Keystone pipeline: giant environment-eating snake or friendly gap-toothed bumpkin fuelling your tank?


A pretty picture to sooth nerves rattled by the phrase "Keystone Pipeline".  (Photo courtesy of Elite Personal Training, San Diego CA)

A pretty picture to sooth nerves rattled by the phrase “Keystone Pipeline”. (Photo courtesy of Elite Personal Training, San Diego CA)

In the energy business, a new pipeline that can carry 800 thousand barrels a day hardly makes the news; there are literally millions of miles of pipelines criss-crossing North America, including almost 200 thousand miles of big oil ones. Some pipelines have sprung leaks, which are disgusting and unacceptable, but spills of any magnitude are very rare considering the amount of oil that moves through them daily. If you despise pipelines for fear of possible spills, Keystone is just one of a thousand that you might want to plot the demise of. So what’s the big deal with this one?

It’s really amazing to see the sh*tstorm this pipeline has whipped up. Picking through the rubble of the news, some spectacularly weird claims are being made. A South Dakota native band said that constructing this pipeline would be an “act of war”. Wars ain’t what they used to be. A Nov 22 Google search turned up a headline listing five animals that will be safe because the US congress didn’t approve construction of Keystone, like the no vote eliminated their largest natural predator. The pinnacle of the craziness, and maybe what really kicked off the hysteria, was NASA scientist James Hansen, who famously said that if the Keystone pipeline was built it was “game over for the climate”, whatever that means. But it sure sounds scary. Since media works much better when it scares people, that one really stirred the pot.

On the other side is the company hoping to build the pipeline, TransCanada Pipelines. They gamely post upbeat statistics about how many jobs will be created, how the tax base of various counties will go up by some percentage, etc. As such, they are comically and hopelessly outgunned in the PR wars, because county property tax statistics generally don’t tug at the heart like comments about how your children will die some sort of gruesome death without a climate (Hansen’s incomprehensible statement still gets mileage, a peculiar phenomenon considering that no matter what temperature we get to we’ll still have a climate of one kind or another).

Despite the superior tactical and emotional skills of the anti-pipeline crowd, the public is pretty much split on approving the pipeline, the gloom and doom crowd being offset by those who can live with the oil industry and its antics.

So what’s the big fuss all about? Well, the fight has become symbolic and the opposing sides really aren’t talking the same language, so each side just shouts louder while we get to listen.

Fundamentally, pipeline opponents aren’t really battling to eliminate pipelines; if they were they’d be protesting a great deal because the likely cross a dozen of them when they travel to Starbucks. Their end goal is to strangle development of Canada’s oil sands, one of the world’s largest deposits of oil that is the true lightning rod for the anti-pipeline movement. The oil sands require more energy to extract than other sources (how much more is debatable; each side has opposing statistics that seem fairly believable), and the environmental top guns have decided that the world will end if the oil sands are developed.

The notion is a bit silly; the main legs of the argument are built on things like Hansen’s claim that development of the oil sands will destroy the environment. In his speech, he talked about the carbon that would be released if all the oil ands were burned. But that’s like saying look what would happen to the Rocky Mountains if every ounce of gold was extracted from them. They’d be levelled, without even a nub left standing. But no one is interested in extracting every ounce, because it’s too sparse and not worth it. Gold mines form where the concentrations are the absolute highest. Same as the oil sands (more on this topic in an upcoming oil sands blog), burning all the oil in the 140 thousand square kilometre oil sand region is a preposterous idea to contemplate, but the numbers that result if you could do that make great headlines.

If taken in the context of what the pipeline’s opponents are trying to achieve, their battle and hysteria make sense. If one is truly convinced that fossil fuel usage is destroying the environment and must stop immediately, the oil sands are the easiest target, being unguarded, totally un-photogenic, and with defenders that have no clue how to wage a PR war. And also, it’s easy to document the area of destruction from a helicopter in a few sweeping shots, as opposed to a landscape dotted with conventional oil wells that looks rather fetching or even charming in comparison.

