Debunking Keystone: The Myths & Misinformation about Extending the Pipeline

The Keystone XL pipeline project is, no doubt, a colossal undertaking, with hundreds of miles of pipeline to be assembled and buried along its route. As with any infrastructure project of this magnitude, it is vitally important to fully examine the pros and cons, ensuring the rewards outweigh the risks, and that it has support from those who would be impacted the most. But after a half-decade of study and debate, many believe the hysteria surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline has been overblown and unfounded… and it’s not just those connected to the pipeline who think so.

The Keystone XL pipeline project is, no doubt, a colossal undertaking, with hundreds of miles of pipeline to be assembled and buried along its route. As with any infrastructure project of this magnitude, it is vitally important to fully examine the pros and cons, ensuring the rewards outweigh the risks, and that it has support from those who would be impacted the most. But after a half-decade of study and debate, many believe the hysteria surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline has been overblown and unfounded… and it’s not just those connected to the pipeline who think so.

 

Here are of some of the controversies surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline—the criticisms, myths and misinformation—and what is being done to alleviate concerns surrounding the project.

 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

 

Hands-down, the most contentious debate surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline is one all too familiar to those in manufacturing and other industries that rely on fossil fuels as a feedstock and/or energy source: greenhouse gas emissions. Some believe the construction of the pipeline, as well as the extraction and development of the crude oil it will deliver, will increase the use of fossil fuels that will, in turn, create more greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate climate change.

 

Davis Sheremata, spokesperson for Keystone’s pipeline company TransCanada, says a number of exhaustive studies by some of the country’s leading experts in climate change have indicated that Keystone will do little to increase greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Even so, a small yet very loud subset of oppositionists are not backing down on this claim.

 

“Oil sands only produce about one-seventh of one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—so the impact is actually fairly small,” Sheremata said.

 

The U.S. State Department recently released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL project, assessing the potential impacts associated with the project and its alternatives. While the study acknowledged greenhouse gas emissions would, in fact, increase as Canada’s oil sands are developed, tapping these reserves is not dependent upon extending the existing pipeline.

 

Matt Dempsey, Spokesperson for Oil Sands Fact Sheet

 

“The bottom line assessment is that Keystone XL will not exacerbate climate change,” explained Matt Dempsey, spokesperson for Oil Sands Fact Sheet, a coalition of business groups that support oil sands development. “That’s because this oil is going to get to market, one way or another. Oil sands in Canada will be developed and reach America’s Gulf Coast by other means (if the pipeline is not approved), like by tanker truck or railway.”

 

Dempsey also said transporting crude oil by pipeline is by far the safest and most environmentally friendly mode of transportation, not to mention the most efficient.

 

“The State Department has a couple of different mentions where they talk about which (mode of transportation) is the safest and most environmentally sound, and every instance came back that the pipelines were the best,” he said.

 

Pipeline Safety

 

Running a pipeline underground that will contain crude oil is sure to get people talking, especially those who live and work near the pipeline’s route. In the case of Keystone, complicating the situation even further is the Ogallala aquifer, a vast but shallow water table located underneath the Great Plains that is a water source for thousands of people located around its proposed route.

 

Two fairly recent and highly publicized oil spills—the Kalamazoo River oil spill and the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico—provided ample reason for pause when Keystone was proposed, and with the latest spill in the Galveston Bay off the coast of Texas, anxiety over oil spills has once again been heightened.

 

According to Sheremata, TransCanada has gone to great lengths to not only listen to concerns from landowners and environmentalists, but has developed additional safety measures in order to protect the environment from the threat of a pipeline leak or spill.

 

“There’s a myth out there that the aquifer is completely untouched by industrial activity when, really, there is about 20,000 miles of pipeline running through it—including the first phase of Keystone,” said Sheremata.

 

Sheremata said aquifers lie under much of the United States, and tens of millions of barrels of oil and refined products move over aquifers in the U.S. safely every day. The first Keystone pipeline already lies atop the Ogallala aquifer and has delivered more than 560 million barrels of oil to U.S. refineries since it began operating in 2010, he said.

 

“Keystone XL is not a threat to the Ogallala aquifer, and that is supported by experts like Jim Goeke—a research hydrogeologist who has studied this unique structure for four decades—and environmental assessments by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. State Department.”

 

“We voluntarily agreed to 59 additional conditions with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to provide even greater confidence regarding the safe operation and monitoring of Keystone XL,” said Sheremata.

 

Sheremata said no other pipeline to date has been built with such comprehensive safety and operating conditions. These include:

 

• A higher number of remotely controlled shutoff valves

 

• Increased pipeline inspections

 

• Higher construction standards

 

• Increased standards for pipeline integrity and maintenance

 

• Burying the pipe deeper in the ground

 

Despite such rigid safety measures, a possibility of an oil spill from the Keystone pipeline still exists, and TransCanada has a response plan already in place.

 

Sheremata said, in such a scenario, TransCanada will bear 100 percent of the burden for pipeline repair and cleanup, ensuring landowners and municipalities have little to no impact.

 

In the unlikely event of a spill, Sheremata said the topography of the ground surrounding the Ogallala aquifer would limit how far the oil could travel, making cleanup relatively easy.

 

In an article published by The Washington Post, Jim Goeke provided the reasoning behind this theory when he said, “people were concerned that any spill would contaminate and ruin the water in the entire aquifer, and that’s just practically impossible. To do that, the oil would essentially have to run uphill.”

 

Goeke added, “Any leakage would be very localized… A spill wouldn’t be nice, but it would certainly be restricted to within a half-mile of the pipeline.”

 

May 28, 2014

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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