Keystone XL Pipeline: Dirty Gold for Uncle Sam?


Last week, in the middle of a weeklong tour of Asia, Pope Francis touched down in Manila, Philippines. The Catholic leader is known for deviating from papal precedence and making progressive – albeit cautious – comments about the church’s position and role regarding poverty, homosexuality, women in the church, and well-publicized lapses of human decency and morality by Catholic priests and bishops.

While in the Philippines – still recovering from a 2013 typhoon that killed 6,300 people – Pope Francis offered some lofty yet unequivocal views on climate change and the environment:

As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil, and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling… I don’t know if (climate change) is all (man’s fault) but the majority is. For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps nature in the face.

Whoa! Slapping nature in the face??  Talk about being brutally honest!

pope francis

Pope Francis, looking green

In my country (the United States of Amnesia), the biggest environmental issue on the table at the moment is the Keystone XL Pipeline. On one side of the debate are environmentalists and President Obama, who are opposed to construction of this pipeline (although the president continually seems to be “evolving” – or “devolving,” depending on your perspective).

On the other side, shovels poised in their plump little hands, are oil-thirsty conservatives and a Republican-controlled Congress, who support the pipeline’s construction.

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Well, here are a few facts about the pipeline – an abbreviated “Pipeline for Dummies” (like me):

  • Keystone XL is only one of four phases of oil pipeline in the Keystone Pipeline System. The other three, extending from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and comprising 40 percent of the system, have already been constructed and are in operation
  • The sole owner of the Keystone Pipeline System is TransCanada Corporation, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  • Keystone XL will extend from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, extending 1,179 miles across the U.S. Its main controversy centers on its environmental impact, which includes the potential for oil spillage and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (which promotes higher global temperatures, i.e. climate change)
  • The type of oil used in the pipeline is derived from oil sands, or tar sands, or bituminous sands, a mixture of sand, clay, water, and petroleum. Instead of conventional drilling, this glop is strip-mined, then fossil fuels are expended to suck out the crude. A 2011 study by Stanford University identified oil-sand crude as being as much as 22 percent more carbon-intensive than conventional oil
  • Construction of Keystone XL is predicted to last from 1-2 years
  • TransCanada CEO Russ Girling claims Keystone XL will create 42,000 “ongoing, enduring jobs.” But the U.S. State Department counters that only about 50 pipeline maintenance jobs will remain after the 1-2-year  construction
ross girling

TransCanada CEO Ross Girling, in front of “greenish” looking company banner

Will oil from the pipeline lower gas prices? The State Department says it will have no effect. Without tar sands oil, prices have already fallen to around $75 per barrel.

Where will this tar sands oil be marketed? A 2011 study by the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank in Canada, predicts that much of it will be consumed outside of the territorial United States.

Will this “dirty gold” increase global warming? The State Department says oil pumped through the pipeline will not have “any significant effect” on greenhouse gas emissions, noting that the tar sands will be developed even without the pipeline.  But critics of this assessment argue that the pipeline would boost oil production by 830,000 barrels per day; the extraction process will boost carbon emissions; transportation of the oil by train, truck, and barge, will boost greenhouse gas emissions; and production and burning of dirty petroleum coke, a co-product of tar sands oil, results in 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions.


 Here’s longitudes’ view of the subject:


Protest against pipeline in Washington, D.C., February 17, 2013

A Canadian company wants to build a pipeline for its oil through the heart of the U.S., then have U.S. refineries process the crude for China and other foreign markets. Despite what the U.S. State Department and TransCanada claim, this oil will have a significant effect on global warming. The pipeline construction will create some American jobs, but these will be temporary.  A pipeline spill could threaten U.S. ecosystems, not to mention Native American cultural and historical sites (though it’s debatable whether many Americans even care about our country’s indigenous peoples). The strip-mine method of oil extraction destroys Alberta forestlands.  Toxic runoff, caused by steaming of the sands to separate the oil, is another environmental threat.

Tar sands oil is to energy what a McDonalds triple quarter-pounder with cheese is to human health: it’s mouth-watering to some, but ultimately it’s carbon-loaded crap that will subvert development of clean, alternative energy sources. And it will have little or no effect on American jobs or gas prices.

Verdict: the cons far outweigh the pros.


Getting back to Pope Francis… I don’t agree with him on everything, but in this case I have to applaud him for having the guts to stand up for the “beautiful garden” known as planet Earth.

