The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline is drawing significant public attention. What is the Keystone XL project, and why is it controversial?
What is Keystone XL?
The Keystone XL project is a proposed extension of an existing crude oil pipeline. The $7 billion project would run from the Canadian province of Alberta to Texas, cutting across Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma along the way. TransCanada Corporation proposes Keystone XL to expand its existing Keystone pipeline network, a former natural gas pipeline repurposed to ship crude oil south to meet U.S. demand.
What is the controversy?
The U.S. is a major consumer of oil and petroleum-derived products.
All major linear infrastructure projects tend to draw interest. Significant projects, whether a pipeline for natural gas or oil, electric transmission line, or highway, often affect interests across a wide geographic range. Relatively local siting concerns, like finding the best route for a given project and minimizing its direct environmental impacts, are common when planning any major infrastructure development.
In Keystone XL's case, project opponents point to additional concerns about the project's broader environmental impacts. Some decry the proposal as increasing dependence on foreign oil, and believe the U.S. already has sufficient Canadian oil import capacity. Others note that the oil to be shipped south over Keystone XL will be largely derived from Alberta's "tar sands" or "oil sands", and that extraction and production of crude oil from these sources involves greater greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental impacts.
What is happening now?
Concerns over the Keystone XL project are manifesting in multiple forms. Protests have led to more than 1,000 arrests, including high-profile protestors like actress Darryl Hannah and NASA scientist James Hansen. States affected by the pipeline proposal are moving cautiously; next week the Nebraska Legislature will meet at the request of Governor Dave Heineman to address concerns over Keystone
To develop the project, TransCanada must secure a presidential permit to import oil across the national border. While that permitting process initially appeared to be on track, 14 members of Congress have asked for a delay to allow an investigation into how the State Department performed its environmental review of the project.
The fate of the Keystone XL project depends on a number of factors, including whether it can secure a presidential permit as well as how states react. Part of the project's financing hinges on contracts to deliver crude oil as soon as 2014, and TransCanada is reportedly concerned that delay would jeopardize that financing structure.