Keystone XL Pipeline Realities

keystone 2From the start, the fight over Keystone XL has seen proponents lining up against environmentalists. No one can argue about the benefits of the pipeline. The tar-sands are estimated to be the world’s third-largest oil reserve.

The clear benefits for Canada have been touted, with 830,000 barrels a day of promised new pipeline capacity to accommodate the development of the oil sands. Thousands of direct and spinoff jobs will be created in both Canada and the U.S., and our neighbours to the south will be protected against foreign dependency on oil.

As the process has unravelled, criticism by anti pipeline activists on both sides of the border has gone hand in hand with every aspect of the proposal.

Normally criticism should be seen as an outright assault on the arguments supporting the pipeline. Pragmatic supporters should accept criticism as a necessary and beneficial evil, making the objective more environmentally sound. In this light, criticism provides opportunities to carry out the process more methodically, take stock or examine each argument in detail, compare it to alternatives, re-think plans, make necessary adjustments, and ultimately validate positions and arguments in favour of the proposal.

A case in point, opponents attempted to use the argument of climate change in their agenda to stop the project. The issue was addressed and minimized by the U.S. State Department’s Environmental Impact Assessment which found that the pipeline would not have a meaningful impact on emissions. The impact on emissions was found to amount to a mere quarter of 1 percent of the U.S. total emissions. Their assumption was that blocking the pipeline would also block the flow of crude into the market.

Keystone 3

Sand Hills Lake, Nebraska

The original proposed route which would have crossed the fragile Sandhills Region of Nebraska, where a spill could threaten clean underground water was also re-evaluated. In response, an alternative was proposed so that the pipeline will take an alternative route.

To follow this pragmatic line of reasoning, based on the realities of the international oil marketplace, and the economic interests and national energy policies of both Canada and the U.S., two arguments will undoubtedly override criticisms of the proposal. Firstly, it will be virtually impossible to stop Canada from extracting oil from the tar-sands. Secondly, this oil will find its way into the market. In other words, world demand for oil will ensure that it gets extracted and moved to market whether the pipeline is approved or not.

As an alternative, Canada could elect to build a pipeline of its own or expand its rail capacity to the east and west coasts, exporting the oil to Asia or Europe. If Asia becomes the final destination, none of the benefits for North American drivers or economies will be realized. Oil will continue to burn, and with it, less chance of controlling or minimizing any of the feared environmental impacts such as global warming.

The alternative of rail transport should be viewed as an option with scepticism and having greater risks. Chemicals used to dilute the oil which takes up about two-thirds of the capacity of the pipeline may not be necessary since refining this oil into the final product will more than likely occur in a corner of the world where labour is less expensive and environmental controls are less stringent.

Already, China is “licking its chops” at the prospect of accessing the oil reserves contained within the tar sands. Almost $30 billion was invested in the oil sands in 2012 by Chinese companies, and investments are expected to increase.

All in all, the Keystone XL Pipeline should be looked at being the best option. The rail option will undoubtedly create a higher risk for the environment than any pipeline. All we have to do is remember Lac-Mégantic.

Most arguments about the pipeline fail to acknowledge an unwritten advantage of the pipeline’s safety over any other alternative transportation mode.

On both sides of the border many view that the benefits of the pipeline outweigh any arguments against its development. With that said, and recognizing that the oil reserves contained within the tar sands will be developed; it is incumbent on the project’s proponents and developers to ensure that development and construction take place in the most structured manner possible. Stringent safeguards and environmental controls should be incorporated to minimize any of its potential risks.


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