On the other side, those who want Keystone built are just generally dumbfounded by the whole circus and why this pipeline was singled out, when there are so many pipelines in existence including a fair number that currently move oil sands oil. This is just another, and the logic of building it is the same as any other. Or, as they see it, it’s even more logical to build this one, because it’s being held to such high standards and scrutiny that it should be the safest pipeline ever built.

That’s it in a nutshell. Keystone has become a symbol of the horrors of burning fossil fuels, and is the first, largest step in that battle because it’s such an easy and, frankly, dopey opponent. Those who want to build Keystone don’t see the oil sands as particularly evil, don’t mind at all that fossil fuels are burned and, being bereft of any imagination, resort to the tried and true method of gaining support – pointing out where all the money is going to land.

The biggest irony of the whole fight is that whether the Keystone pipeline is built or not will hardly make any difference whatsoever for either side. The world consumes 90 million barrels of oil per day; shutting down the entire oil sands would remove 3 million barrels per day that would be replaced with some other source, at a marginally reduced environmental cost. Stopping Keystone will halt maybe a fraction of oil sands output, so in the big scheme of things preventing construction of this pipeline is not going to do much. For proponents of the pipeline, rail terminals are popping up all over North America to move oil that can’t get on to pipelines and it’s no different here, so the oil will move regardless, it will just cost a bit more by rail. Even TransCanada has said they’ll consider building rail terminals to move all that oil if the pipeline doesn’t go ahead, and other companies will no doubt join in as well.

If your motive in getting involved in this debate is genuine concern for the climate, there are a lot of causes that can be supported that will help more than this one (natural gas flaring, coal burning, etc.). And if you are in favour of constructing the pipeline and your primary concern is that it’s illogical and nonsensical not to build it, well a lot of crazy things happen every day in the name of accommodating various nervous groups out there, and you’d best chalk this up to another one of those instances. And the oil will move anyway, as we can see by the proliferation of all the crude-by-rail terminals.

I certainly have no illusions that any solution to the debate will be found on this website… A Google search of “Keystone pipeline” yields 12 million results so there clearly are a lot of facts and opinions being bandied about. But strip away the hysteria, half-truths and promotional material and the Keystone pipeline really isn’t a story at all. So everyone should just go look at the pretty picture again and calm down.


  1. Mike Riou says:

    I commend you for an excellent article on an important topic. The approach is neutral, factually – based, and devoid of emotional involvement. Bravo!


  2. Pooterduude says:

    At this point in time, with the CO2 levels topping 400 PPM and Methane levels going off the charts, As super storms rage in every corner of the northern hemisphere and temprature and climate extremes break historic levels, every battle against fossil fuels is viewed as important. It’s not just that oil sands are just 3 million BBLS but that it’s 3 million BBLs of the dirtiest oil ever used by man. Of course we’ll never escape from the use of some fossil fuels but ignoring valid warnings from science is the height of human ignorance. A wise move would have been to start the replacement of fossil fuels world wide 40 years ago when the problem was first discovered. Human greed caused us not only to drag our feet but purposely tossed anchors from the ship. It’s not an accident that the word PROPAGANDA begins with PR. The terms are synonymous. America went to the moon in only 8 years yet in 40 years we are still trying to figure out how to reverse a force that will most likely be the destruction of mankind.


    • Marcel RIou says:

      Actually “PR” being the first two letters of “propaganda” is, technically, coincidental, but I digress. Though never completely sure which climate science is real, and which shrieks to believe and which to ignore (on both sides of the debate), I am more convinced that climate change is due to human activity and carbon output. We can talk all day abut what we should have done of course, but what do we do now? Yep, start weaning ourselves off fossil fuels for sure, but demand isn’t going to disappear overnight. Oil sands is going to leave the oil sands – I’d take Keystone over oil by rail.


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