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Just Say No to Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Frances Beinecke's picture

Frances Beinecke is the president of NRDC. Under Frances's leadership, the organization has launched a new strategic campaign that sharply focuses NRDC's efforts on curbing global...

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Yesterday was Earth Day and, barring any last-minute change, it was also the final day the public could send the State Department our comments on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.             

Here’s mine:           

This is a plan to pipe some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet through the breadbasket of America to be refined and shipped overseas through the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s not in our national interest. It’s a profit scheme for big oil. It would feed our addiction to fossil fuels, accelerate climate change and put our heartland farmers, ranchers and communities at risk. It needs to be denied.

The State Department needs to understand all this. Because the tar sands pipeline would cross our international border with Canada, the State Department must decide whether to approve the project.

The criteria: Is the project in our national interest?

It’s not, and here’s why.

The purpose of this pipeline is to get Canadian tar sands crude to international markets. Otherwise, it makes little economic sense to expand the mining of tar sands.

This pipeline, in other words, is essential to increasing tar sands production.

Oil companies claim that, if the pipeline isn’t approved, they’ll ship tar sands crude by rail instead. They won’t. It’s too expensive to support significant tar sands expansion, as Reuters reported just last week.

For a full analysis as to why rail is not a viable option, see my colleague Anthony Swift’s April 10 testimony on the subject before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

And, here’s the problem. Tar sands production is one of the most destructive industrial practices ever devised.

To get at these tar sands, oil companies must gut Canada’s boreal forest, one of the last truly wild places on Earth.

I have been to Alberta and seen first-hand the devastation of tar sands production.

National Geo Destruction Mining Small Credit Peter Essick National Geographic.JPG
(Tar sands mine in Alberta credit: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

Oil companies have already gouged out of the boreal forest an industrial waste zone the size of Chicago. And that’s only the beginning, if big oil has its way.

Oil companies get at the tar sands either by strip mining the forest or drilling down and injecting steam into the ground to soften up the tar sands so it can be brought to the surface.

Either way, companies have to mine at least two tons of sand to squeeze out a single barrel of tar sands crude called bitumen, a low-grade, high-sulphur hydrocarbon that has to have the daylights refined out of it to be turned into fuel.

Producing tar sands crude is so energy intensive that it generates up to 4.5 times more climate-changing carbon emissions as the production of conventional crude oil. (To learn more, go here to page 6.)

In fact, producing, refining and burning tar sands the KXL pipeline would increase our carbon footprint as much as putting up to 4.3 million additional cars on the road, the Congressional Research Service reported last month.

That’s the wrong direction for our country.

And then there’s the pipeline itself, which would cut through high plains states that are home to more than 250,000 ranches and farms, crossing nearly 1,500 American waterways, from the Yellowstone River in Montana to Pine Island Bayou in Texas.

It is in our national interest to protect all that, not expose it to the risk of the kind of pipeline failure that gushed some 200,000 gallons of tar sands crude into a residential community in Mayflower, Arkansas, just last month.

Nor are such accidents rare.

Over the past two decades, we’ve had 5,611 pipeline failures that have killed 367 people, injured nearly 1,500 more and spilled more than 100 million gallons of oil into our waters and over our lands.           

Why should we expose the breadbasket of America to that kind of risk?

The oil industry claims it will create jobs. But the industry has vastly overstated its case.

Based on the industry’s own numbers, the State Department shows that the project would involve a series of short-term construction periods lasting several months each.

“When expressed as average annual employment,” the State Department concludes, “this equates to approximately 3,900 jobs,” during the period of peak construction.

Only 10 percent of those would be local hires, as most of the work requires specialized skills.

In fact, the State Department concludes, the project would create just 35 permanent jobs. That is not a typo: 35 permanent jobs. Tops.

Every job is important.

But is it really in our national interest to put at risk 1,500 American waterways, uncounted acres of fertile croplands, and the actual jobs of ranchers and farmers – millions of them – who have tilled these lands for generations, for the sake of 35 permanent jobs?

Is it really in our national interest to promote the destruction of the boreal forest to produce some of the dirtiest oil on the planet?

And is it really in our national interest – the good of us all – to invest in perpetuating our costly and dangerous addiction to fossil fuels, knowing that it is this addiction that is driving the climate change that threatens our future?

No, it is not.

On this Earth Day, we need to stand up, every one of us, and say exactly that to the State Department.

Our campaign to put a stop to the tar sands pipeline is part of a broader effort to advance the clean energy future we need to strengthen our economy, make our country more secure and address the single greatest environmental ill of our time: climate change.

Forward on Climate Rally credit Melanie Blanding / NRDC

(Forward on Climate Rally credit Melanie Blanding / NRDC)

That means investing in wind, solar and other renewable power sources, and building the energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces of tomorrow.

It means reducing the carbon emissions from our single largest source – the power plants that kick out 40 percent of our national carbon footprint.

It means recognizing that we cannot build a 21st Century economy on the dirty fuels of the past, when we must promote the clean energy solutions that can power us into the future.

And it means putting an end to those destructive practices we know will only make matters worse, starting with the KXL tar sands pipeline.   

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I K's picture
I K on Apr 23, 2013

Not living in America or Canada I don’t care much either way but I would question the jobs figures stated.

A good rule of thumb to figure out the “jobs” benefit of any project is to look at revenue and divide by GDP per worker. So if this pipeline enables Canada to produce 800,000 more barrels of oil a day at $100 oil that is $29B. GDP per worker in Canada is about $80,000 therefore this whole project will create roughly 362,500 permanent jobs directly and indirectly.

