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Why Keystone XL is Not in the U.S. National Interest

Adam Siegel's picture
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Adam Siegel is an entrepreneurial analyst working at the intersection of energy, climate, national security, and business affairs. He has worked with/for government agencies, think tanks...

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  • Feb 11, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry’s first major international meeting came with Canadian foreign minister John Baird. At the press conference, Secretary Kerry faced (and essentially shunted aside) questions about Keystone XL.  A Climate Hawk as U.S. Senator, Secretary Kerry faced a difficult situation: Canada is pushing hard to enrich itself with the world’s worst environmental disaster and the United States has to decide whether it will help worsen the situation as the Department of State in nearing the end of a process of review of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In short, the question the Department of State must answer:

Is Keystone XL in the U.S. national interest?

And, more briefly, the answer:


With full explanations after the fold, here are reasons why Keystone XL is a reckless, dangerous, and counter-productive project that should not be allowed to proceed.

In short, Keystone XL would

  • Contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Foster accelerated damage to one of the most important carbon sinks;
  • Create risks for water sources;
  • Facilitate expansion of the most destructive industrial project on earth;
  • Increase spill risks of extremely difficult to clean-up and damaging Dilbit in extremely sensitive ecosystems;
  • Divert resources from efforts to reduce American and global dependence on fossil fuels;
  • Threaten employment;
  • Damage economic performance;
  • Threaten American health;
  • Increase gas prices for much of the American Heartland;
  • Increase profitability of Canadian and other foreign oil interests by taking money out of Americans’ pockets; and,
  • Damage American leadership around the globe as we struggle to mitigate climate change.

If this seems a long list, it is.

Despite the $10s ($100s) of millions spent on partial truths, disinformation, and propaganda, the fundamental facts demonstrate that this project should not go forward, that it is counter to U.S. national interest.

Crippling drought. Devastating wildfires. Superstorm Sandy. Climate has come home – and the American people get it.

The first step to putting our country on the path to addressing the climate crisis is for President Obama to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. His legacy as president will rest squarely on his response, resolve, and leadership in solving the climate crisis.

On 17 February 2013, President’s Day, 100,000s of American citizens will be in front of the White House calling for the Obama Administration to recognize — and declare — that the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the U.S. national interest.  Join them.

A simple question to consider:

If we don’t say no now, when will we say no?


Let us take a moment to ‘review’ the bidding as to why Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest.

Thus, a simple question as to Keystone XL:  Why not?

The Keystone XL pipeline would

    • Addressing climate change will require difficult decisions by individuals, communities, businesses, and nations.  Due to the $100s of billions involved and the power of polluting industries, the correct decision that rejecting Keystone XL is the right thing to do for U.S. national interest has become a difficult decision to make. If the United States is to be a world leader in addressing climate change and if the United States is to have any credibility in asking others to make difficult choices, the United States must show that it can make the correct decision even when it is difficult. As Professor John Abraham put it, “If we don’t say no now, when will we say no?

Very simply, oil industry lobbyist claims to the contrary, the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the U.S. national interest.

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Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Feb 11, 2013

All in all; I have to agree with the author. While the short term gain of oil delivered to the Gulf Coast for refinery or tanker transport may make a few jobs happen and the final leg of the Keystone pipeline may create a few temporary jobs; the Global Impact of doing so would weigh upon our shouldes a a Nation for quite some time. As the pipeline exists currently; it already serves our National Interests in secured  delivery of oil to the national reserves. I am of the semi educated opinion that the pursuit of fossil fuels is at this point in time counter intuitive toward long term survival of the human race as well as other species on this planet. A short lived monetary gain is insignificant  compared to continued survival. The ecological impact of the tar sands oil recovery project in Canada is devastating enough already. Some common sense and decency must be excercised; or we will not be able to reverse the effects we have upon the planets' ecosystems; which we are reliant upon for continued survival. There are other options to meeting our energy and transportation needs. We should pursue them with vigor.

J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Feb 11, 2013

In short, many other facts don’t support most of this post’s statements:

·         Increased greenhouse gases are relatively small on a global basis.  The Chinese build a coal fired power plant every couple weeks.  These emissions are magnitudes greater then Canadian dilbit/synbit crudes will ever produce.

