THE POLITICS RESPONSIBLE
FOR THE REJECTION OF THE KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE
TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL Pipeline is a highly contentious matter in Canada and the United States as its proposed construction has been fraught with economic, environmental, and political issues. Since the pipeline was first proposed in 2008 as an extension of the already constructed Keystone Pipeline, the Keystone XL Pipeline has been most strongly opposed by environmental groups and certain political figures. Pressure from these various groups was largely responsible for U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision in November 2011 to reject the immediate construction of the pipeline and instead postpone the decision to 2013. The postponementto construct the pipeline waslargely a decision to conduct further investigations of the environmental concerns that opponents to the pipeline have raised. Those in support of the pipeline have suggested that the postponement to 2013 was merely a political ploy in order to avoid the pipeline issue, while appeasing environmentalists, until after the 2012 presidential election. Regardless of the president’s reason to delay the pipeline,relations with Canada have been negatively affected, it has continued to solidify U.S. dependence on foreign oil in comparatively more volatile regions, and has increased the Republican-dominated Congress’s pressure on the president. These opposing pressures appear to have had a heavy influence on the Obama administration as it now seems that a certain degree of policy backpedalling is evident while the president attempts to appease both sides of the debate.
In order for a pipeline to cross an international border into the United States, an application for a presidential permit must be submitted to the U.S. State Department for approval. The president delegates the approval process of this permit to the Secretary of State. It is this presidential permit, which TransCanada submitted in 2008, that was postponed even though it was originally expected to pass with ease considering the economic advantages it would create. The proposed 3456 kilometer [2147 mile] pipeline would have the capacity to transport approximately 830,000 barrels of synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen per day from the Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada to oil refineries in the southern Gulf region of the United States (Parfomak, Nerurkar, Luther & Vann, 2012). There, the transported crude and bitumen would be processed at refineries in Texas and then disbursed to the market for consumption.
Theproposed pipeline would begin in Hardisty, Alberta and continue through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and end at refineries in Texas. Prior to the postponement of TransCanada’s application, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed the approval of the project’s application as a “complete no-brainer” as it would create a substantial number of jobs and improve the economy on both sides of theCanada-U.S. border. It should be noted that the majorityof created jobs would be temporary construction positions versus long-term positions.However, the pipeline would significantly aid the United States in reducing its dependency on oil from undemocratic and volatile countries overseas, such as in the Middle East and Venezuela (McCarthy, 2011). Furthermore, approximately 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs, equating to $6.5 billion for the American workforce would be created, while U.S. national and energy security would strengthen, stimulating economic growth (Cárdenas, 2012).
In order to issue a presidential permit, the U.S. secretary of state is responsible for determining whether the project is in the national interest. In the case of the Keystone XL Pipeline’s delay, the State Department was concerned most specifically with the proposed pipeline’s route through the Sand Hills region of Nebraska. The development and operation of the pipeline in that region presents a high risk to the environment due to its sand dune formations with easily penetrable soil and shallow groundwater (Parfomak, 2012). If an accident were to occur such as an oil spill, it is argued that transported oil could quickly seep into ground water affecting local plant, animal and human life. This region is of significant importance because it is home to a vast natural aquifer found beneath the surface. Views differ on this position as some argue that a spill would be highly localized and low in volume while others claim that it could have the capacity to destroy an entire ecosystem. Following these concerns voiced by the State Department, TransCanada formed a partnership with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to determine an alternative route that would avoid the Sand Hills. It is the further analysis of a safer alternative route that postponed the presidential permit’s application to 2013 (Parfomak, 2012).
Environmentalists in opposition to the Keystone XL project are not only concerned with the environmental risks that the pipeline could present to the American environment but many are against the idea of supporting the Alberta Oil Sands in general. The Oil Sands project represents one of the world’s largest industrial projects. The form of oil extraction that takes place there is involved with mining and extracting a heavier crude oil than otherconventional methodssuch as drilling.Lighter oil extracted from underground such as in many other energy producing regions appears to be seen as less environmentally harmful. As such, carbon emissions produced in the Oil Sands are quite high in comparison. Furthermore,this industrial project results in the degradation of the local landscape while harming plant and wildlife (Humphries, 2008). As outlined in a report for members and committees of Congress, Humphries explains, that as of 2008 Oil Sands account for 46 percent of Canada’s total oil production and therefore high carbon emissions are to be expected. It should be noted that although the Oil Sands represent a large negative environmental impact, Canada does have relatively strict environmental policies when compared with other nations such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
It is also in the interest of environmentalist groups unsupportive of the Oil Sands to block the development of the Keystone XL pipeline as a method of boycotting oil extraction. However, although Oil Sands production could be slowed as a result from the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, Canadian Oil Sands exports to other world markets may have no effect on American environmentalist ambitions to halt the Oil Sands. Although President Obama has not publically declared that the Oil Sands should be halted due to its environmental risks, it is evident that environmentalist groups in opposition to the Oil Sands in both Canada and the United States have played a part in influencing Obama’s decision to delay the Keystone XL Pipeline’s construction. Obama’s opposition to the development of the Alberta Oil Sands is, however, unlikely as Canada practices strict environmental and safety regulations, the U.S. already relies on a significant portion of oil extracted from the Oil Sands, and a public display of disapproval would most likely lead to poorer relations with Canada. As discussed later, the initial delay and rejection of the pipeline has already fuelled strong action for Canada to seek out new markets to diversify its oil exports to more accommodating countries.
Another argument that has come to surface by environmentalists and certain political figures presents a challenge to pipeline supporters. The construction of the pipeline would represent a concerted effort to strengthen U.S. reliance on environmentally harmful uses of energy, such as extracting and burning fossil fuels. Environmentalists argue that the continuing use of fossil fuels undermines the development of clean energy solutions such as solar, wind, and bio-fuels. As one of President Obama’s domestic policies is to invest in such clean energy development, many have been critical of this objective as Obama continues to support oil development (The White House, 2012). However, this all-of-the-above policy is a realistic alternative at this point in time as the energy produced by green alternatives lacks the sufficient capacity to support the current American demand. Therefore, until green energy can sustainably support energy needs, the United States is forced to rely on fossil fuels – including the importation of oil from abroad. Thus, the Obama administration’s current domestic energy policyhas a direct impact on American foreign policy. It is likely that a re-application by TransCanada to construct the Keystone XL pipeline would be approved as it would certainly prove to support this domestic policy and the national interest. Of course, thisassumes that the project would meet environmentally responsible criteria.This was further supported by Secretary Clinton who exclaimed, “we’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the [Persian] Gulf or dirty oil from Canada…until we can get our act together as a country and figure out that clean, renewable energy is in both our economic interests and the interests of our planet”(as cited in The Globe and Mail, 2010). This suggests that the U.S. is forced to rely on oil for the time being and the Keystone XL project would have likely been approved before environmentalist disapproval became an issue.