The Keystone XL Pipeline: Everything You Need To Know | NRDC

What Is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

How a single pipeline project became the epicenter of an enormous environmental, public health, and civil rights battle.

UPDATE: June 9, 2021: TC Energy announced that it is canceling the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, putting an end to a fossil fuel project that endangered waterways, communities, and the climate, which President Biden denied a key permit for on his first day in office. “The era of building fossil fuel pipelines without scrutiny of their potential impact on climate change and on local communities is over,” says Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada project. “Keystone XL was a terrible idea from the start. It’s time to accelerate our transition to the clean energy sources that will power a prosperous future.”

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Pipeline under construction in Alberta, Canada

rblood via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

If ever there was an environmental battle exemplifying a game of ping pong, it would be the stop-start story of the Keystone XL pipeline, also known as KXL. From the time it was proposed in 2008, through more than 10 years of dogged citizen protest and various conflicting legislative and executive orders by the federal government, the path for this controversial oil pipeline has never been smooth. Many had hoped that the disastrous project was finally done for in November 2015, when the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline—acknowledging its pervasive threats to climate, ecosystems, drinking water sources, and public health, and advancing a national commitment to decreasing our reliance on dirty energy. But immediately after taking office, President Trump reversed course and signed an executive order to advance Keystone XL (as well as the Dakota Access Pipeline). Since then, President Trump has personally issued the pipeline’s developer its long-sought cross-border permit, and his administration has attempted to grant additional permits for the project—all based on faulty environmental reviews. (NRDC and other groups have already won two lawsuits against the Trump administration over these approvals and reviews and recently sued for a third time.)

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter the White House, he has signaled that cancelling Keystone XL’s permit will be a top priority. Here’s an overview of the tar sands export pipeline that’s become one of the foremost climate controversies of our time.

What is Keystone XL?

The Keystone XL pipeline extension, proposed by energy infrastructure company TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) in 2008, was designed to transport the planet’s dirtiest fossil fuel to market—fast. An expansion of the company’s existing Keystone Pipeline System, which has been operating since 2010 (and is already sending Canadian tar sands crude from Alberta to various processing hubs in the middle of the United States), it would dramatically increase capacity to process the 168 billion barrels of crude oil locked up under Canada’s boreal forest. To be precise, it would transport 830,000 barrels of Alberta tar sands oil per day to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Some 3 million miles of oil and gas pipelines already run through our country. But Keystone XL wouldn’t be your average pipeline, and tar sand oil isn’t your average crude.

Keystone XL and Tar Sands

The boreal forest

Gord McKenna

Beneath the wilds of northern Alberta’s boreal forest is a sludgy, sticky deposit called tar sands. These sands contain bitumen, a gooey type of petroleum that can be converted into fuel. It’s no small feat extracting oil from tar sands, and doing so comes with steep environmental and economic costs. Nevertheless, in the mid-2000s, with gas prices on the rise, oil companies ramped up production and sought additional ways to move their product from Canada’s remote tar sands fields to midwestern and Gulf Coast refineries.

Keystone XL Pipeline Map

The Keystone XL extension actually comprises two segments. The first, a southern leg, has already been completed and runs between Cushing, Oklahoma, and Port Arthur, Texas. Opponents of this project—now called the Gulf Coast Pipeline—say that TC Energy took advantage of legal loopholes to push the pipeline through, securing a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit and dodging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) more rigorous vetting process, which requires public input. The second segment is the currently contested 1,209-mile northern leg—a shortcut of sorts—that would run from Hardisty, Alberta, through Montana and South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska.

Following a rigorous, robust analysis with substantial public engagement, the U.S. State Department, under President Barack Obama, declined to grant the northern leg of the Keystone XL project the permit required to construct, maintain, and operate the pipeline across the U.S.–Canada border. Though President Trump subsequently granted this permit and removed this particular barrier to Keystone XL’s construction, significant legal, regulatory, and economic barriers remain for the pipeline to become operational.


