Should We Allow a Massive Oil Pipeline from Canada to Texas?

By Andrew Moseman | July 2, 2010 12:46 pm

oil_sandsWith the perpetual flow of filthy crude from BP’s oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, just about anything seems like a better energy solution than deep sea offshore drilling. One new proposal, though, has the potential for similarly disastrous environmental harm.

The Keystone XL is a huge proposed pipeline that could carry oil from Canada’s oil sands on a snaking path through the American Midwest and all the way down to Texas, where it will be refined. The idea has been up for public comment for months, and that period comes to a close soon. So, should we build this thing?


There is one good thing about the project: It would be a source of energy that’s not the Middle East, Iran, Venezuela, or another region or country hostile to the United States.

From an energy perspective, Keystone XL delivers one thing the United States needs: plentiful oil from a friendly neighbor. Most oil companies have invested heavily in Canadian oil sands and are firmly behind it [The New York Times].

The project would bring in another million barrels of oil per day from Canada, which is already our biggest foreign oil supplier.

A study released this month by the Perryman Group, an economic analysis firm based in Waco, concluded that the project could generate as much as $2.3 billion in new spending for Texas during construction and $1.1 billion in property taxes to local and county governments over the pipeline’s operating lifetime [Houston Chronicle].


The oil sands are one of the dirtiest energy projects in the world. The oil is dirty to extract and dirty to refine, plus there are the transportation dangers.

The energy-intensive process emits three times more greenhouse gases per barrel than production of conventional oil, environmental groups say. Friends of the Earth, which opposes the project, estimates that the pipeline would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 38 million tons, equivalent to 6 million new cars on the road [Houston Chronicle].

Oil refining is no clean business anyway, and this oil could be even worse: watchdog groups like Air Alliance Houston say that it causes more emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Unsurprisingly, the company behind the project disputes this and also promises that pipelines are the safest way to transport oil. Forgive us, though, if we’re still a little wary of assurances that everything will fine.

At the hearing on Tuesday, Tom Rudolph, a farmer from Circle, Mont., expressed his reservations “as a landowner directly on the route.” He called the draft environmental impact statement “insufficient,” noting in particular the lack of a “complete spill response plan” in the event of a leak. “The disaster in the gulf serves as a warning,” he said [The New York Times].

We should also consider that the Canada-to-Texas route passes through some of the most valuable agricultural land in the United States. In addition, the area is home to the giant Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking and irrigation water for the High Plains.

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Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Brian Too

    On the Yes side of the ledger, consider that if anything goes wrong with the pipeline, it’s all relatively accessible for servicing. The technologies are known, mature, and there is a talent pool of people who can perform the work.

    Contrast that with the BP Gulf spill, where it is now clear that the oil companies had neglected R&D for deep water spill technologies. All they have are the Blow-Out Preventers (failed) and relief wells (3 months to complete and no guarantee they will work?!). The ROV’s don’t count because they are not specific to oil spill work and, while better than nothing, clearly have been no magic bullet. Nor did the oil & gas industry invent these devices.

    Everything else used, from booms, skimmers, dispersants, all smack of 1970’s era solutions, and are too late and a dollar short of satisfactory. If they worked there wouldn’t be oil on the beaches today.

    Pipelines can be (and routinely are) systematically inspected with pigs, end to end. Nondestructive testing can use ultrasound, radiologicals, and magnetic fields to detect flaws. You can find a problem, dig out that part of the line, and put a crew to work fixing it.

    What if all that fails? Remote sensors can detect the pressure drop if the line fails. You stop the pumping stations and seal the affected section with valves. You’ll have a spill but it will be small(ish), on or near the surface, and of limited timeframe. A day or two at most. None of this “we think we might be able to stop the flow. Maybe in a few months…” nonsense.

  • maxx

    americans need not worry too much about the oilsands environment pollution. it is the canadian workers and their families that live close that get sick. never mind the damage to the wildlife, the next generation will not be around to see it.

  • gbowles

    this may be a dumb question or a really good one…. why the hell don’t they just pipeline it to the northern part of the united states rather than all the way to Texas? doesn’t make any sense

  • drums

    @gbowles i think its because of how most oil refineries are located in texas.

  • James P

    How about canadians refine OUR OWN oil and you Americans can keep stealing it from Iraq…. Why is this even a proposal? Guranteed it was written by an American… The average Canadian wouldn’t agree with this at all, an as far as I know the oil sands are still at least partially owned… I say as a Canadian that we should be building our OWN refineries and selling the finished product instead of just selling the raw material…

  • Frew

    Nobody wants to allow the construction of new refineries, so oil has to be piped to a place that already has them. It has been 30 years since a permit for new refinery construction has been issued in the US.

    If Canadians want to sell the US their oil, then the US will buy it. If Canadians want to refine the oil and sell the US the product, then the US will buy that. The problem with the latter choice is that the Canadians will have to build refineries, and the environmentalists won’t like that. Moreover, you’ll find that refining oil doesn’t get you that much extra profit over selling the oil itself and considerably multiplies the complexity of your operations.

  • badnicolez

    James P – guess who protects all that Canadian oil from being seized by a foreign invader? That’s right, the US military. Do you have any proof of theft by the US of Iraqi oil or are you just lying and demagoguing the issue?

    The US must have adequate and reasonably priced oil supplies, preferably domestic or at least from friendly nations, until we have a viable alternative, or until we can build 50 or 100 more nuclear plants – or do we all want to participate in a worldwide depression? There are much more dangerous (to people and the environment) ways of getting the energy we need than a pipeline.

  • Dexter R.

    First off, I agree with Brian on all parts. Pipeline technology is safe, impact is minimal, and in the case of a spill, has a minimal environmental footprint which can be remediated quickly with no lasting damage.

