The Keystone Pipeline Myth Machine – 2012 Election Edition

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is one of the most controversial environmental issues in years and has already figured prominently during this election season. President Obama rejected the original proposal back in the beginning of 2012 but is now considering a slightly modified blueprint. Meanwhile, Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has promised he would approve KXL on his first day in office, saying “I will build that pipeline if I have to myself.”

(Photo: Todd Benson)
It’s a topic that has transcended facts to become a political litmus test, but the truth is more complicated than Mr. Romney and Keystone XL’s owner, TransCanada, are admitting. And President Obama isn’t off the hook by any means, as there remain concerns that his Administration may not factor climate change — the million dollar question — into their analysis. That would be a serious mistake, because permitting the pipeline could wipe out a lot of the progress the White House has made in addressing global warming — the EPA calculated that KXL would increase carbon pollution by 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of putting 6.2 million cars on the road for 50 years.

Here are some of the biggest myths about KXL, and the facts behind this massive threat to our wildlife and the planet’s future.

MYTH #1: Keystone is a jobs juggernaut.

FACT: On their website, TransCanada asserts that Keystone XL will create 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs, and 118,000 “spin-off” jobs. Pro-Keystone politicians have consistently parroted these claims, but TransCanada’s job numbers are complete fabrications: The Washington Post fact-checkers gave these claims two “Pinocchios” and, according to the Cornell University Global Labor Institute, “The company’s claim that KXL will create 20,000 direct construction and manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is not substantiated” and “KXL will not be a major source of US jobs, nor will it play any substantial role at all in putting Americans back to work.” In fact, the State Department’s own study, which many pipeline opponents felt was tilted pro-industry, suggests that far fewer jobs will be created and most of them will be temporary and non-local.

MYTH #2: Keystone XL will improve America’s energy security.

FACT: The Keystone XL pipeline is designed for one thing—to send oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf coast, and from there to overseas markets. According to retired Brigadier General Steven M. Anderson (the US Army’s senior logistician in Iraq from 2006-2007), the pipeline “would set back our renewable energy efforts for at least two decades, much to our enemies’ delight. It would ensure we maintain our oil addiction and delay making the tough decisions regarding energy production, management and conservation that we need to start making today.” And as Anderson makes clear, “Canadian oil won’t replace imports from hostile countries because Texas refiners are serving global demand rather than domestic need.”

MYTH #3: Keystone XL is safe.

US Fish & Wildlife officers work to rescue birds after a massive 2010 tar sands pipeline rupture in Michigan (photo: USFWS-Midwest Region)
FACT:  The original Keystone pipeline (TransCanada’s precursor to Keystone XL) has been plagued by problems since its opening in 2009 – at least 12 reported spills, including one of 21,000 gallons. Because raw tar sands bitumen is more corrosive and abrasive than normal crude oil, the risk of a spill is greater; the Alberta pipeline system (which carries diluted bitumen, the same product planned for KXL) has had approximately sixteen times as many spills due to internal corrosion as the U.S. system. Yet, the safety and spill response standards used by the United States to regulate pipeline transport of bitumen are designed for conventional oil. To make matters worse, the industry doesn’t know how to clean up this product after a spill–its unique composition means that traditional clean-up techniques don’t work (for example, unlike regular oil, diluted bitumen sinks in water).

MYTH #4: The government review process for Keystone XL has been fair and thorough.

FACT: Perhaps most troubling, we still do not know whether the US State Department’s new assessment (in process now) will include consideration of climate impacts – the single biggest reason to stop this pipeline. And in the first go-round, State (the agency responsible for vetting the project) conducted a sham review during its analysis of TransCanada’s original proposal. State’s activities were tainted by a conflict of interest in favor of the project and they failed to assess pipeline safety issues with any rigor, inadequately consulted numerous Tribal nations, and neglected to protect Americans from eminent domain threats made by TransCanada. This included preferential treatment for TransCanada’s chief lobbyist (a former aide to State Department Secretary Clinton), as well as outsourcing much of the review process to a company who counts TransCanada as a major client.

MYTH #5: Keystone XL will reduce our energy prices.

FACT: According to its own secret documents submitted to the Canadian government, TransCanada expects the pipeline to increase gas prices in the Midwest by up to 15 cents per gallon. Currently, a surplus of gas in the region means that our prices stay stable. If the pipeline is built oil companies will be able to send their product to the Gulf coast for export, which will reduce this surplus and drive up costs for Midwestern consumers.

MYTH #6: Canadian tar sands will be developed anyway, even if we don’t build the pipeline.

FACT: Right now, Canada’s oil companies are stuck with two buyers: Canada and the United States. Keystone XL is by far the easiest route for the industry to send crude oil through the US to international ports (and access to lucrative foreign markets), which would drive further investment in the tar sands region. It’s a bit like the line from “Field of Dreams” — If you build it, they will come. The Canadian government has made a lot of noise about bypassing the US entirely in favor of the proposed “Northern Gateway” pipeline that would stretch from Alberta to Canada’s west coast, but its chances are shaky due to strong opposition in British Columbia and from native communities along its path. Any western route may face decades of litigation, by which point the tar sands may be obsolete as clean energy technology matures. Other pipelines are being proposed in the US, but they face the same level of opposition as Keystone.

Keystone XL threatens iconic species like the Sandhill crane (photo: Richard Hurd)

MYTH #7: The pipeline poses no risk to the Ogallala aquifer.

FACT: The Ogallala – a vast underground reservoir – is one of the world’s most important sources of freshwater for drinking and irrigation. In Nebraska, TransCanada’s proposed route cuts directly across the aquifer and through fragile ecosystems geologically similar to the Sandhills region, threatening the livelihoods of local farmers and ranchers, wildlife and millions of people who depend upon the Ogallala. Tar sands oil contains high concentrations of benzene and other carcinogens, which raises the potential for widespread water contamination.

MYTH #8: Keystone XL will generate billions in tax revenue for American federal, state, and local governments.

FACT: TransCanada claims that KXL would generate nearly $6 billion in property and other taxes, but the Cornell study repeatedly shoots down TransCanada’s economic claims, saying that “What is being offered by the proponents is advocacy to build support for KXL, rather than serious research aimed to inform public debate and responsible decision making.” Like their jobs figures, this tax revenue estimate seems to have materialized out of thin air, especially when you realize that the original Keystone pipeline has fallen far short of projections for tax revenue.

Decision Time

Regardless of who wins the election in November, tar sands and other forms of “extreme energy” like deepwater drilling and natural gas “fracking” will continue to dominate the conversation. But in our rush to feed our appetite for cheap power, it’s essential that we don’t lose sight of sustainable answers like strong automobile gas standards, energy efficiency, and next-generation technologies like solar and offshore wind — the real answers to many of the problems that Big Oil has dumped in our laps. Keystone XL would come with an enormous price tag for our health and North America’s wildlife, would have a devastating impact on Earth’s climate, and would do next to nothing for our energy security or fiscal problems. It’s an easy decision.

Take ActionSpeak up to protect wildlife and our communities from the threat of tar sands oil! Tell your elected officials to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and halt Big Oil’s plans to keep us hooked on the world’s dirtiest fuel.

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