The oil industry fought hard to keep Keystone alive, making wildly exaggerated claims that the pipeline – the country’s largest infrastructure project – would create tens of thousands of jobs and decrease America’s reliance on oil from the Middle East. TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, had already spent nearly $2 billion buying land and parts for the project, anticipating approval by the end of the year. But Keystone took another blow when The New York Times unearthed evidence revealing an unsavory relationship between TransCanada and the State Department.
Even worse, scientists warned, the amount of carbon locked up in the tar sands – 230 billion tons – would be more than enough, if burned, to spike global warming to catastrophic levels. James Hansen, NASA’s leading climate scientist, predicted that if Keystone went through it would be “game over” for the planet. “The pipeline became more than an environmental or energy issue,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “It was almost a philosophical referendum on who we are as Americans, and what we care about.”
Although most Americans don’t know it, the U.S. gets more oil from Canada than it does from the entire Middle East. Of the 9 million barrels of oil we import each day, 2 million come from Canada – half of them from a vast expanse in Alberta called the tar sands. Most of the major oil companies have operations there, including two of the biggest funders of the climate disinformation machine: ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, the Kansas-based refining and pipeline operation that handles 25 percent of the tar sands oil currently heading into America.
Extracting oil from the tar sands is a nasty, polluting, energy-intensive business. To get at the tar sands, oil companies must first cut down huge tracts of the boreal forests that cover Alberta before deploying huge, industrial-scale shovels and draglines to dig up the tar sand itself – a black goo that resembles roof tar mixed with beach sand. After dumping the goo into enormous vats of superhot water to separate out the sand and skim off the oil, refiners use an expensive and complex process called hydrocracking to turn the thick, sulfury gunk into gasoline or diesel. Finally, all the water and sand left over from the process – laden with heavy metals and toxins – is pumped into giant holding areas that form massive lakes of toxic sludge. In Alberta, all this takes place on a scale so large that it can be seen from space; the “lakes” of sludge alone are among the largest human-built projects in the world. It has also wreaked enormous environmental destruction in Canada: killing off scores of migrating ducks, polluting local water supplies and coinciding with an alarming increase in cancer rates for indigenous people who live downstream from the tar sands operations.
Right now, the tar sands produce some 1.5 million barrels of oil a day – but by 2030, oil producers in Alberta hope to double that output. There’s only one problem: The tar sands are landlocked. Unlike Saudi Arabia, where oil can be quickly and easily transported to the sea, the tar sands are transported to market through an extensive network of pipelines. And with the Midwest currently experiencing an oil glut, thanks to a boom in shale oil, Canada’s tar sands can receive top dollar only if they’re transported all the way to the Gulf Coast, where they can be refined and shipped overseas. The Keystone XL pipeline, in effect, was a way for oil companies to leapfrog the United States by digging a four-foot-deep trench and laying a three-foot-wide steel pipe nearly 2,000 miles long to get their product from Canada to Europe and Asia.
To counter [opposition to the pipeline], TransCanada preyed on the public’s economic insecurity, claiming that the pipeline would create 20,000 jobs in construction and manufacturing, plus an additional 118,000 spinoff jobs that would inject $20 billion into the U.S. economy. Fox News went even further, suggesting that the pipeline “could provide up to a million new high-paying jobs” in the U.S. The numbers came from a report by a Texas consulting operation called the Perryman Group – which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be little more than an ex-professor from Southern Methodist University who accepted funding from TransCanada for predicting a jobs boom. The State Department, by contrast, estimated that building the pipeline would employ no more than 6,000 construction workers – and that once Keystone was finished, the number of permanent pipeline jobs could be as few as 50.
As for the idea that the pipeline would increase America’s energy security: Much of the tar sands shipped to Texas would likely wind up overseas. Valero, one of the biggest refiners contracted to buy the oil from the pipeline, already exports six percent of its gasoline and 18 percent of its diesel, mostly to South America. What’s more, the most profitable market for refiners right now is selling diesel to Europe. “For the refiners, this is all about buying low-cost tar sands crude and selling into high-profit markets in the European Union,” says Stockman, the researcher at Oil Change International. “This oil is not going to replace oil from the Middle East. That’s not the way the global oil market works. This is not instead of – it’s as well as.” The Keystone pipeline, in short, wouldn’t increase our energy independence – it would just further fuel our oil addiction.
Steven Anderson, a retired brigadier general, became an outspoken opponent of the pipeline based on his experience overseeing the U.S. Army’s supply chain during the Iraq War. “That’s where I really saw the absurdity of our addiction to oil,” he says. “It was not just the strategic costs of maintaining our military presence in the Middle East, but the operational costs of keeping our troops moving and viable during a time of war.” Anderson estimates that of the 1,000 trucks the Army had in motion each day during the height of the war, 300 of them were devoted exclusively to moving fuel around. By Anderson’s estimate, at least 1,000 American soldiers died transporting fuel. “It was absurd and tragic,” he says.
The pipeline, Anderson says, would actually undermine our energy security by perpetuating the fantasy that America can drill its way to freedom and prosperity. “It allows us to think we can keep driving our SUVs, that everything is fine,” he argues. “It is not fine. We need to make big changes to how we think about energy in America. The Keystone pipeline is not the solution to our problems. It is emblematic of it. If we build this pipeline, we will look back on this in 50 years and see how foolish we were.”
But the decision [to postpone the Keystone pipeline permit], while a major victory for the environment, may prove short-lived. In postponing the pipeline, the president offered no bold statement about the need to curb America’s addiction to oil or to invest in clean energy. In the end, Obama opted to delay the pipeline with a bureaucratic shuffle, arguing only that the route through Nebraska needed further study. The failure to take a firm stand against converting Canada’s tar sands into oil leaves the door open for Keystone – or another pipeline just like it.
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