Writers on the Range: ‘Keystone Pipeline Won’t Make Gas Cheaper’
“A report that the Biden administration is considering increased Canadian oil imports puts a renewed focus on the canceled Keystone XL pipeline and whether it would have made any difference to today’s tight oil supply. today.” — thread of energy
Ever since boycotts began blocking Russian petroleum products, social media has been teeming with memes attributing rising gas prices to “the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline.”
Example: “Ah, if shutting down Russia’s pipeline(s) will hurt their economy, won’t shutting down ours hurt our economy? Ask a buddy.
Most criticism comes from people who recycle truthfulness. Former Vice President Mike Pence: “Gas prices have gone up nationwide because of this administration’s war on energy – the shutdown of the Keystone pipeline.” Republican Rep. Jim Jordan: “Biden shut down the Keystone pipeline.
Here’s what really happened: No one shut down, canceled, or closed the Keystone pipeline. It is fully operational and delivers 590,000 barrels of tar sands oil daily in Canada to US refineries.
What some pipeline proponents think is that the “Keystone Pipeline” is a 1,700-mile “shortcut” called Keystone XL, or KXL. It would have traveled through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast of Texas, delivering 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day. Many residents of these states fought fiercely against the pipeline that ran through their territory.
Now, “Build the Keystone Pipeline” has become a social media mantra, as if the United States could decree it. It was the Canadian firm TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, which officially ended the project once President Biden withdrew his permits.
Even if construction of the pipeline began tomorrow, KXL could not be operational in less than five years. The KXL pipeline was a project developed by a foreign company that would have delivered foreign petroleum products to primarily foreign markets.
When President Trump reauthorized KXL in 2017, his own State Department indicated that he would not reduce gasoline prices. The price of oil is set by the world market and certainly not by American presidents. Additionally, the project was pretty much dead for a number of reasons, including litigation from aggrieved landowners whose TC Energy lands were seized by eminent domain.
Let’s not forget either that the extraction of gasoline from tar sands oil, the dirtiest oil on the planet, is much more polluting and energy-intensive than conventional refining. Some of the carbon content is burned off in a process that spews greenhouse gases and generates toxic waste called petroleum coke, which is dumped in the United States in heaps six stories high. Petroleum coke spills into neighborhoods and seeps into schools and homes even when windows are closed.
Bitumen, essentially asphalt, continues to be surface mined from what were once Canada’s boreal forests in Alberta. Too thick to pipe, it is enriched with volatile liquid natural gas condensate and thus converted into a toxic oil sands cocktail called “dilbit”, short for diluted bitumen.
The dilbit, sent through the existing Keystone pipeline, contains chloride salts, sulfur, abrasive minerals and acids, and must be pumped under high pressure. It’s a murder on pipes.
In addition to greenhouse gases and petroleum coke, oil sands waste includes lakes, rivers, fish, wildlife and humans. Between 1995 and 2006, as oil sands extraction accelerated, First Nations in Alberta experienced a sudden 30% increase in cancer rates.
KXL, if built, also threatened the largest aquifer in the world – the Ogallala. Anyone who thinks Nebraska is short of water should visit Green Valley Township, where I encountered Ogallala water so close to the surface it ran down dirt roads and ditches. Pintails, mallards and ducks were coming out. But parts of the aquifer are now depleted and a major dilbit spill could finish off those parts.
In 2011, a pipeline representative named Shawn Howard assured me that running a dilbit pipe through the Ogallala aquifer would be risk-free.
“Why,” he asked, “would we invest $13 billion in a pipeline and put a product in it that was going to destroy it like these activists trot out? It makes absolutely no business sense.
The existing Keystone pipeline has ruptured 22 times, including spills in 2017 and 2019 that polluted land and water with 404,000 gallons of dilbit. Business acumen, as the oil industry constantly reminds us, is an attribute more often desired than possessed.
Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating conversation about the West. He writes about fish, wildlife and the environment for national publications.