·         No question the forests are important carbon sinks.  That’s why developed countries have policies that require restoration and reforestation of open pit mines.  The real problem is continuous loss of world rain forests.

·         All types of open pit mines can create water shed risks if not properly managed.  That’s why developed countries have environmental agencies responsible for setting standards and enforcing those standards.

·         Most destructive industrial project on earth???  Canada’s mining and environmental standards are among the highest of all developed nations.  You may be confusing this industry with undeveloped countries in Asia (China), Africa, etc.

·         Spill risks.  The Keystone XL is paralleled by thousands of miles of existing pipelines.  Yes, if not properly maintained, leaks can occur.  To imply that the Keystone XL pipeline can somehow create abnormally high spill risks compare to the 200,000 miles of pipeline that already exist within North America is not reasonable.

·         When has blocking access to petroleum oil actually reduced consumption (or dependence)?  If access to a supply or market is somehow lost, alternatives will be used.  In the case of the Keystone XL, the Canadians will likely build a different pipeline to the West Coast and export to China and the U.S. will continue to import oil from those unstable countries in the Middle East (OPEC).  Other U.S. policies such as CAFE, Renewable Fuel Standards, subsidizing renewables, etc. are much more effective strategies towards actually reducing oil consumption and growing cleaner energy supplies.

·         Threat to employment???  Since when were ‘shovel-ready’ projects a threat to employment? The Keystone XL significantly benefits both Canada and U.S. economies.  Not only will Canada’s upstream oil industry grow (and associated jobs), but the U.S. jobs and economy will benefit substantially.  Many argue that the pipeline only creates temporary construction jobs.  This is not totally correct since the pipeline increases tax revenues and reduces U.S. petroleum costs (i.e. benefits the economy overall).

·         Damage economic performance???  This statement and position defies basic free market economics fundamentals.  Also not mentioned is the fact that the Keystone XL is overwhelmingly funded by free market-industrial investment and not Government (taxpayer) subsides/tax credits.

·         Threaten America Health???  Since the carbon emission impacts are small-to-insignificant on a global basis, climate impacts should be proportional.  Canada and U.S. environmental standards mitigate any local-regional air, water and land impacts.

·         Increases Heartland gas prices???  Increasing the supply of any commodity in any market decreases its price (at constant demand).  The myth that the U.S. will export the petroleum oil ignores that fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a lot of excess idle refining capacity in the midcontinent.

·         Takes money from U.S. consumers???  Since the impact on oil consumption is zero, where should American’s spend their money?  Buying crude oil from Canada, which is the U.S.’s largest and most important trading partner, or, force American’s to continue buying oil from OPEC countries that are rumored to support various terrorist organizations around the world?

·         Damage America’s world climate change leadership???  Since when did America lead anything over the past four years?  The current Administration has developed and implemented a foreign policy of ‘leading from behind’.  Today, the leaders are found in Europe, not North America.

Adam Siegel's picture
Adam Siegel on Feb 11, 2013

Sigh ...

1.  "Miniscule ..." Who cares about someone pissing in the community pool because it is so big, only one kid.  Looking at in isolation is absurd. This:

The Keystone XL Pipeline, considered in isolation, is not a game changing or planet-threatening project. According to some estimates, obtaining and using oil from tar sands produces 14 to 20 percent greater greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil now used in the U.S. for transportation. In a report to Congress, the estimated effect of the pipeline on the U.S. greenhouse gas footprint would be an increase of 3 million to 21 million metric tons of GHG emissions annually – less than one percent of U.S. emissions. The tar sands in Canada are an environmental disaster in other ways, but the incremental emissions of greenhouse gases are small compared to the far greater threat of massive coal expansion in China, or potential fugitive emission of methane from fracking, or massive deforestation in Indonesia and Latin America, or any number of other major sources of greenhouse gases. In that sense, arguments that the Keystone pipeline is just a “distraction” or “red herring” have some merit.

