The Keystone XL pipeline has found its way back into the news in recent days, as Congress is pushing for the approval of the necessary permit. The pipeline’s first press coverage resulted from a massive protest, which included over 1000 demonstrators. The protest ended with over 1000 arrests, including notable environmentalists such as Bill McKibben. The continuing debate, which posits economic growth against environmental protection, is the latest installment of the pipeline controversy.
The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed expansion of the existing Keystone pipeline, which originates in Alberta, Canada. Beginning at the vast tract of land known as the Athabasca oil sands, the pipeline extends through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to the south. An additional extension of the pipeline passes through Kansas and Missouri, with a final destination in Illinois. The proposed 1,700-mile extension of the Keystone pipeline would extend to the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana.
While construction jobs would be temporarily created, the environmental concerns of both the extraction of oil from the tar sands and the actual construction of the pipeline should be considered before any decisions are made. As with any petroleum production project, oil (tar) sands operations can have severe adverse effects on the environment. First, the initial mining process destroys the land by clearing trees and brush and by removing the layers of sand, clay, or gravel, disrupting the soil. Secondly, a significant amount of water is needed to produce each volume unit of synthetic crude oil, which is pumped from the neighboring Athabasca River. The water is often treated using subpar standards and then released back into the Athabasca and other rivers. Third, air pollution from the heavy equipment used during the mining process releases substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
Additionally, the methods used to extract the oil sands are extremely energy intensive, using a considerable amount of natural gas just to produce a single barrel of crude oil. Lastly, there are numerous amounts of heavy metals present in the oil sand such as vanadium, nickel, lead, cobalt, mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, selenium, copper, manganese, iron and zinc.
Congress is pushing for the approval of the pipeline from President Obama in the coming weeks, as the debate over job creation and energy security continues to heat up. Relying on foreign oil from unstable Middle Eastern countries is one reason why Congress has become so vocal on the issue. The Keystone XL pipeline could potentially be an obstacle to the development of renewable energy sources, another way to solve the energy security and independence issue.