    Second, extracting and refining oil from the oilsands does create more carbon dioxide than conventional oil. Everyone gets that. But it’s a lesser known fact that SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage – the #1 way of extracting oil) technology used in the oilsands creates less carbon dioxide than similar unconventional oil recovery methods in the United States.

    Third, Canada has massive reserves of unrefined oil. The United States has a large number of refineries. Canada cannot use all the oil it produces. The United States cannot produce enough oil to fill demand. The United States and Canada are allies, massive trading partners, and amicable towards each other. Seems almost down right logical to me that we work together.

  • Mephis Topheles

    The words “No Brainer” come to mind.
    Would you rather buy your orl from some tick infested, butt sniffing camel jockey, who wants to dress your women in tents, and kill you for dissing his paedophile hero, or would you rather buy it from the Cool Dudes north of the border, who speak your language, drink your booze, watch your TV, whip you at hockey, and offer you skiing in midsummer?

  • m

    i rather like the idea of moving the refineries closer to the source.

    i’m going to go with “no” on this one. it simply makes better sense to build some refineries in Alberta than build one heck of an ugly eyesore all the way to Texas.

    it is also more secure – there are a lot of nutballs from the “loonie left” that will jump at the chance to try and blow up or damage such a pipeline….and you can’t secure all of it.

  • Peter R. Limburg

    Nothing is foolproof, and oil pipelines around the world have been sabotaged, tapped by thieves, and allowed to deteriorate to the point of massive leaks by managements devoted to pinching pennies (think BP’s pipelines in Alaska). A giant pipeline from Canada’s oil sands to Texas makes no sense at all, except possibly as a giant make-work project for people thrown out of work by the recession. Conservation and greater efficiency in all petroleum-burning machines and petro-chemical processes would help a great deal. And how about taxing horsepower?

  • tom ulcak

    why does discover magazine continue to pose such stupid questions? all this has been visited before. NO, there should be no stupid pipeline and NO we shouldn’t use the dirty oil coming from Canada – or from anywhere else. its time to end our dirty addiction. its time to move on to new energy sources. why are people still hung up on dirty oil like heroin addicts to their drug? the technology has long been available. if we had started buidling it and rebuilding our infrastructure and grid 10 years ago, we’d be almost there and would have had created millions of new and permanent jobs.

  • Allison EH

    Well, we’ve let an oil company destroy the Gulf of Mexico and the economic prosperity of the South, why not let another oil company have the potential to destroy the Midwest and Plains?

  • tom ulcak

    @ Mephis Topheles, “no brainer” is an appropriate description. also, “angry”, “hateful”, and “intolerant”. I suggest you stick to watching NASCAR and to repairing your mobile home.

  • tom ulcak

    I’ve just read all of the posts that support the affirmative. It is amazing that every single one of them is based on false information to rationalize the continued use of dirty and toxic oil and the continued use of unsafe and dirty practices to move this filth around.

  • F.W. Rick Meyers

    An Emphatic No. What is it that we don’t get about restraining our consumption, becoming more efficient with our use, and creating sustainable technologies that can transition us from this ‘oil monster’ that is eating our planet and feeding our addictions? Let’s spend the time and money to lead the way in new sustainable energies and ways of thinking and behaving. NO MORE BUSINESS AS USUAL!
    Let’s wake up to what’s happening right now and become a nation of long term gains rather than long term losses. The time is NOW to change the direction of our energy policies. No more new oil projects!

  • max

    We need ideas like this. The technology does exist for alternative energy but the problem is that we cannot store the energy efficiently yet, or keep it running at 100% effeciency all the time. The reason fossil fuels are the primary energy source right now is because the other technologies haven’t had enough breakthroughs with storage. Big lithiom batteries are way too expensive and wear out too fast.

    The problem we need to get to first is the fact that we are participating in the largest cash transfer in the history of man (US >>Middle East). We can’t continue to send our money there. I say until we have solar, wind, nuclear, and tidal that can support our energy demands, we have to go with what works. China will use up all their oil and then some, so us wasting money on mandated alternative energies will not stop whats going on. The market WILL shift to alternatives.

    We can’t drill off the Florida coast, but China is out in International waters off the Florida coast doing that exact same thing, with literally no regulations. Why isn’t this reported in the media? One last thing; OPEC (look it up if you don’t know) has lobbyists against US drilling offshore and in protected lands in Alaska. Seems like we should look at how being an environmentalist can coincidentally save non-US oil producing companies BILLIONS. Just a thought.

  • m

    hmmm…all these posts about “restraint” and “i hate dirty oil”.

    i wonder how many plastic water bottles I will find if i looked in each of your houses?

    inquiring minds want to know.

  • Avalon

    I will go with m on this one and also ask, paper or plastic at the grocery store? Milk out of a carton or jug? Got a cellphone? Drive a car (not just for gas, but the plastic in it)? Use a computer? Lotion? Eat food (I mean how else do we catch fish and shrimp or move cattle and pigs to packing plants)? Use roads? Anything and every thing probably has oil tied to it somewhere. It may not be made out of oil-derived products, but how in the heck do you expect it to get to the store you buy it from? Fairy dust and magic carpets are not only inefficient and under constant attack from legislators, it plain doesn’t exist!

    Perhaps one day, we will be able to use alternative sources of energy, but until then, King Oil will reign supreme.

  • Jess Rehse

    There are some attention-grabbing points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There’s some validity but I’ll take maintain opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish extra! Added to FeedBurner as properly

  • Teddy Mann

    Could it be that the pipeline is needed to bring the product closer to the shipping lanes to China? I trust the Canadians to do what’s right, but not the oil companies. How long before the finished product ends up on tankers bound for China and other destinations instead of feeding the needs of the United States.


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