“A report that the Biden administration is weighing greater imports of Canadian oil is putting a renewed focus on the canceled Keystone XL pipeline and whether it would have made any difference with today’s tight oil supply,” Energywire recently reported.
Ever since boycotts started blocking Russian petroleum products, social media has been rife with memes that blame rising gasoline prices on the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline — “So, if shutting down Russia’s pipelines will hurt their economy, wouldn’t shutting down ours hurt our economy? Asking for a buddy.”
Most of the criticism comes from people who recycle half truths, including former Vice President Mike Pence, who claimed: “Gas prices have risen across the country because of this administration’s war on energy — shutting down the Keystone pipeline,” and Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who said: “Biden shut off the Keystone pipeline.”
Here’s what really happened: No one shut down, canceled or shut off the Keystone pipeline. It is fully operational, delivering 590,000 barrels of tar-sands oil from Canada to U.S. refineries every day.
What some pipeline advocates think is the “Keystone pipeline” is a 1,700-mile “shortcut” called Keystone XL, or KXL. It would have sliced through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast, delivering 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day. Many residents of those states fought fiercely against the pipeline cutting through their land.
Now, “Build the Keystone pipeline” has become a social-media mantra, as if the United States could do so by decree. It is the Canadian firm, TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, that officially terminated the project once President Joe Biden withdrew its permits.
Even if construction on the pipeline began tomorrow, KXL could not be up and running in less than five years. Furthermore, the KXL pipeline was a project developed by a foreign company that would have delivered foreign oil products to mostly foreign markets.
When then-President Donald Trump re-permitted KXL in 2017, his own State Department reported that it would not lower gasoline prices in the U.S.
The price of oil is set by the global market and certainly not by U.S. presidents. What’s more, the project was nearly dead for a number of reasons, including litigation from aggrieved property owners whose land TC Energy seized by eminent domain.
We should also remember that rendering gasoline from tar-sands oil, the planet’s dirtiest petroleum, is far more polluting and energy-intensive than conventional refining. Some carbon content is burned off in a process that belches greenhouse gases and generates toxic waste called petcoke, which is dumped around the U.S. in piles six stories high. Petcoke billows through neighborhoods and infiltrates schools and houses even when windows are shut.
Bitumen, basically asphalt, continues to be strip-mined from what used to be Canada’s boreal forests in Alberta. Too thick to be piped, it’s spiked with volatile liquid condensate from natural gas and thus converted to a toxic tar-sands cocktail called “dilbit,” short for diluted bitumen.
Dilbit, sent through the existing Keystone pipeline, contains chloride salts, sulfur, abrasive minerals and acids, and must be pumped under high pressure. It’s murder on pipes.
In addition to greenhouse gases and petcoke, tar-sands waste products impact lakes, rivers, fish, wildlife and people. Between 1995 and 2006, when tar-sands extraction was accelerating, Alberta’s First Nations suffered a sudden 30% increase in cancer rates.
KXL, if built, also threatened the world’s largest aquifer — the Ogallala. Anyone who thinks Nebraska lacks water should visit Green Valley Township, where I encountered Ogallala water so close to the surface it flowed along dirt roads and ditches. Pintails, mallards and widgeon billowed out of them. But parts of the aquifer are now depleted, and a major dilbit spill could finish those parts off.
In 2011, a pipeline representative named Shawn Howard assured me that ramming a dilbit pipe through the Ogallala aquifer would be risk-free.
“Why,” he demanded, “would we invest $13 billion in a pipeline and put a product in it that was going to destroy it like these activists are trotting out? It makes absolutely no business sense.”
The existing Keystone pipeline has ruptured 22 times, including spills in 2017 and 2019 that fouled land and water with 404,000 gallons of dilbit. Business sense, 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 nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. He writes about fish, wildlife and the environment for national publications.