Everything you need to know about the Keystone XL pipeline

TransCanada received approval from the U.S. State department to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Here’s what it means for Canada.

TransCanada, a Calgary-based energy company, received a presidential permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to Texas. This follows U.S. President Donald Trump signing an executive order in January, reviving the proposal.

The Canadian government welcomed this development. “Our government has always been supportive of the Keystone XL pipeline and we are pleased with the U.S. decision,” said Natural Resources minister Jim Carr, according to the CBC.

In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he didn’t think building the pipeline conflicted with Canada’s climate change initiatives. The government said the proposal won’t be reviewed again on this side of the border.

The pipeline was first proposed in 2008, approved in Canada in 2010, but rejected by Barack Obama’s administration in 2015. Obama said the project would “undercut [the U.S.’s] leadership” in fighting climate change. The $8-billion (U.S.) project would transport 800,000 barrels daily, running through Saskatchewan before reaching the U.S. border, where it would cross three states before connecting to another pipeline in Nebraska that would take oil to the Gulf Coast. The pipeline would span nearly 1,900 km.

Chatelaine asked Marc Lee, a Vancouver-based economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, to help untangle what this means for Canada.

Does this mean Keystone is a go?

Not quite. The project will require approval from certain U.S. statesincluding Nebraska where there has been staunch opposition on environmental grounds. TransCanada also needs to secure deals with landowners along the route in Nebraska.

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Aren’t there a bunch of other pipelines in the works?

Because of the uncertainty around Keystone, the Canadian government has, over the past year, approved other proposals to export oil, including Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain, which twins an existing pipeline from Alberta to B.C. by 980 km in order to ship oil out of Vancouver and into the U.S., and Enbridge’s Line 3, which will replace 1,600 km of pipe in order to double its transport capacity from Alberta through Saskatchewan and into Wisconsin. TransCanada’s Energy East, which would stretch 4,600 km from Alberta to New Brunswick, has yet to be approved, with some calling it redundant now that Keystone XL is moving forward.

“If all those pipelines go ahead, we’ll almost have overcapacity [to transport oil],” says Lee. The projects have come under major criticism for their potential damaging impact on the environment and First Nations communities.  For example, Ochapowace First Nation in Saskatchewan pointed to a 1999 pipe rupture in Line 3 near Pilot Butte that released more than 20,0000 barrels of heavy crude oil.

What are the potential benefits to Canada?

Carr touted the boost that Keystone XL would provide the Canadian economy, including 4,500 construction jobs. But these would be largely temporary spanning the year or two it would take to build a pipeline. “Once [it] is built there are very few jobs associated with it — like tens of jobs,” says Lee.

Given that the price of oil has tanked, the economic case for infrastructure is questionable, says Lee. And even if prices do go up in the next decade or so, expanding fossil fuel infrastructure moves Canada further from its climate change goals. “Over the next 20 to 30 years, we need a plan that steadily ramps down production and eventually gets to zero,” says Lee, adding that it should be done in a way that helps transition workers in the industry.

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How might it hurt the environment?

There are three major things to consider for any pipeline. The first is the immediate environmental risk of spill, which Lee says should be expected given the fact that bitumen corrodes the pipelines themselves. A spill of 138,600 gallons of oil from a pipeline in Iowa (the day after Trump signed his executive order) has environmental activists ringing the alarm bells.

“You can never really rehabilitate an area that got soaked in gasoline. Even this spill, it can’t be cleaned up,” Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman told the Guardian, referring to the Iowa pipeline. “That gives you some idea of what will happen when the Dakota Access pipeline or the Keystone XL pipeline fails. It’s irreversible.”

The second is the impact on the environment from oil-sands production sites in northern Alberta. Toxic tailing ponds, declines in wildlife population, and harmful air pollutants (which can lead to asthma, heart problems and lung cancer) are just some of the effects of this energy-intensive extraction method.

The brunt of these impacts are felt by First Nations communities. An unreleased government report obtained by the Canadian Press last year indicated that Alberta’s land-use planning had “failed to protect Aboriginal rights, lands and health from industrial development.” Twenty-six First Nations groups in the area have reported impacts and some have taken the federal and Alberta governments to court over it.

The third is whether growing the oil sands industry is at odds with Canada’s climate change commitments. Oil-sands extraction sites are Canada’s fastest growing greenhouse gas producers and Lee makes the point that even if Canada doesn’t burn all the fossil fuels it’s extracting, the country is still responsible for exporting the problem elsewhere. Trudeau took heat for this at town halls he hosted across the country, most recently in Winnipeg, where protesters chanted, “Climate leaders don’t build pipelines.”

“The federal government has been trying to have it both ways,” says Lee. “They’ve been wanting to be perceived as climate leaders on the one hand, but also wanting to build all kinds of fossil fuel infrastructure and expand production of the very materials that are causing climate change — and the two are fundamentally incompatible.”

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