Now, if we could only get a few more clear-thinking tree huggers like the pontiff elected to the ugly cesspool known as the U.S. Congress (current Gallup Poll approval rating: 16 percent).

Strip mining to get tar sands oil

Strip mining to get tar sands oil

6 thoughts on “Keystone XL Pipeline: Dirty Gold for Uncle Sam?

  1. Respectfully disagree with you on this one, Pete. Three issues. First, Canada, our largest trading partner, is going to exploit the Alberta tar sands with or without Keystone XL. The US is already covered with thousands of miles of energy pipelines, so the negative effects of KXL are negligible. The US might as well benefit from the construction and refinery jobs. Second, I disagree with your assertion that, “this oil will have a significant effect on global warming.” On what basis do you make this claim? The science of climate change is extremely complicated. Whether or not one source of oil will have a distinguishable effect from others is impossible to determine, let alone measure. Global warming (and cooling) is caused by myriad factors, some anthropogenic and some natural forces that we don’t fully understand. Third, it’s not just “oil-thirsty conservatives” supporting KXL. Plenty of Democrats and Independents support it, too. Most Americans have a pretty good idea of the costs and benefits, and generally agree that on balance, it’s a worthwhile project.

    • As always, many thanks, Tad, for reading and commenting. It’s definitely a contentious issue. I’ll just touch on your points, if that’s ok. I do agree that most Americans (over 50 percent per most polls) support the pipeline construction. And some Democrats as well, primarily those with strong union backing. But really, only 14 of 54 Dems joined ALL the GOP in the Senate vote to defeat the bill last Nov. So the pipeline issue “generally” divides along party lines ( And even if most Americans support construction, so what? As we’ve seen recently, most Americans now support gay marriage and marijuana legalization, after previously being opposed. My hope is that this humble little soapbox here might educate a few folks on environmental issues (which, as you know, I feel strongly about!).

      Also, you’re right that Canada will exploit tar sands oil with or without the pipeline. I mentioned this when I ask “Will this ‘dirty gold’ increase global warming?” Greenhouse gas from pipeline oil is probably THE most thorny issue in the whole debate. You say much of global warming is “natural force,” and only some is “anthropogenic.” My stance is that science has proven that manmade forces are having a profound effect, and that we need to do as much as possible to revert things before it’s too late.

      Even if we agree to disagree, it’s great to get your educated and enlightened feedback. Sometimes I wonder if people even notice my gibberish! Your comment has brightened my day. 🙂

  2. I NOTICE YOUR GIBBERISH, Pedro! Thanks for bringing this important issue to light for all Americans. I hope it’s important, anyway – and you probably didn’t realize you had THAT kind of readership, did you?! It’s always good to hear what goes on in that fabulous mind of yours. Hope to catch up over a mongul buffet soon!

    • Yeah, I think it’s an important issue too. Unfortunately, I think we’ll need many more oil spills, raging wildfires and record temps to pull the Great American Public away from competing topics like Bruce Jenner’s gender change.

  3. When I was a child I lived in a little town that sprung up to support the world’s largest open pit lead/zinc mine. It was called Cypress Anvil mine. When the mine was no longer viable because of the price of lead and zinc dropping on the world market the mine closed forever. That was 30 years ago. Today, the mine site is a wasteland. It is estimated to cost 2 billion dollars to remediate the site. No one is interested in paying 2 billion dollars to fill a hole with dirt. Imagine what will happen when people move away from oil. The environmental destruction in the tarsands is thousands of times larger than a single mine in the north. Who will pay for it to be recovered? Shell? Imperial? They can’t even fix an abandoned gas station in Alberta. I personally don’t believe in climate change. I think it’s bunk. The environmental damage in the tarsands however is undeniable. With the awful track record of oil companies, and their unwillingness and outright failure to remediate areas they have stripped of usefulness evident, they should be forced to stop mining tarsand in Alberta.

  4. Thanks for your comment. I looked up Cypress Anvil. The town you lived in was Faro, is that correct? Way up in the Yukon!

    Do you think climate change is “bunk,” or the belief that it’s primarily man-made? The science is overwhelming that temperatures have dramatically increased in the past few decades, and that this spike is having a dramatic effect: water levels rising, glacier melting, unprecedented drought and wildfire activity, etc. Even American conservatives are slowly and grudgingly starting to capitulate re climate change (though many steadfastly refuse to accept that humans are a large part of the problem).

    No matter. We have consensus on the ecological nightmare of open-pit mining. Thanks again, and let’s keep fighting the good fight!!

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