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Pipeline under construction in Alberta, Canada.
Pipeline under construction in Alberta, Canada.

What's the Keystone XL Pipeline?

How one pipeline project turned into the center of a huge fight over the environment, public health, and civil rights.

The end of the Keystone XL (KXL) tar sands pipeline will be remembered as one of the most important environmental victories of this generation. The Keystone XL pipeline has been gone for good after more than 10 years of protests, long legal battles, and back-and-forth executive orders from three different presidents. The Canadian energy infrastructure company TC Energy, which backed the project, gave up on it for good in June 2021, after President Joe Biden denied a key permit on his first day in office. But it wasn't always easy to see how to win. Many people thought the bad project was over when the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline in November 2015, admitting that it posed serious risks to the climate, ecosystems, drinking water sources, and public health. But as soon as he got into office, President Donald Trump brought the zombie project and the legal fights against it back to life. By the time President Biden took office in 2021, ready to keep his promise to revoke the cross-border permit, the dirty energy pipeline had become one of the most important climate issues of our time.

Here's everything you need to know about the historic KXL fight, including why the cancellation of the pipeline hasn't changed oil prices right now.

What is the Keystone XL?

When TC Energy (then known as TransCanada) proposed the Keystone XL pipeline extension in 2008, it was meant to get tar sands oil, the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet, to market quickly. As an extension of the company's Keystone Pipeline System, which has been running since 2010 and still sends Canadian tar sands crude oil from Alberta to various processing hubs in the middle of the United States, the pipeline promised to make it much easier to process the 168 billion barrels of crude oil locked up under Canada's boreal forest. It was supposed to move 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil from Alberta every day to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. From the refineries, most of the oil would go overseas, not to gas stations in the U.S.

Keystone XL and Tar Sands

There are already about three million miles of oil and gas pipelines in our country, but KXL was not a typical pipeline, and tar sands oil is not a typical crude. It comes from a sludgy, sticky deposit found under the boreal forest in northern Alberta. Bitumen, a sticky type of oil that can be turned into fuel, is found in these sands. Getting oil out of tar sands is not an easy task, and it comes with high environmental and financial costs. Still, when gas prices started going up in the middle of the 2000s, oil companies stepped up production and looked for more ways to get their oil from Canada's remote tar sands fields to refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast.

keystone pipeline map
keystone pipeline map

Keystone XL Pipeline Map

The proposed extension of Keystone XL was actually made up of two parts. The first leg, in the south, was already finished and connects Cushing, Oklahoma, and Port Arthur, Texas. Opponents of this project, which is now called the Gulf Coast Pipeline, say that TC Energy used legal loopholes to get the pipeline built. They say that TC Energy got permission for the pipeline through a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nationwide permit instead of the more rigorous, public-input-required process for individual permits. The second part was the hotly debated 1,209-mile northern leg, which would have gone from Hardisty, Alberta, through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska. It would have been a kind of short cut.

In 2015, President Barack Obama told the U.S. State Department not to give the northern leg of the Keystone XL project the permit it needed to build, maintain, and run the pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border. President Trump later gave the permit, but President Biden again took it away.

The Keystone Pipeline, Gas Prices, and Oil Exports

Dirty energy lobbyists said that developing tar sands would protect our energy security and lower fuel prices in the United States. But both the Obama and Trump administrations' environmental reviews found that the Keystone XL pipeline would not have made gas cheaper. The NRDC and its partners also found that most of the oil from Keystone XL would have been sent to markets outside of the U.S. This was made possible by the fact that a ban on crude oil exports was lifted in 2015.

This is in line with a trend in the oil and gas industry: every day, oil and gas companies export 8.4 million barrels of crude oil and refined fuels. That's almost three times as much as it was a decade ago, and it's the same as 42 percent of what we use. And this is more than 10 times the amount that could be sent out through the Keystone XL pipeline.

The forest in the north.
The forest in the north.

