5 Key Selling Points of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, Debunked

For Earth Day, we present stark realities to contrast to the positive Keystone XL spin.

Photo Credit: Andrea Slatter/Shutterstock

The battle lines are drawn. On one side stands Big Oil, most of Congress, the Tea Party and the Canadian government — and a majority of Americans, according to the polls. On the other stands environmentalists, progressives, a coalition of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Western U.S. ranchers and farmers and tribes across Indian Country.

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What's all the fuss about?

The Keystone XL Pipeline Project would extend an existing pipeline from Alberta, Canada to export crude oil extracted from tar sands under Canada's Boreal Forest to refineries along the U.S. Gulf coast in Texas and Louisiana for export.

Tar sands oil crude is dirtier and more corrosive than conventional oil, emitting more greenhouse gas emissions that add to climate change, which is why it has impassioned a new environmental activism.

President Obama, faced with pressure from environmentalists and his Democratic base, has said he would approve the Keystone XL only if it did not significantly impact the environment. The State Department, which has jurisdiction over the project since the pipeline would cross an international border, concluded just that--that the pipeline would have no "significant impact"--in an environmental impact statement.

Opponents of the Keystone XL have reason to be worried. The environmental impact statement concluded that the Keystone XL would not greatly increase carbon emissions mainly because Canada would develop the energy-intensive, toxic oil sands in Alberta with or without the pipeline.

That would make it more likely that Obama would approve the project.

But opponents of the project say the environmental impact statement is suspect because it was written in part by a consultant for TransCanada, the company that wants the XL built. An investigation by the State Department's inspector general found that there was no conflict of interest in a TransCanada consultant writing an impact statement for a project TransCanada wants. This despite a Mother Jones investigation that found that the State Department had redacted the biographies of the environmental impact statement's authors, concealing extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry.

With Obama expected to announce his decision within the next several weeks (or after the 2014 elections, according to some reports), here are five key selling points for the project--debunked!

Selling Point 1: The Keystone XL will create jobs, jobs and more jobs.

Reality: It will create fewer than 2,000 temporary jobs and a few dozen permanent ones, most likely for Canadians.

When the Keystone XL first became a national story in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, jobs were the main selling point. Several members of Congress testified that the pipeline would generate thousands of new jobs; estimates ranged between 20,000, 40,000, or even 100,000 new jobs in the jobs-hungry heartland.

Revised estimates of the jobs that pipeline would generate have dropped precipitously. The State Department's own report listed 1,950 temporary (two-year) construction jobs and 50 permanent jobs.

But that news has not reached the public. Polls show a majority of Americans support the project based on the perception that it would boost the economy. An ABC/Washington Post poll released in March found Americans support constructing the pipeline by a nearly 3 to 1 margin. Eighty-five percent say the pipeline would create a significant number of jobs, and 62 percent "strongly" believed so.

As for overall economic benefits, over its lifetime, the Keystone XL would cost billions more than it brings in, according to an analysis by a coalition of more than 200 high-tech business owners, venture capitalists and academics known as the Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). In March, the group sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asserting that the Keystone XL's costs would be borne by U.S. citizens, business and taxpayers, while the profits from the pipeline will add to private corporations, many of which are foreign interests. E2 also argued that without the pipeline, it is highly unlikely that Canada would try to ship its dirty crude by rail as the extra costs of such transport would eat into the already tight profit margin for the tar sands oil in a glutted market.

Selling Point 2: The XL will help the United States gain energy independence.

Reality: The United States is already set to become the world's largest oil producer by 2015, if not sooner.

Proponents say the XL pipeline would help the United States gain energy independence and rely less on oil exporting countries with which the United States has fractious relationships, such as Venezuela. It would also strengthen the nation's relationship with its largest trading partner and best buddy to the north, Canada.

But in part because of fracking in the Bakken shale oil reserve in Western North Dakota, oil inventories in the United States are at a 21-year high...and counting. A glut of unrefined oil sits in Cushing, Okla., waiting to be processed. With Texas and North Dakota, the United States is now producing two million barrels of oil more per day than it was when Keystone XL was first proposed.

Not to mention that the Albert tar sands that the XL will transport to Texas refineries is not meant to serve the United States' oil needs. Its purpose is to refine oil for export. Environmentalists say that the country most likely to gain energy independence from the Middle East would be China.

Selling Point 3: The Keystone XL Pipeline will not significantly adversely affect the environment.

Reality: The Keystone XL will reverse efforts to combat climate change and make it easier to extract and export the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive way of producing oil such that it will make polluting the atmosphere cheaper and easier.

A Washington Post study found that anywhere from 271,000 to 5,709,000 cars would have to drive on U.S. roads to release the equal amount of carbon dioxide that would enter that atmosphere from 830,000 barrels of oil moving through the pipeline each day.

Selling Pont 4: The Keystone XL would be a safe, clean way to transport oil.

Reality: Spills and leaks, kept from public awareness, have plagued TransCanada's projects.

In January, a TransCanada pipeline exploded in Manitoba, leaving 4,000 people without heat in frigid conditions. One of the largest pipeline explosions in a decade happened on July 20, 2009, when the Peace River mainline in northern Alberta, on a First Nations reserve, blew up, razing a two-hectare area, but the Canadian public was never made aware of it, according to an investigative report by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation released in February.

In a 2011 report on the explosion, Canada's National Energy Board criticized TransCanada for "inadequate" inspections and "ineffective" management and found that the pipeline section was 95 percent corroded. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation, which received the 2011 report through an access-to-information request, questioned why the National Energy Board (N.E.B.) report was not made public, as is the rule, the N.E.B. blamed an administrative error.

Spills are routine. TransCanada's first Keystone pipeline spilled 14 times in the U.S. in its first year of operation (2010) alone, and Enbridge, another pipeline operator, spilled more than one million gallons in the Kalamazoo River in 2010.

Selling Point 5: The Keystone XL would not pose a threat to the public health.

Reality: Accidents are already happening with pipelines (see Selling Point 4, above) and the State Department's environmental impact statement did not check the possible consequences of accidents and increased greenhouse gas emissions on public health.

Senator Barbara Boxer, (D.-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment Committee, has publicly called on the Obama administration to conduct an investigation into the impact of the pipeline on public health. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, she wrote: “The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement was woefully inadequate regarding human health impacts, and we believe it is critically important that peer-reviewed research on these issues is fully considered before any decision is made on the Keystone XL pipeline."

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.