But. But. But. Here’s my problem: when do we finally just say “no more?”  When are we and our elected officials going to look at the complete picture created by our individual choices and decisions?


2.  Try actually looking at the impact of Tar Sands exploitation.  "Most Destructive Project" -- start here.


3.  Keystone puts oil on world market and removes it from the upper Midwest market.  Right now, Dilbit is selling at a significant discount in the upper Midwest: "One of the most important facts that is missing in the national debate surrounding the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is this – Keystone XL will not bring any more oil into the United State for decades to come.  Canada doesn’t have nearly enough oil to fill existing pipelines going to the United States. However, existing Canadian oil pipelines all go to the Midwest, where the only buyer for their crude is the United States. Keystone XL would divert Canadian oil from refineries in the Midwest to the Gulf Coast where it can be refined and exported. Many of these refineries are in Foriegn Trade Zones where oil may be exported to international buyers without paying U.S. taxes. And that is exactly what Valero, one of the largest potential buyers of Keystone XL's oil, has told its investors it will do. The idea that Keystone XL will improve U.S. oil supply is a documented scam being played on the American people by Big Oil and its friends in Washington DC. " 

Heartland gas prices will go up: Keystone will remove oil from the upper Midwest to put it on the world market.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Feb 11, 2013

I agree with Mr. Elliot.

There is no real good reason to oppose Keystone. The environment won't crash the day Keystone starts to opperate, nor will Keystone have crashed the environment 10 yrs afterward.

As I see it, this anti Keystone thing is just a little bit over done by environmentalist zealots.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Feb 12, 2013

So why is Obama drawing the process out?  What the heck is he waiting for?  If it's so obviously immoral/catastrophic/evil/not-in-the-national-interest (circle one or more), then just nix it and move on!  It's put up or shut up time!

Robert Rapier's picture
Robert Rapier on Feb 15, 2013

But. But. But. Here’s my problem: when do we finally just say “no more?”  When are we and our elected officials going to look at the complete picture created by our individual choices and decisions?

That's never going to happen. Countries are going to look out for their own self-interests. Canada will develop and sell their oil, and China will buy it if we don't.

The problem with trying to stop Keystone is akin to the war on drugs. How well has it worked to attempt to cut off supply? It's just made drug dealers are lot wealthier. The tar sands oil is still getting to market. It is getting there by rail. Movement of oil by rail has gone from near zero to a million barrels a day in the past five years. That's more than the capacity of Keystone XL, and has made Warren Buffett an even richer man.

Further, it is more energy intensive and there is a far greater risk of an accident by rail versus pipeline. This is one of those situations where what seemed like a good idea to some -- stopping Keystone XL -- just makes matters worse. I know people rationalize that stopping Keystone would be great for the environment, but we have to stop and pay attention to what's actually happening.


Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Feb 15, 2013

KXL would transport bitumen (a sandy sludge) from Canada across the US to ancient Texas refineries that need feedstock for gas they intend to export.  The new fuel supply would not ease high gas prices in the US.  The benefit to multinationals is easy to see, but not the national interest of either country.  

The citizens of Canada would prefer a policy of "refine it where you mine it."  That way the refineries would be new, with the latest technology, and located in Canada, with real jobs for Canadians and a value-added product to export to the US.  Gasoline, not dilbit. Maybe this would provide the money and know-how to clean up the enormous toxic sludge ponds in Alberta left behind by decades of hot water bitumen extraction.

The citizens of the US would get continued high gas prices and a new risk of water pollution in the breadbasket of America. Of course there will be "jobs," but by that metric the Gulf oil spill was in the national interest because it created a lot of jobs.  Janitor jobs.  The larger issue here is national sovereignty. Will the US submit to continued pain at the pump and continued technology stagnation in order that multinational corporations can make a profit from looting and polluting the water of our firmest ally and next-door neighbor?  CO2 is a side issue.

Adam Siegel's picture
Adam Siegel on Feb 16, 2013

Let's see ...

Seems to be that the item is we can't do anything to change because we have the infrastructure we have and thus we can't change the infrastructure we have and thus should continue to feed the beast/add to the beast that we have.