Keystone XL Pipeline Environmental Impact

Leaks and the pipeline

Tar sands oil is thicker, more acidic, and more corrosive than lighter conventional crude, and this ups the likelihood that a pipeline carrying it will leak. Indeed, one study found that between 2007 and 2010, pipelines moving tar sands oil in Midwestern states spilled three times more per mile than the U.S. national average for pipelines carrying conventional crude. Since it first went into operation in 2010, TC Energy’s original Keystone Pipeline System has leaked more than a dozen times; one incident in North Dakota sent a 60-foot, 21,000-gallon geyser of tar sands oil spewing into the air. Most recently, on October 31, 2019, the Keystone tar sands pipeline was temporarily shut down after a spill in North Dakota of reportedly more than 378,000 gallons. And the risk that Keystone XL will spill has only been heightened: A study published in early 2020, co-authored by TC Energy’s own scientists, found that the anti-corrosion coating on pipes for the project is defective from being stored outside and exposed to the elements for the last decade.

EPA staff perform oil and sediment sampling near Battle Creek, Michigan, after the Kalamazoo spill.

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Lauren Jorgensen

Complicating matters, leaks can be difficult to detect. And when tar sands oil does spill, it’s more difficult to clean up than conventional crude because it immediately sinks to the bottom of the waterway. People and wildlife coming into contact with tar sands oil are exposed to toxic chemicals, and rivers and wetland environments are at particular risk from a spill. (For evidence, recall the 2010 tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a disaster that cost Enbridge more than a billion dollars in cleanup fees and took six years to settle in court.) Keystone XL would cross agriculturally important and environmentally sensitive areas, including hundreds of rivers, streams, aquifers, and water bodies. One is Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for millions as well as 30 percent of America’s irrigation water. A spill would be devastating to the farms, ranches, and communities that depend on these crucial ecosystems.

What is tar sands oil?

The tar sands industry is just as hard on the cradle of its business. Its mines are a blight on Canada’s boreal, where operations dig up and flatten forests to access the oil below, destroying wildlife habitat and one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. They deplete and pollute freshwater resources, create massive ponds of toxic waste, and threaten the health and livelihood of the First Nations people who live near them. Refining the sticky black gunk produces piles of petroleum coke, a hazardous, coal-like by-product. What’s more, the whole process of getting the oil out and making it usable creates three to four times the carbon pollution of conventional crude extraction and processing. “This isn’t your grandfather’s typical oil,” says Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada project. “It’s nasty stuff.”

Keystone XL and climate change

A fully realized Keystone XL would lead to more mining of that “nasty stuff” by accelerating the pace at which it’s produced and transported. (Indeed, Keystone XL was viewed as a necessary ingredient in the oil industry’s plans to triple tar sands production by 2030.) 

It would also lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions. In 2014, the EPA stated that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other types of crude, but ironically, the State Department revised this number upward three years later, stating that the emissions could be “5 percent to 20 percent higher than previously indicated.” That means burdening the planet with an extra 178.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, the same impact as 38.5 million passenger vehicles or 45.8 coal-fired power plants. Finally, the pipeline would undermine efforts to minimize global warming and prioritize clean energy like wind and solar. Leading climate scientist and former NASA researcher James Hansen has warned that fully exploiting Canada’s tar sands reserves would mean “game over” for our climate. In short, tar sands oil represents no small threat to our environment, and our best stance against it, as the rallying cry goes, is to “keep it in the ground.”

Keystone XL Pipeline Controversy

Opposition to Keystone XL centers on the devastating environmental consequences of the project. The pipeline has faced years of sustained protests from environmental activists and organizations; Indigenous communities; religious leaders; and the farmers, ranchers, and business owners along its proposed route. One such protest, a historic act of civil disobedience outside the White House in August 2011, resulted in the arrest of more than 1,200 demonstrators. More than 90 leading scientists and economists have opposed the project, in addition to unions and world leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former president Jimmy Carter (together, these and other Nobel laureates have written letters against the project). In 2014, more than two million comments urging a rejection of the pipeline were submitted to the State Department during a 30-day public comment period.

Rocky Kistner/NRDC

In the two years leading up to the November 2014 midterm elections, the fossil fuel industry spent more than $720 million to court allies in Congress. When industry-friendly politicians took charge of both congressional houses in January 2015, their first order of business was to pass a bill to speed up approval of Keystone XL. (That effort failed.)

