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America, Oil and the XL Debate

The ongoing debate between environmental activists and fossil fuel proponents has extended into efforts to derive local oil in North America.

The Keystone XL Pipeline was proposed in 2008 by TransCanada, a corporation dedicated to businesses in pipeline and energy resources. The aim of the project is to transport 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Controversy erupted since the project’s origins, specifically about the environmental impact that a large-scale oil undertaking could have in the United States.

“This pipeline is a critical infrastructure project for the energy security of the United States and for strengthening the American economy,” said TransCanada.

Proponents of the pipeline hinge their arguments largely on the perception that the venture would further economic security and create much-needed jobs in the states. Spokespersons at the American Petroleum Institute claim that full construction of XL could “support 42,000 jobs.” In addition to job creation, decreased dependence on foreign oil creates a brand of patriotism that resonates with a lot of Americans.

The proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo courtesy of Meclee/Wikimedia Commons.

The proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Photo courtesy of Meclee/Wikimedia Commons.

Those who oppose this proposal in its entirety are primarily concerned with the potential environmental impact that a 1,179-mile stretch of pipeline could have.

Environmentalists are disturbed by what this undertaking would mean in terms of carbon emissions. According to the Washington Post Editorial Board, the State Department confirms what the majority of authorities in energy have previously assessedthe document claims the pipeline “is unlikely to have significant effects on climate-change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Decriers of the released assessment criticize how this report does not include concern for leakage and the total amount of carbon dioxide that is released in the crude oil process. Development of Alberta, Canada’s wetlands alone could potentially “release 11 million to 46.3 million metric tons of CO2 into our atmosphere.”

Oil type is a central component of the argument that has scientists worried about potential for environmental devastation.

“There is a great difference between a resource and a reserve, like tar oil from Canada,” says James Mellett, a retired New York University geology professor. “A resource you can extract with little supplementary effort. A reserve is a potential source of energy that requires new technology.”

The Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Photo courtesy of Steve Hilebrand/Wikimedia Commons.

The Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Photo courtesy of Steve Hilebrand/Wikimedia Commons.

Tar sands are enormous reserves of potential energy originally discovered in the 1960s.  They are composed of 90% sand, clay and water and 10% bitumen. Bitumen can be further purified to form crude oil. Tar sand oil is classified as a dense non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL). Gasoline, by comparison, is a light non-aqueous phase liquid (LNAPL).

When gasoline comes in contact with water, it floats to the top, allowing it to be detected and contained. However, if a breach in the XL pipeline occurs, a spill could go undetected and sink into the earth to a point of unmanageability. The greatest human hazard would be if tar sands oil enter natural water resources, including aquifers that are dedicated for drinking water and irrigation.

Additional concerns about Keystone center on conflicting messages around energy and economic security. Mellett points out that the refined tar sand oil is scheduled for export, so the United States’ energy independence is unaffected.

Photo courtesy of Support the Keystone XL Pipeline/Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Support the Keystone XL Pipeline/Facebook.

Many environmentalists have complained that “the pipeline is in America’s interests.” Obama concedes that the number of U.S. jobs generated during construction is about 2000 and the State Department review estimates about 50 long-term jobs will be created.

“My opinion is all about uncertainty,” opines Alan Kafka, Director of the Western Observatory and professor within the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Boston College,  “The signal-to-noise ratio is really in between and does not lean one way. Each side brings legitimate, scientifically sound arguments.”

Over five years have passed since the pipeline’s initial proposal. With no deadline for action and the ongoing disputes over numbers and ideologies, the future of the Keystone XL Pipeline remains in limbo. Meanwhile, all interested parties are awaiting an official assessment from Secretary of State John Kerry.

The executive summary of the Keystone XL Project can be viewed here.

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