Keystone pipeline construction near Swanton, Nebraska
President Obama vetoed the “Keystone XL Pipeline” bill late last March, imparting relief to the thousands of environmentalists and anti-pipeline interests that believe that the legislation would exacerbate climate change. After years of delay and speculation about his decision, Obama vetoed the 8 billion dollar project within hours of receiving it “without any drama or fanfare or delay.”
In his veto message to the senate, he conveyed that he is well aware of the responsibility a veto carries, but also takes “seriously [his] responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned [his] veto.”
Despite the threat of opposition beforehand, the financial market seemingly presumed that approval for the pipeline was assured, leading many to trade on the assumptions of an increased supply from Canada. The Republicans have challenged Obama on this issue by vowing to override his veto, but real success with this method is a highly unlikely scenario. The bill only passed with a majority of 270-152 in the House and with 62-36 in the Senate, margins well below the two-thirds majority needed to override.
Contrary to popular perception, much of the Keystone pipeline already exists and transports oil from oil sand fields in Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Texas coast. Since the southern portion of Keystone XL was domestic, it didn’t require any presidential or State Department authorization and instead sought approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. The northern leg of the pipeline, however, would cross international borders, requiring the company to obtain a Presidential Permit for the proposed 1179-mile extension connecting Canada’s oil sands with a portion of the pipeline in Steele City, Nebraska. Unfortunately for TransCanada, acquiring such a permit isn’t easy, as the decision to issue or deny a Presidential Permit is based on a determination that a project would serve the national interest. Such a decision requires consideration of potential impacts on the environment, the economy, and energy security among other factors. When considering these factors, Obama believes that the “environmental impacts outweigh the benefits”.
“Quite frankly,” said TransCanada representative Jim Prescott, “we need a Presidential Permit for about 50 feet of pipe. If we weren’t crossing that border then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
But is the issue of the pipeline really that simple? Is the economic stimulus really worth the environmental impacts? Involved labor unions claim that the construction of the pipeline will decrease unemployment, a welcomed change in an economy still recovering from a recession, by creating up to 40,000 jobs. The significance of this number is very contentious, as some experts have claimed that a more realistic number for the jobs provided by TransCanada hovers at around 2,000. Even then, these jobs will only last for a maximum of two years, eventually leaving the pipeline with only 35-40 permanent positions.
The construction of the pipeline will provide Canada with the incentive to deforest the 10.8 million acres of Boreal forest shielding the tar sands, as well as threatening various farmlands, ecosystems and forests in the United States. Additionally, the proposed pipeline route will violate the Ft. Laramie Treaty that establishes exclusive rights of the land to the Indigenous people. Those empowered by the treaty have criticized Keystone as “an act of war on Indigenous people” and have sued the state for not consulting them before deciding the fate of the pipeline.
Advocates of the project claim that it will aid 56 of the 198 First Nations in British Columbia where unemployment is a major issue, but this overlooks the fact that the vast majority of construction jobs will only be provided to skilled American workers. In addition to all of this, the project will open up the reservations to thousands of men who may view the Native women as easy sexual prey. Native women are already 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by non-Native men than women of any other race, and opening exclusively male camps around the region will very likely increase the incidences of assault.
Tar sand extraction is also extremely water intensive, as each barrel of oil from the tar sands requires 110 to 350 gallons of water to produce. 95% of the water used to extract the oil is extremely polluted and contains heavy bitumen, a material full of harmful substances such as cyanide and ammonia, which is stored in tailing ponds. It is reported that these ponds leak about 11 million liters of toxic waste per day into the Athabasca River and nearby ground water, causing it to flow further into Indigenous territories. The Keystone pipeline will also pass through Nebraska’s sensitive areas around the Ogallala aquifer, a major source of water for the region. If a spill occurs, the oil could reach the water table within hours or days, contaminating the drinking supply of 2 million people.
Proponents of Keystone claim that an advantage of building the pipeline will be lesser greenhouse emissions since the oil sands will be transported by rail if the pipeline isn’t completed. In December 2014, railways were transporting about 1.1 million barrels of oil per day. Major rail derailments in Alabama and North Dakota have spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil in 2013, strengthening the argument that the pipeline will prevent such massive spillage and, by extension, result in less damage to life and property. One of the more severe examples occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a derailment led to blasts that killed 47 people and quarantined the city for almost a year due to fear of contamination, uprooting thousands of citizens. These arguments, however, fail to take into account that Alberta is landlocked, meaning that the cost of transportation by rail will offset the benefits from oil extraction, making it an unpalatable proposition for investors. This leaves Keystone, not the railways, as the only profitable option for the oil’s transport.
Despite TransCanada’s verbal promises of making a “waterproof and spill-proof” pipeline, its recent record has demonstrated the contrary. The company’s safety standards have been subjected to great scrutiny, revealing that Keystone spilled over 30 times in its first year of operation, and that the southern leg of Keystone XL had dozens of anomalies along a 60 mile stretch in east Texas. The company’s policies also don’t comply with Canadian safety regulations, and it does not intend to use the latest preventative technology to detect spills along the northern Keystone XL route.
Unfortunately, Obama’s opposition isn’t the end of the pipeline debate. Under an executive order signed by George W. Bush, the State Department is reviewing the proposal to determine whether it’s in the national interest. Currently, however, there is no timeline for the assessment as Secretary of State John Kerry is still in the process of drafting it. Obama can ultimately override the State Department’s recommendation, but that would subject him to too much pressure from pro-pipeline advocates, senators and big businesses. For now, it seems, the interests of American citizens and the environment are at odds with the influence of professional lobbyists that regularly influence the government’s actions.
Only time will tell if Obama’s stance will remain firm under this colossal pressure, but even it does, the next President may not be inclined to adopt his preferences.
Puneet Brar is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Environmental Science and Sustainability and minoring in Policy Analysis and Management. She is a Staff Writer for The Diplomacist.