TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline is Not in Our National Interest


Sarah Risser delivered this speech at the MN tar sands solidarity march – November 6, 2011

A couple of months ago, I traveled to Washington D.C. and was arrested as part of a peaceful protest in an effort to send a strong message to Barack Obama to not allow TransCanada, a foreign company, to construct the Keystone XL pipeline—a project that would enable the continued mining of tar sands from Alberta Canada. I was arrested in front of the White House along with over 1200 other people who understood that the Keystone XL pipeline is not in our national interest. 


At that time—just a little over two months ago—it wasn’t at all clear that President Obama was listening to the growing chorus of voices on his doorstep. It wasn’t at all clear that this was an issue he or the media would pay much attention to. But the people who cared were determined to keep the pressure up and assiduously organized action after action, rally after rally, meeting Obama at nearly every stop he made as he traveled around the country to public events. Time and again, committed and concerned citizens told Obama, in so many ways, that the Keystone XL pipeline is not in our national interest.

And today, over ten thousand people have descended on Washington DC to encircle the White House and send a dramatic signal to the President to let him know that it is time to end our dependence on fossil fuels. It is time for him to honor his campaign promise to be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.  I believe that President Obama might, finally, be paying attention to our concerns. 

Why are so many people opposed to this pipeline? In short, it is because this pipeline is dirty, it is dangerous and it is unnecessary. Further, by linking Alberta Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas, the Keystone XL enables the expansion of tar sands mining.

Tar Sands are considered to be some of the dirtiest oil on the planet. Extracting tar sands is much more energy-intensive than extracting conventional oil, tar sands bitumen is more corrosive than conventional oil when piped—increasing the risk of ruptures—and tar sands bitumen is more difficult to refine. Consequently, tar sands oil results in considerably more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude.  Al Gore brought it home when he equated the emissions from a prius fueled by tar sands oil to an old Buick running on conventional crude.


And, mining tar sands in Alberta destroys the boreal forest. It requires open-pit operations that can be likened to mountaintop removal coal mining: oil companies clear-cut giant tracts of ancient boreal forest, drain wetlands, remove layers of soil and peat moss, eliminating both a natural carbon sink and vitally important wildlife habitat. The process is impossibly destructive, yet the oil industry and the Canadian government consider this to be acceptable. The oil industry and the Canadian government consider this rampant destruction to be business as usual.

Channeling tar sands oil via pipeline is dangerous. It carries a higher risk of ruptures and spills. In its natural state, bitumen is thick and flows very slowly. To keep it moving, TransCanada will need to dilute it with hydrocarbons and other chemicals called diluents. Yet, the exact composition and quantity of these diluents is considered proprietary information. Nobody knows precisely what will be flowing through the Keystone XL pipeline because the chemical mix is a protected trade secret that is not shared. To be clear, not even our regulators, including the Environmental Protection Agency are privy to this information. What we do know is that diluted bitumen contains a higher concentration of sulfur and minerals and this is widely believed to increase the friction and temperature inside the pipe. These conditions, in turn, are believed to increase corrosion and the risk of rupture. It is very likely not a matter of if the pipeline will burst but when. 


And this is a big problem because the Keystone XL will pass through many fragile ecosystems including Nebraska’s Sand Hills—home to endangered Whooping Cranes—and the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest and most heavily used aquifer in the United States—a vital source of drinking and irrigation water. TransCanada predicts the pipeline will spill 11 times over the next 50 years. Yet it’s hard not to assume this is overly optimistic when TransCanada’s dismal safetly record includes 14 oil spills within 12 months on the Keystone 1 Pipeline.

In July 2010 an Enbridge Energy pipeline leaked and dumped 843,000 gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup operation was much more complicated, expensive, and time consuming than anyone predicted in large part because the dilbit is relatively heavy and quickly submerged. This spill has so far involved more than 2,000 personnel, 150,000 feet of boom, 175 heavy spill response trucks, 43 boats and 48 oil skimmers. The cost is expected to exceed $700 million.

Yet, from the oil industry’s perspective, this is, again, business as usual.

Jobs and Security

We know that pipeline advocates and big oil relentlessly promote the jobs and energy security that the Keystone XL is purported to bring to the United States. We hear over and again that the Keystone XL pipeline will put people back to work and increase our energy security. 

And building this pipeline will create jobs. However, TransCanada has consistently misled the American people by exaggerating the number of jobs and extent to which this project will stimulate our economy. The Washington Post very recently reported that TransCanada’s CEO, Russ Girling, admitted Keystone’s job creation numbers are not true. Girling admitted that TransCanada was double counting, claiming that one position lasting for two years was, actually, two jobs. Further, job claims were exaggerated by including completely unrelated ancillary spin-off jobs such as dancers and speech therapists.

And most of the construction jobs are short-term and will go largely to workers who travel from out-of-state. This means that the states shouldering the greatest environmental and health risks will not see commensurate job-creation benefits. A Cornell study—the only study not funded by TransCanada—concludes that in net terms, Keystone kills as many jobs as it creates. In the words of Bill McKibben: “There’s only one word for reporters who repeat the jobs vs. environment frame: ‘lazy’.”



The other argument we hear repeatedly is that the Keystone XL will increase our energy security. That sourcing oil from our friendly Canadian neighbor to the north is much more palatable than obtaining conventional crude from countries associated with terrorism and corruption.

This is misleading in two fundamental ways. First, there is growing consensus that the number one threat to our national security is global warming and the Keystone XL has been described by many as a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet, the tar sands of Alberta.

Secondly, of the 700,000 barrels a day that the Keystone XL will deliver to our Gulf Coast refining center most, if not all, is destined for foreign markets. This oil is not intended for domestic use. To be clear, TransCanada, the oil producers in Alberta and the shippers who have signed long-term contracts to use the pipeline—such as Valero, Suncor Energy, Conoco, Phillips, Marathon and Total—are not motivated by ensuring American security. In fact, most forcasts predict the demand for oil in the United States will dip slightly over the next 20 years while China’s demand doubles. The Keystone XL is a conduit to a lucrative global oil market.

Regardless of whether this pipeline will augment, to any extent, our domestic oil supply, it is vitally important to stop enabling the development and consumption of fossil fuels by moving quickly away from our addiction to oil. True security involves shifting our focus to conservation and home-grown clean energy technologies that will create millions of jobs, support a strong democracy and meet America’s long-term energy needs. Enabling a foreign company to build a pipeline with foreign materials to sell foreign oil to foreign markets just isn’t going to get us there.


Barak Obama with input from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will ultimately decide whether to approve TransCanada’s permit application for the Keystone XL Pipeline. They will likely make this decision by the end of the year. Unfortunately, the state department’s environmental review and public input processes has been badly flawed revealing a pro-industry bias and wrought with conflict of interest .

This is an extremely important issue and a victory here is extremely important. We must keep the pressure on President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to do what’s best for our air, our water and our country. Until we have a sound climate policy we should not support a pipeline that will increase greenhouse gas emissions. It is very much in our national interest to reject this pipeline.


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