Discussion Topics

Indigenous/First Nations' Perspectives

The expansion of the Keystone Pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico has serious implications for tribal nations in both Canada and the United States because of its potential environmental impacts. Tribal leaders in both the United States and Canada have called for the disapproval of the pipeline and have exercised their tribal sovereignty to the full extent of their collective ability. At the heart of the debate, however, there exists a much more complex struggle between two extremes: coexistence and exploitation. While modern indigenous populations strive for a lifestyle which does not negatively impact Mother Earth, tribal leaders in both Canada and the United States are at times forced to choose between the immediate needs of their people and the long-term health of their nations. Discussion around this topic will focus on the environmental, economic, and epistemological impacts on tribal nations who are directly affected by the pipeline supply chain as well as the tribal policies and cultural resistance to the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal.

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Environmental Impact: Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Tar Sands Production

On the global scale, it is estimated that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will jump from 28 metric tones (2004) to 95 metric tonnes by the year 2020.i Increased production of oil from Athabasca oil sands will contribute to this expected overall increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but is unlikely to account for a major proportion of it. Instead, the debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal highlights issues involved in a much bigger debate over the United States' energy agenda and its dependence on non-renewable sources of energy. What would the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline project mean for the country's long-term energy security? Should potential mitigation measures be incorporated into the discussion over the pipeline, as recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?ii

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Environmental Impact: Water Quality Protection and Pipeline Construction

The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route would pass through the Nebraska Sandhills section of the Ogallala Aquifer, which the USGS estimates provides drinking water for almost 2 million people (1998-2006). While the State Department has deemed the environmental impact of the proposed route to be acceptable, the Environmental Protection Agency's rating for the project indicates that the analysis does not adequately examine "potentially significant impacts" (June 6, 2011). This includes pipeline leaks due to materials and installation documented in the first phases of the Keystone project, as well as unanticipated conditions that may influence pipeline integrity. The intent of this topic is to discuss the potential water quality impacts and design/remediation strategies to the proposed pipeline and route.

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Economic Benefits of the Keystone XL Pipeline Expansion

The potential economic benefits of the Keystone XL Pipeline have been one of the main foci in debates over the project. A study by the Energy Policy Research Foundation, Inc., (EPRINC) projects that the net economic benefits of the pipeline's expansion could be as much $100-600 million annually for the United States.iii A study commissioned by TransCanada Corporation also estimates that 119,000 jobs could be created by the project.iv These projections have been criticized for a number of reasons by others, including the expected temporary nature of most of the jobs created by the project and their failure to account for the costs of potential environmental impacts of the project (such as oil spills and air pollution).v This topic intends to focus discussion on the important question of how the economic benefits of the Keystone XL Pipeline should be calculated and weighed against the potential costs to the environment.

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Distribution: Where is the Oil Going?

Canadian oil production is expected to grow by as much as 1.6 Mbpd between 2009 and 2025, mostly as a result of increased output from their Oil Sands, even without the Keystone XL Pipeline Expansionvi; however, if the pipeline is not approved, Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) crudes are more likely to go to Asia than the United States. The net effect would be substantially higher U.S. dependency on crude oils from the Middle East and Africa.vii Given political turmoil in both of these regions of the world, this shift in supply could have serious consequences for U.S. energy security. How should issues such as these be considered in the debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline project?

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What's driving the pipeline project?

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline point to its potential benefits for U.S. energy security and the economy as the primary reasons why its construction should move forward. For example, supporters of the pipeline argue that its construction would decrease the United States' dependence on oil from Mexico and Venezuela, create up to 20,000 jobs, provide up to $600 million annually in economic benefits, and improve domestic refiners' profit margins. But, what is really driving the pipeline project? What are the potential, feasible opportunities that would stem from the pipeline's construction? Alternatively, what are the obstacles being faced that could prevent these benefits from being realized or even result in negative costs? How are the differences in the private and social benefits and costs affecting the debate around the pipeline?

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How information is represented (or misrepresented) to the public

Much of the Keystone XL debate has focused around two issues - the economic importance of the pipeline and the negative environmental impact. These issues have tended to polarize opinions on the pipeline, grouping people into "jobs > environment" and "environment > jobs" camps. In the U.S. Congress, it has also become a Republican/Democratic issue, as House Republicans have sought to demand a faster review of the proposal by the U.S. State Department than desired by the Obama administration. This polarization and politicization have been reflected in - and likely caused by - portrayals of the pipeline project and its supporters and opponents in the popular media. What is the media's role in the pipeline debate? What aspects (political, logistical, economic, and scientific) of the pipeline are most and least reported? How might widely reported statements from supporters or opponents, such as that the pipeline would be "game over for climate"viii or that we should be "armed with naivete"ix affect the public view of the project, and its ultimate success or failure? Finally, to what extent are scientific studies applicable to the project reported to the public - and what role should or do they play?

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A Few Questions from These Core Areas to Start Discussion

  • How will the pipeline influence greenhouse gas emission production rates?
  • Are leaks inevitable?
  • Is a direct path through the Ogallala the only way?
  • How is job creation determined, and what do the numbers really mean?
  • What is the corporate perspective on the need for this extension?
  • What are the opportunities/obstacles?
  • How will domestic/international oil prices be affected?

Sources cited

  1. Shiell L., and S. Loney. 2007. Global Warming Damages and Canada's Oil Sands. Canadian Public Policy / Analyse de Politiques 33(4): 419-440.
  2. CRS Report
  3. The Value of the Canadian Oil Sands (...to the United States)
  4. Perryman Group Study
  5. GLI Report
  6. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Crude Oil: Forecast, Markets, and Pipelines, June 2010, p. 2.
  7. EnSys Energy & Systems, Inc., Keystone XL Assessment: Final Report, Prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Policy & International Affairs, December 23, 2010, p. 118.
  8. James Hansen
  9. Bill McKibben

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