Forcing a Pipeline Decision

A standoff between Republicans and Democrats in Congress over the extension of a payroll tax bill looks to have been resolved late on Thursday, December 22, but not without the controversial inclusion of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project. On December 9, GOP leaders added provisions regarding the Keystone XL pipeline to the bill that includes unemployment insurance and payroll tax cuts. The added provisions require a decision to be made on the building of the pipeline within 60 days, rather than President Obama’s original request that a decision be made by September of 2013.

The proposed pipeline would stretch 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas, crossing six states and passing through the Ogallala Aquifer which provides drinking water to millions of Americans and irrigation to $20 billion a year in agriculture and food production. The project has drawn widespread public criticism and protests from environmental groups and state residents in the pipeline’s path, including a 12,000-person demonstration at the White House on Nov. 6.

Although speaker of the House John Boehner claims that the pipeline project will create thousands of jobs, lower domestic gas prices and reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil sources, those claims have not held up under independent review. Many speaking out against the pipeline argue that both national security and job creation lie not with the oil industry, but the green jobs sector. In fact, a recent study found that last year the clean energy sector grew at a rate of 8.3% between 2003 and 2010, nearly twice as fast as the overall U.S. economy.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension, meanwhile, would carry some of the dirtiest oil in the world, known as tar sands. It’s an environmental disaster both in the extraction process and in the emissions produced by conventional use of the oil. Tar sand extraction is water intensive (similar to hydrofracking), and leaves behind polluted, chemical-ridden water. Currently, it is proposed that the water be allowed to sit in gigantic, contained pools. But these pools remain subject to leaks, flooding and unforeseen extreme weather events.

Another issue surrounding Keystone XL is the validity of the environmental impact statement allowed by the Department of State, paid for by TransCanada and performed by the environmental contractor Cardno Entrix. CardnoEntrix is a business partner with TransCanada, a relationship that clearly represents a conflict of interest.

In a larger sense, the Keystone XL pipeline extension by Canadian oil company TransCanada represents a turning point in U.S. economic development. It has become not only a polarized issue in the halls of Congress but part of the larger debate over whether the country should pursue sustainable, renewable forms of energy or continue to rely on oil and drill as much as possible until there is no oil left.