Keystone XL: Not All That It’s Piped Up to Be

The XL Pipeline is a proposed project that runs from the Canadian sand fields to Steel City, Nebraska. From there it goes further south until it reaches Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. It would improve upon the current Keystone Pipeline by cutting the distance between Hardesty, Canada and Steel City, Nebraska nearly in half. The project promises to create jobs, support local industry, and make crude oil more affordable in the central United States. Nevertheless, opponents rightfully note that the pipeline wouldn’t prove to be as economically advantageous as some suggest while damaging the environment in a number of ways, further disrupting Canada’s only boreal forest.

The TransCanada Company owns and operates The Keystone Pipeline. Their vision for the future success of their company hinges on rerouting the existing pipeline so it follows a more direct route to Texas. By doing this, they’ll have reduced the length of pipeline they’ll have to monitor and maintain, which will reduce their operating costs. To gain support for their idea, they commissioned several surveys about the environmental and economic impact. They claim the new pipeline would create many jobs, but a closer look at the data from those surveys revealed this would only last in the short term. Only the construction phase requires the extra labor. The overall number of jobs would actually decrease after about 18 months with the completion of the main construction phase. In fact, the new, more automated pipeline would require far fewer jobs than the current pipeline. Therefore, once construction ends, the new pipeline would require less man-hours to keep it running, and less man-hours means fewer jobs. The exact number of construction phase jobs varies widely, but it generally falls somewhere between 1,500-2,000 full-time positions. However, the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement offered by the company admits they expect only 35 full-time, permanent jobs for long-term maintenance and operations. This isn’t the economic boon some claim it to be.

The promised improvement on local industry appears even more questionable. The vast number of jobs the pipeline temporarily creates means that large numbers of employees would flood into small communities as the pipeline construction progresses through the region. This would improve local economy briefly, and the businesses that support population such as restaurants and hotels, among others, would enjoy a boomtown effect. They would need more staff to serve the pipeline workers, and they may even need to expand their businesses to accommodate theme. As soon as the pipeline nears completion in their area, the workers would move on, leaving all those support staff redundant. The effect would likely resemble what happened when the railroads were built out west. The economy swelled with the influx of workers, then the workers left, and people who lived in those many small towns all their lives moved off, either to follow the railroad or to find somewhere else they thought they’d find jobs with wages in keeping with what the railroad paid. Then, the town’s economy shriveled. This resulted in the railroad leaving many small towns decimated in their wake.

There’s an even broader problem regarding the economics behind the pipeline. According to Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit public interest group, “Increases at the pump could range from 25-40 cents a gallon, depending on how regional refineries respond to paying $20-$30 more per 42-gallon barrel for Canadian crude oil.” This directly contradicts what the pipeline supporters promised. TransCanada claims the cost of gas will go down because of their anticipated increased ability to provide crude more efficiently. Yet they have failed so far to sign any agreement to insure we, the end-users, will see those savings at the pump. In fact, historically they have increased crude prices whenever they have made substantial upgrades to their pipelines, passing the cost of those enhancements onto the consumer.

TransCanada has complied with U.S. regulations by providing a detailed outline of their project, its projected environmental and economic impact, and many other aspects of their plan. What they fail to disclose is how even just the process of construction damages our land, leaving behind huge scars on the landscape where their machinery chewed through the wilderness on its way south. The construction process and the eventual refineries that will follow will pour thousands of liters of gasses into the atmosphere, adding to global warming and endangering forests and animal life many thousands of miles away. Closer to home, the expansion of the tar fields will endanger Canada’s only boreal forest as the company requires more and more land to find their oil. The process of extracting the oil from the tar fields creates numerous waste products, many of which pose a toxic threat, requiring burial in barrels for disposal, making entire zones unfit for plant and animal life. This results in vast stretches of uninhabitable land and countless acres of boreal forest being cut down and laid open for plundering which would, under the best of circumstances, need thousands of years to grow back.

Even though the pipeline greatly reduces the cost of shipping oil from Canada to the United States, it also reduces the pressure to innovate green energy.  Without that pressure, the incentive to develop safer, less harmful energy sources flags and stalls. Though it would temporarily ease the energy crisis, our situation is not dire enough that the short-term benefits outweigh the long-term damage.  Additionally, the threat to Canada’s boreal forest must invoke great concern as replacing it in our lifetimes, even if billions of dollars were dedicated to restoring it, would be impossible.


marshallMarshall Morgan grew up traveling the world in a military family. Born in Washington State, he spent most of his time experiencing Europe from a small town in the English countryside, about 20 miles north of London. He is currently studying for a position in the computer field.