Effects on the environment of the Keystone XL pipeline Leaks and the pipeline

Tar sands oil is thicker, more acidic, and more corrosive than lighter conventional crude. This makes it more likely that a pipeline carrying it will leak. In fact, one study found that between 2007 and 2010, pipelines carrying tar sands oil in Midwestern states leaked three times as much per mile as pipelines carrying conventional crude in the U.S. as a whole. Since TC Energy's original Keystone Pipeline System went into service in 2010, it has leaked more than a dozen times. In North Dakota, for example, a 60-foot, 21,000-gallon geyser of tar sands oil shot into the air. In late October 2019, after a spill of more than 378,000 gallons in North Dakota, the Keystone tar sands pipeline was temporarily shut down. This was less than two years before the project was finally scrapped. And the chance that Keystone XL would have leaked was higher because the pipe sections were left outside for a long time. "A study published in early 2020 and co-written by TC Energy's own scientists found that the anti-corrosion coating on the project's pipes was damaged from being stored outside and exposed to the elements for the last ten years," says NRDC senior attorney Jaclyn Prange, who spent years working on KXL litigation.

Leaks can be hard to find, which makes things even worse. When tar sands oil does leak, it is harder to clean up than regular crude oil because it sinks to the bottom of the waterway right away. When people and animals come into contact with tar sands oil, they are exposed to dangerous chemicals. Rivers and wetlands are especially at risk from a spill. For example, the 2010 tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo River, Michigan, cost Enbridge more than a billion dollars to clean up and took six years to settle in court. Keystone XL would have gone through hundreds of rivers, streams, aquifers, and other water bodies, as well as areas that are important for agriculture and are hard on the environment. One was the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, which gives millions of people drinking water and 30 percent of the country's water for farming. The farms, ranches, and towns that depend on these important ecosystems would have been destroyed by a spill. Even worse, building Keystone XL would have meant taking these risks just to send fuel to our competitors overseas and give the profits to Big Oil.

What is oil from tar sands?

Every part of the tar sands business is bad for the environment. Its mines are a problem in Canada's boreal. To get to the oil below, mining operations dig up and flatten forests, destroying wildlife habitat and one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. The mining uses up and pollutes freshwater resources, makes huge ponds of toxic waste, and threatens the health and way of life of the First Nations people who live nearby. When the black, sticky stuff is refined, it makes piles of petroleum coke, which is dangerous and looks like coal. Also, the whole process of getting the oil out and making it usable makes three to four times as much carbon pollution as the normal way of getting crude oil out and making it usable. Anthony Swift, who runs NRDC's Canada project, says, "This isn't your grandfather's typical oil." "It's disgusting."

Changes in the climate and Keystone XL

If Keystone XL had been finished, it would have sped up the way that "nasty stuff" is made and moved, which would have led to more of it being mined. (In fact, Keystone XL was seen as a key part of the oil industry's plans to triple the amount of tar sands oil produced by 2030.)

It would have also led to more greenhouse gas emissions, which, as the most recent scientific reports show, we can't afford if we want to avoid the worst climate effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first said that, from wells to wheels, tar sands oil releases 17 percent more carbon than other types of crude. However, a few years later, the State Department changed this number, saying that the emissions could be "5 percent to 20 percent higher than previously indicated." That would add an extra 178,3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere every year, which is the same as adding 38.5 million cars or 45.8 coal-fired power plants. Lastly, big investments in fossil fuel infrastructure like KXL hurt efforts to reduce global warming and put clean energy like wind and solar power first. James Hansen, a well-known climate scientist and former NASA researcher, has said that moving forward with these projects would mean "game over" for our climate if we fully used up Canada's tar sands reserves. In short, tar sands oil is a big threat to our environment, and the best thing we can do to stop it is to "keep it in the ground," as the rallying cry goes.

After the Kalamazoo spill, people from the EPA take samples of oil and sediment near Battle Creek, Michigan.
After the Kalamazoo spill, people from the EPA take samples of oil and sediment near Battle Creek, Michigan.

False claims about the Keystone XL pipeline

The main reason people were against Keystone XL was because of how bad it would be for the environment. Environmental activists and organizations, Indigenous communities, religious leaders, and farmers, ranchers, and business owners along the pipeline's proposed route protested it for more than a decade. In August 2011, more than 1,200 people were arrested at a protest outside the White House that was a historic act of civil disobedience. One of the many people arrested, the late civil rights activist Julian Bond, said, "This is not a pipeline to America." "It's a pipeline that goes through America, and if it leaks poisons along the way, it could be bad for us." Leading scientists and economists, as well as unions and world leaders like the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former president Jimmy Carter, spoke out against the project (together, these and other Nobel laureates have written letters against the project). During a 30-day public comment period in 2014, more than two million people asked the U.S. Department of State to say no to the pipeline.