This piece was not about offering up alternative paths forward -- but perhaps it would have made sense to link to myriads of pieces offering up "infrastructure to deliver society's needs" w/burning less fossil fuel.

Let's take a small example, why not steel interstates with electrified rail?  Within a decade, at a net benefit to the economy -- without considering the pollution / climate benefits -- this could help reduce US demand, with intermodal transfer improvements, in the range of 2.5 mbd.  And, compared to trucking, this would enable moving California tomatoes to the East Coast roughly in 30 hours with far fewer energy calories per calorie of food moved.  That is a "new distribution infrastructure" that "is being aka proposed" ...

Reality is that there are quite serious paths to shift the infrastructure to reduce fossil fuel demands -- even in the agricultural secor -- that have been put on the table and, in many cases, that are actually being worked on.  That this one piece, which focuses on reasons why the Keystone XL pipeline does not meet the standard required in the review process, does not provide a detailed examination of such opportunities and path forward is a rather high standard to hold any single blog post.



Adam Siegel's picture
Adam Siegel on Feb 16, 2013

Thus, Keystone should go forward because no single action, no single project is enough to cause so much damage that the environment would crash because of it?  

In terms of your second paragraph, clearly a line was drawn in the sand -- for mobilization reasons and otherwise.  Paths toward improving profitability and easing expansion of Tar Sands production will foster greater use and, therefore, greater carbon loads.  Keystone XL does this.  Thus, beyond just symbolic into substantive issues.  And, this is something that galvanizes a range of people -- from those losing land to eminent domain to build the pipeline, to ranchers concerned about potential Dilbit spills, to indigenous people in the United States and Canada concerned about their lands, to scientists concerned about climate change, to ... Sigh, those scientists are, however, simply "zealots".


Adam Siegel's picture
Adam Siegel on Feb 16, 2013

Absolutely, the tar sands is getting to market.  The issue, in part, is expansion -- and resisting creating infrastructure that becomes sunk cost in considering infrastructure / energy / investment choices tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

The rail expansion for export has been impressive to watch. Even so, as you are well aware, that rail expansion is inadequate to support the desired export requirements. Also, in part due to enriching Buffett (further), the additional cost of that rail movement is a drag on expansion plans.

How much of the rail expansion, however, is Bakken oil vs Tar Sands?


It is a serious point that that the EROEI and pollution load worsens due to rail transit. And, as per rail safety issues, there are risks created via increased rail traffic vs pipeline.  Although, have there been rail car spills of Dilbit along the lines of what happened in the Enbridge pipeline on the Kalmazoo?

Finally, absolutely a focus 'solely' on supply is, at best, reckless and, at worst, inane.  National investments in Steel Interstate, ever-increasing CAFE standards, better land use planning ('smart growth' as misnomer), and other targeted paths to drive down oil demand -- across the planet -- as a path to deal with peak oil and climate change are more critical than efforts focused on the supply side.  


Robert Rapier's picture
Robert Rapier on Feb 16, 2013

Even so, as you are well aware, that rail expansion is inadequate to support the desired export requirements. 

Canada is presently pursuing a 5 million bpd rail line to their West Coast -- largely because we are playing politics over the pipeline. The drugs/oil will get to the market when the demand is there. I didn't complete my analogy, but to be effective it is the demand that must be curtailed. When demand is there the supply will get to market.


Adam Siegel's picture
Adam Siegel on Feb 16, 2013


Do you believe that 'all lights are green' on that westward rail line because, well, there are some who certainly don't think so.

Robert Rapier's picture
Robert Rapier on Feb 16, 2013

Of course there will be people opposed, but Canada has clearly indicated that they are going to do whatever it takes to develop those oil sands. And production there has showed no signs of slowing down.

Wilmot McCutchen's picture
Wilmot McCutchen on Feb 16, 2013

The issue is where the refineries should be: Canada, Texas, or elsewhere.  Extending the life of aging assets -- instead of developing modern refining capacity -- is unfortunately the policy dictated by Wall Street accounting.  It's a problem with power plants, too.  Innovation and upgrading gets punished in the stock market.  See

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