest," carbon-rich oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. In the near future, President Obama is expected to give its construction a definitive thumbs up or thumbs down, and the decision he makes could prove far more important than anyone imagines. It could determine the fate of the Canadian tar-sands industry and, with it, the future well-being of the planet. If that sounds overly dramatic, let me explain.

Sometimes, what starts out as a minor skirmish can wind up determining the outcome of a war—and that seems to be the case when it comes to the mounting battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. If given the go-ahead by President Obama, it will daily carry more than 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to those Gulf Coast refineries, providing a desperately needed boost to the Canadian energy industry. If Obama says no, the Canadians (and their American backers) will encounter possibly insuperable difficulties in exporting their heavy crude oil, discouraging further investment and putting the industry's future in doubt.

The battle over Keystone XL was initially joined in the summer of 2011, when environmental writer and climate activist Bill McKibben and 350.org, which he helped found, organized a series of non-violent anti-pipeline protests in front of the White House to highlight the links between tar sands production and the accelerating pace of climate change. At the same time, farmers and politicians in Nebraska, through which the pipeline is set to pass, expressed grave concern about its threat to that state's crucial aquifers. After all, tar-sands crude is highly corrosive, and leaks are a notable risk.

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In mid-January 2012, in response to those concerns, other worries about the pipeline, and perhaps a looming presidential campaign season, Obama postponed a decision on completing the controversial project. (He, not Congress, has the final say, since it will cross an international boundary.) Now, he must decide on a suggested new route that will, supposedly, take Keystone XL around those aquifers and so reduce the threat to Nebraska's water supplies.

Ever since the president postponed the decision on whether to proceed, powerful forces in the energy industry and government have been mobilizing to press ever harder for its approval. Its supporters argue vociferously that the pipeline will bring jobs to America and enhance the nation's "energy security" by lessening its reliance on Middle Eastern oil suppliers. Their true aim, however, is far simpler: to save the tar-sands industry (and many billions of dollars in US investments) from possible disaster.

Just how critical the fight over Keystone has become in the eyes of the industry is suggested by a recent pro-pipeline editorial in the trade publication Oil & Gas Journal:

"Controversy over the Keystone XL project leaves no room for compromise. Fundamental views about the future of energy are in conflict. Approval of the project would acknowledge the rich potential of the next generation of fossil energy and encourage its development. Rejection would foreclose much of that potential in deference to an energy utopia few Americans support when they learn how much it costs."

Opponents of Keystone XL, who are planning a mass demonstration at the White House on February 17th, have also come to view the pipeline battle in epic terms. "Alberta's tar sands are the continent's biggest carbon bomb," McKibben wrote at TomDispatch. "If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you'd run the atmosphere's concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we're currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature." Halting Keystone would not by itself prevent those high concentrations, he argued, but would impede the production of tar sands, stop that "carbon bomb" from further heating the atmosphere, and create space for a transition to renewables. "Stopping Keystone will buy time," he says, "and hopefully that time will be used for the planet to come to its senses around climate change."

A Pipeline With Nowhere to Go?

Why has the fight over a pipeline, which, if completed, would provide only 4% of the US petroleum supply, assumed such strategic significance? As in any major conflict, the answer lies in three factors: logistics, geography, and timing.

Start with logistics and consider the tar sands themselves or, as the industry and its supporters in government prefer to call them, "oil sands." Neither tar nor oil, the substance in question is a sludge-like mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen (a degraded, carbon-rich form of petroleum). Alberta has a colossal supply of the stuff—at least a trillion barrels in known reserves, or the equivalent of all the conventional oil burned by humans since the onset of commercial drilling in 1859. Even if you count only the reserves that are deemed extractible by existing technology, its tar sands reportedly are the equivalent of 170 billion barrels of conventional petroleum—more than the reserves of any nation except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The availability of so much untapped energy in a country like Canada, which is private-enterprise-friendly and where the political dangers are few, has been a magnet for major international energy firms. Not surprisingly, many of them, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, have invested heavily in tar-sands operations.

Tar sands, however, bear little resemblance to the conventional oil fields which these companies have long exploited. They must be treated in various energy-intensive ways to be converted into a transportable liquid and then processed even further into usable products. Some tar sands can be strip-mined like coal and then "upgraded" through chemical processing into a synthetic crude oil—SCO, or "syncrude." Alternatively, the bitumen can be pumped from the ground after the sands are exposed to steam, which liquefies the bitumen and allows its extraction with conventional oil pumps. The latter process, known as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), produces a heavy crude oil. It must, in turn, be diluted with lighter crudes for transportation by pipeline to specialized refineries equipped to process such oil, most of which are located on the Gulf Coast.

Extracting and processing tar sands is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking, far more so than most conventional oil drilling operations. Considerable energy is needed to dig the sludge out of the ground or heat the water into steam for underground injection; then, additional energy is needed for the various upgrading processes. The environmental risks involved are enormous (even leaving aside the vast amounts of greenhouse gases that the whole process will pump into the atmosphere). The massive quantities of water needed for SAGD and those upgrading processes, for example, become contaminated with toxic substances. Once used, they cannot be returned to any water source that might end up in human drinking supplies—something environmentalists say is already occurring. All of this and the expenses involved mean that the multibillion-dollar investments needed to launch a tar-sands operation can only pay off if the final product fetches a healthy price in the marketplace.

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