“So what if there’s no pipeline . . .Big Oil will find a way.”

One of the central arguments by pipeline pushers is that tar sands expansion will move forward with or without Keystone XL. This has proved to be untrue. Dealing in tar sands oil is an expensive endeavor. It’s costly both to produce and to ship, particularly by rail, which would be an alternative to Keystone XL. Indeed, moving crude by rail to the Gulf costs twice as much as by pipe. For companies considering whether to invest in a long-lived tar sands project (which could last for 50 years), access to cheap pipeline capacity will play a major role in the decision to move forward or not. Without Keystone XL, the tar sands industry has canceled projects rather than shift to rail, subsequently leaving more of the earth’s dirtiest fuel in the ground where it belongs.

Keystone Pipeline Economic Facts

Will the pipeline create jobs?

The oil industry has lobbied hard to get KXL built by using false claims, political arm-twisting, and big bucks. When TC Energy said the pipeline would create nearly 119,000 jobs, a State Department report instead concluded the project would require fewer than 2,000 two-year construction jobs and that the number of jobs would hover around 35 after construction.

Will the pipeline lower gas prices?

Dirty energy lobbyists claimed developing tar sands would protect our national energy security and bring U.S. fuel prices down. But NRDC and its partners found the majority of Keystone XL oil would be sent to markets overseas (aided by a 2015 reversal of a ban on crude oil exports)—and could even lead to higher prices at U.S. pumps.

President Trump and the Keystone XL Pipeline

When the Obama administration refused to grant the cross-border permit necessary to build TC Energy’s Keystone XL oil pipeline in November 2015, it struck a blow against polluting powers and acknowledged the consensus on this misguided project from a wide swath of people and organizations. “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” President Obama said. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” The Obama-era decision echoed a seven-year State Department review process with EPA input that concluded the pipeline would fail to serve national interests.

Upon entering office, President Trump—with his pro-polluter cabinet of fossil fuel advocates, billionaires, and bankers—quickly demonstrated that his priorities differed. On his fourth day in office, Trump signed an executive order to allow Keystone XL to move forward. On March 28, 2017, his administration illegally approved a cross-border permit for the pipeline, reversing the Obama administration’s robust National Interest Determination process. When that failed—thanks to a lawsuit brought by NRDC and other groups—President Trump reissued the cross-border permit himself. His administration has also attempted to issue other permits for the project, all based on flawed environmental analyses, prompting two more lawsuits from NRDC and its allies.

Opposition outside the courts has been swift and strong as well. Farmers, ranchers, tribes, and conservation groups have helped keep the project stalled for the past four years, ensuring it made the long list of President Trump’s failed campaign promises. 

President Biden and the Keystone XL Pipeline

Even as Trump and TC Energy tried to revive the pipeline, polls showed that a majority of Americans opposed it. The market case, even before the COVID-19 pandemic sent oil prices plummeting, has also deteriorated. Low oil prices and increasing public concern over the climate have led Shell, Exxon, Statoil, and Total to either sell their tar sands assets or write them down. Because of this growing market recognition, major new tar sands projects haven't moved forward with construction for years, despite investments from the government of Alberta, Canada. For example, in 2020, Teck Resources withdrew its ten-year application to build the largest tar sands mine in history—citing growing concern surrounding climate change in global markets. 

In May 2020, while campaigning in the Democratic primary for the presidential ticket, Joe Biden vowed to cancel the Keystone XL cross-border permit should he win the presidency. He is expected to make good on that promise on his first day in office, January 20, 2021. 

This is one exciting and important step toward ending the project but for the Keystone XL pipeline to truly be finished, the Biden administration must revoke other permits, including the Bureau of Land Management’s right-of-way permit—and prepare for the legal battles that will likely follow.

“President Biden's decision to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline on his first day turns the page on a twelve-year fight over the energy future of our country,” said Swift just before Biden’s inauguration. “It sets the stage for a more prosperous future powered by clean energy.”

This story was originally published on April 7, 2017 and has been updated with new information and links.


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