But the lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, were a strong opponent to the public outcry. In the two years before the midterm elections in November 2014, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $721 million trying to get support from members of Congress. When politicians who like business took over both houses of Congress in January 2015, the first thing they did was pass a bill to speed up the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. (That didn't work.) Later, fossil fuel companies gave millions to Trump's 2017 inauguration. A few days later, he brought the Keystone XL project back from the dead and increased federal lobbying efforts in the first months of his presidency.

"What if there isn't a pipeline? Big Oil will figure things out."

One of the main points made by those who wanted the pipeline was that the tar sands expansion would happen with or without Keystone XL. This has turned out not to be true. Getting oil from tar sands is an expensive business. It's expensive to make and expensive to ship, especially by rail, which is an alternative to Keystone XL. In fact, sending crude by rail to the Gulf is a lot more expensive than sending it through a pipe. Access to cheap pipeline capacity is a big factor in whether or not a company decides to invest in a long-term tar sands project, which could last 50 years or more. Without Keystone XL, the tar sands industry has had to cancel projects instead of switching to rail, which means more of the dirtiest fuel on earth is staying where it belongs: in the ground.

The industry also said that the pipeline would create a lot of jobs, which was not true.

When TC Energy said the pipeline would create almost 119,000 jobs, a State Department report said it would only need fewer than 2,000 two-year jobs for construction and that the number of full-time, permanent jobs after construction would be around 35.

After the Kalamazoo spill, people from the EPA take samples of oil and sediment near Battle Creek, Michigan.

The Keystone XL Pipeline and President Trump

When the Obama administration said no to TC Energy's request for a cross-border permit to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline in November 2015, it was a blow against polluting powers and a nod to the fact that many communities, experts, and organizations thought this project was a bad idea. The decision was based on a seven-year review by the State Department and the EPA, which found that the pipeline would not be in the best interests of the country.

With his pro-pollution cabinet of fossil fuel supporters, billionaires, and bankers, President Trump quickly showed that his priorities were different. On his fourth day in office, Trump signed an order to move forward with Keystone XL. On March 28, 2017, his State Department illegally approved a cross-border permit for the pipeline. This went against what the Obama administration had said before, which was that KXL would not be in the national interest. When that didn't work, because the NRDC and other groups sued, Trump reissued the permit to cross the border himself. "We would win, and it would mean a lot for putting off construction at crucial times," says NRDC attorney Cecilia Segal, who has been working on the KXL case since 2017. "But then the Trump administration would do something to hurt us outside of court." The administration also tried to give the project other permits based on flawed environmental analyses. This led to more lawsuits, including two from NRDC and its allies.

Outside of the courts, there was quick and strong opposition. Farmers, ranchers, tribes, and environmental groups slowed down the project during Trump's four years in office, even though he tried hard to get it done faster.

The end of the Keystone XL pipeline and President Biden

Polls showed that most Americans were against the pipeline, even as Trump and TC Energy tried to bring it back to life. The business case had also become worse. Low oil prices and growing public concern about the environment led Shell, Exxon, Equinor (then Statoil), and Total to sell or cut back on their tar sands assets. Even though the government of Alberta, Canada, put money into major new tar sands projects, they stopped moving forward. For instance, in 2020, Teck Resources withdrew its 10-year application to build the world's biggest tar sands mine, saying that global markets were becoming more worried about climate change.

Biden promised on the campaign trail that if he became president, he would cancel the Keystone XL cross-border permit. On his first day in office, he kept that promise. The pipeline's death was sealed when the permit was taken away. By that time, Keystone XL was facing a government that didn't like it, a lot of legal challenges, falling oil prices, worsening effects on the climate, and a growing movement of people along the pipeline's route and around the world who didn't want to turn a blind eye. In June 2021, TC Energy said it would no longer build the pipeline. This ended a fossil fuel project that had been a threat to waterways, communities, and the climate for more than a decade. Swift said that Keystone XL was a bad idea from the start. "It's time to speed up the move to clean energy sources that will power a bright future."

Once, the tar sands industry was seen as an unbeatable opponent in a David-versus-Goliath fight. However, the victory against Keystone XL shows that the tables have started to turn, and that climate justice advocates now have more power than ever. Swift says, "Gone are the days when fossil fuel pipelines were built without thinking about how they might affect climate change and the communities around them."

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