Keystone XL pipeline

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The Keystone XL pipeline influence scandal: corruption in the State Department's review

Firsthand accounts from people on the front lines of the tar sands and Keystone XL fights

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The basics

The Canadian company TransCanada hopes to begin building the northern section of an oil pipeline that would trek close to 2,000 miles from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. If constructed, the pipeline, known as Keystone XL, will carry one of the world’s dirtiest fuels: tar sands oil. Along its route from Alberta to Texas, this pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources and jeopardize public health.

Giant oil corporations invested in Canada's tar sands are counting on the Keystone XL pipeline to make the expansion of oil extraction operations there profitable: The pipeline would double imports of dirty tar sands oil into the United States and transport it to refineries on the Gulf Coast and ports for international export.

Unfortunately, an area the size of Florida is already set for extraction. Before TransCanada can begin construction, however, the company needs a presidential permit from the Obama administration because the pipeline crosses an international border.

An environmental crime in progress

Dirty tar sands oil

Pollution from tar sands oil greatly eclipses that of conventional oil. During tar sands oil production alone, levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three to four times higher than those of conventional oil, due to more energy-intensive extraction and refining processes. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil into the United States daily, and result in climate-damaging emissions equal to adding more than 5.6 million new cars to U.S. roads.

Water waste and pollution

During the tar sands oil extraction process, vast amounts of heat, water and chemicals are needed to separate the tarry substance (known as bitumen) from sand, silt, and clay and to flow up the pipeline. The water used in the process comes from rivers and underground aquifers. It takes three barrels of water to extract each single barrel of oil. Ninety-five percent of the water used to extract the oil, which is about 2.4 million barrels per day, is so polluted that the water must be stored in large human-made pools, known as tailing ponds. As the heavy bitumen sinks to the bottom of these ponds, the toxic sludge, full of harmful substances like cyanide and ammonia, works its way into neighboring clean water supplies.

Forest destruction

The tar sands oil are underneath the world’s largest intact ecosystem, the Boreal forests of Alberta. The forests not only serve as an important carbon sink, but its biodiversity and unspoiled bodies of water support large populations of many different species. They are a buffer against climate change as well as food and water shortages. However, in the process of digging up tar sands oil, the forests are destroyed. This valuable forest and its endangered caribou are both threatened by the pipeline.

Indigenous populations 

Northern Alberta, the region where tar sands oil is extracted, is home to many indigenous populations. Important parts of their cultural traditions and livelihood are coming under attack because of tar sands operations. Not only have indigenous communities been forced off of their land, but also those living downstream from tailing ponds have seen spikes in rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism. In the lakeside village of Fort Chipewyan, for example, 100 of the town’s 1,200 residents have died from cancer.

These problems will only get worse, unless tar sands production is halted. Investing in a new pipeline would increase the rate of production, while decreasing the quality of life for indigenous populations.

Click to enlarge.

Pipeline spills

The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse six U.S. states and cross major rivers, including the Missouri River, Yellowstone, and Red Rivers, as well as key sources of drinking and agricultural water, such as the Ogallala Aquifer which supplies water to more than one fourth of America’s irrigated land and provides drinking water for two million Americans.

The probability of spills from this pipeline is high and more threatening than conventional spills, because tar sands oil sinks rather than floats, making clean ups more difficult and costly. TransCanada's first pipeline proves that this threat is real, as it spilled a dozen times in less than a year of operation. Experts warn that the more acidic and corrosive consistency of the type of tar sands oil being piped into the U.S. as well as the risk of external corrosion from higher pipeline  temperatures makes spills more likely, and have joined the EPA in calling on the State Department to conduct a thorough study of these risks.

In the summer of 2010, a million gallons of tar sands oil poured into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan from a pipeline run by another Canadian company, Enbridge. Although nearly one billion dollars have been spent over the past three years to clean up the spill, almost 40 miles of the river are still contaminated.

In April 2013, a 22-foot crack in an Exxon pipeline caused a devastating tar sands oil spill that began in a residential neighborhood of Mayflower, Arkansas and into Lake Conway, a drinking water source and popular fishing spot. Residents of the community were unaware of the pipeline under their town until this massive spill. 

Refining tar sands oil

After traveling through the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands oil would be brought to facilities in Texas to be further refined. Refining tar sands oil is dirtier than refining conventional oil, and results in higher emissions of toxic sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide. These emissions cause smog and acid rain and contribute to respiratory diseases like asthma. Communities near the refineries where the Keystone XL pipeline terminates, many of them low-income and communities of color, already live with dangerously high levels of air pollution. The Keystone XL pipeline would further exacerbate the heavy burden of pollution and environmental injustices these communities confront.

One dangerous and high-carbon byproduct of these refineries is petroleum coke, or petcoke. Although petcoke is produced inexpensively, it is costly to store and is often dumped into open pits. Burning petcoke is more carbon-intensive than burning coal, so the United States Environmental Protection Agency will no longer permit power plants in the United States to do so. However, plants in China, India, and Latin America import petcoke as a cheap coal substitute. 