That includes everything from the jobs building the pipeline to the jobs mining and refining the tar sands to the retail jobs in existence because a pensioner is getting a higher dividend and spending more eating out to…everything.  Personally if I were a Canadian or America I would be in favour

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Apr 25, 2013

Your analysis got me thinking. So if oil magically goes up to $200/barrel the pipeline would produce 725,000 jobs? And if oil were to drop to $50/barrel only 181,250 jobs are created. I don’t think commodity exploitation works the way you think. For instance, oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia produces lots of oil, but not many jobs. The spoils don’t trickle down necessarily to job creation. Plus oil and gas production, refining and marketing traditionally have low employment revenue-wise compared to other industries. The overall goal is to increase production without adding a commensurate number of jobs. 

I K's picture
I K on Apr 25, 2013

Your analysis got me thinking. So if oil magically goes up to $200/barrel the pipeline would produce 725,000 jobs? And if oil were to drop to $50/barrel only 181,250 jobs are created.

Yes that is how it works. If oil doubled to $200 the jobs figure would roughly double.

So for instance if it was the UK. If our oil production doubled the government would take in double the oil taxes (oil is taxed at around 60% here). With this extra income the government could either hire more state workers (eg teachers) or it could cut taxes (more money in your pocket to spend creating more jobs elsewhere)

The other 40% would go to the shareholders of BP and the other oil companies that operate here (after all the other taxes they need to pay). Those shareholders now have more money to spend into the economy creating all manner of jobs. Or they can further invest their dividends into lowering the cost of borrowing so other companies or individuals can borrow at a lower rate and create jobs elsewhere.

So yes it is fairly simple to get a guide of the jobs potential of projects. It is revenue over GDP per worker. You would have to adjust somewhat to take into account different sectors having different GDP per worker amounts but this will not vary hugely.

So it is a lot more than just the few temporary jobs to weld together some pipes.

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Apr 25, 2013

Your analysis is way off. So what you’re saying is cheap oil and gas or any commodity is bad for the world’s economy? No cheap oil is bad for oil and gas companies and feudal petrostates like Great Britain and Saudi Arabia. There wouldn’t be Alberta tar sands and the need for Keystone XL if oil was much below $80. It would not be profitable. There’d be fewer oil jobs of course, but more jobs in other areas to attract investment dollars.

During the 1990s the US economy took off and added many jobs with cheap oil. It was bad for oil producers, but good for the rest. I can only imagine what you think of energy efficiency, alternative energy and use reduction. 

I K's picture
I K on Apr 25, 2013

Money and jobs are global. So if this pipeline means 800000 more barrels a day that will mean in the region of 300000 jobs for north America while at the same time it will mean less jobs is net oil exporting regions.

So for arguments sake to keep things simple imagine there were only two countries the USA and saudi Arabia.  saudi wants to maintain oil prices at 100 dollars. if the USA produces 1 million barrels a day more oil Saudi would need to produce 1mbpd less. As such It adds 36.5B dollars to the usa economy and removes 36.5B from the Saudi economy. That means more jobs and more wealth for Americans (far more than the few visible welding jobs at a pipeline) and fewer jobs and less wealth for Saudi residents. 

The cheap oil of the 90s was good for oil importers but not a fun time for oil exporters. 


So I would still maintain that 800k bpd productionin North America will produce in the region of 300k plus permanent Jobs in North America. 

It is a little more complicated than this but ill leave it here as its enough to show big infrastructure projects help lots of people far more than the temporary building jobs

Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Apr 25, 2013

By making your argument simply doesn’t make it correct. It’s flawed. There’s about 9 million direct and indirect oil and gas jobs in the US. This is about 5 to 10 percent of the economy. Oil and gas companies and its relatively few investors get rich. The rest of the economy gets hampered by the reliance on expensive oil and gas, since investment gets funneled into producing more oil and gas rather than other more productive and value added things. We can decide whether its important to employ welders for pipelines and terminals or for other areas. Either way these are relatively short term jobs. Unless of course the Keystone XL needs to get repaired frequently due to leaks.

I K's picture
I K on Apr 25, 2013

I already said that i don’t really care if it is built or not as i don’t live in North America.

Trying to dismiss a potentially 30 billion dollar a year revenue project as only creating a few welding jobs does not do any justice to the anti xl side it just makes you look silly 

I will say once more its a good rule of thumb to look at revenue of a project over gdp per worker for a guide to how many jobs will be created

I wont say more about it. I’ll join your club from now on and insist itd just 4 or 5 part te poorly paid difficult welding jobs and the other 30billion is going to go to Hitlers secret love child which will use it to take over the world. ..


Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 25, 2013

@I K

“Not living in America or Canada I don’t care much either way but I would question the jobs figures stated.”

What did you say? Has it never occur to you that you might be using that dirty oil anywhere you live?

For people like you please see the movie Lorax and I’m sure you’ll understand if you replace the trees by big dirty oil… see what I mean?

Really it worries me a lot that people can be that ignorant and small-thinking.

We need to reject the pipeline if you live in the USA or not, since the USA will only be used to transport the filthy stuff. It matters to all of us.

Actually Canada should be the first in receiving critics, but do they? I doubt it. Or maybe I should say Alberta is the key causing the trouble? Yes they are actually, but they want the USA to take a part of the pie, of course. If the UK could be included then they would do that of course too since all are part of the same club.


I K's picture
I K on Apr 25, 2013

I am not a canadian or American citizen so I have no business telling them what to do and im sure they are smart enough to figure out all the pros and cons and make an informed decision

Instead of governments saying no and adding costs and delays they should try to maximum the possible positives of a project.  In this case adding a strong hvdc link between both sides would be a big benifit at low cost (most the work is being done so tagging a cable along will be much cheaper than building a dedicated cable route)

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