Stopping the pipeline

Tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest fuels on the Earth. Facilitating the exploitation of the tar sands will delay investments in clean and safe alternatives to oil, such as better fuel economy requirements, plug-in electric cars fueled by solar power, and smart growth and public transportation infrastructure that give Americans choices other than cars. In order to avoid devastating effects on the climate from a global rise of 2 degrees Celsius, such as the melting of the Arctic ice, sea level rise, and more extreme tornados and hurricanes and more floods and heat waves, the International Energy Association says that up to two-thirds of known fossil reserves must remain untouched.


Fact sheets:

Report -- Dirty Business: How TransCanada Pipelines bullies farmers, manipulates oil markets, threatens fresh water and skimps on safety in the United States

Interviews -- Telling their stories: The Fight to Stop the Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

Uncovering oil lobbyist influence -- Read about the intensifying scandal regarding the State Department's Keystone XL review


Press releases and related media

"Comments of the Sierra Club, et al., to the Department of State on the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and National Interest Determination for the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline," March 7, 2014

"Keystone XL: Friends of the Earth sues State Dept. over failure to release records on pipeline lobbying," Friends of the Earth, July 16, 2013

"Secrets, lies, and missing data: new twists in the Keystone XL Pipeline," Bloomberg Businessweek, July 11, 2013 

Taking the tar sands challenge,” Sierra Club, July 2, 2013

Keystone Academy: Where legislators learn the etiquette of serving special interests,” PR Watch, July 1, 2013

Oh, Canada: How America’s friendly northern neighbor became a rogue, reckless petrostate,” Foreign Policy, June 24, 2013

Keystone XL pipe shuns infrared sensors to detect leaks,” Bloomberg Businessweek, June 18, 2013

Groundhog Day with State Dept conflicts of interest,” Friends of the Earth US, June 11, 2013

TransCanada has a ‘culture of non-compliance’: engineer to Senate committee,” The Tyee, June 7, 2013

Lobbyists for Canadian pipeline have deep ties to White House,” Corp Watch, May 31, 2013

Who’s who of Obama lobbyists pushes Keystone pipeline,” Financial Times, ­­­­­­­­­­­May 30, 2013

Harper government keeps details of $16.5 million oil industry ad campaign under wraps,” Desmog Canada, May 23, 2013

Canadian government pursuing aggressive lobbying push on Keystone XL,” Climate Progress, May 20, 2013

Anna G. Eshoo: Keystone XL pipeline won’t live up to TransCanada’s promises,” Mercury News, May 16, 2013

Environmental prize winners call on administration to reject Keystone Pipeline,” Sierra Club, May 8, 2013

"Biden said to suggest Keystone opposition in impromptu chat," Bloomberg, May 8, 2013

Obama’s Keystone XL embarrassment,” The Hill, May 6, 2013

Obama’s former communications director’s firm does PR for Keystone XL Pipeline, tar sands rail transport,” Desmogblog, May 3, 2013

Tar Sands Timmy,” Mark Fiore, May 2013

Keystone Pipeline support enlists oil firms to U.S. Jews: Energy,” Bloomberg, April 29, 2013

Editorial: EPA's Keystone report card,” New York Times, April 26, 2013

Keystone XL: What is Foggy Bottom hiding?” Friends of the Earth US, April 26, 2013

AG criticizes oil pipeline plan review,” Times Union, April 24, 2013

"EPA deems US state department Keystone review 'insufficient,'" Guardian, April 23, 2013

EPA bashes State Department’s ‘insufficient’ Keystone report,” Grist, April 22, 2013

’Cooking the Books and the Planet’: Report slams State Dept. KXL findings,” Common Dreams, April 17, 2013

"Keystone XL Pipeline would hasten climate change: Report," Environment News Service, April 16, 2013

"State Department's Keystone analysis ignores true climate impact: Report," Huffington Post, April 16, 2013

Keystone Pipeline’s tough PR fight,” O’Dwyer’s, April 12, 2013

Did Keystone XL contractor hide its conflict of interest?” Mother Jones, April 9, 2013

Editorial: Spill casts chill on Keystone XL project,” St. Louis Today, April 8, 2013

James Hansen: Keystone XL: The pipeline to disaster,” LA Times, April 4, 2013

State Department’s Keystone XL contractor ERM green-lighted BP’s explosive Caspian Pipeline that failed to love up to jobs hype,” Desmogblog¸ March 26, 2013

"Exclusive: State Dept. hid contractor's ties to Keystone XL Pipeline Company," Mother Jones, March 21, 2013

Read a round up of Keystone XL news generated following the release of "smoking gun" State Department documents, our lawsuit against the State Department and the expansion of our FOIA request

Read our Keystone XL controversy news round up from October 14, 2011

Read our Keystone XL controversy news round up from October 5, 2011

"For Obama, Peer Pressure from Nobel Laureates," New York Times, September 19, 2011

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