Is The Keystone XL Pipeline Actually Bad For The Environment?

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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President Joe Biden is reportedly set to rescind approval for construction to be completed on the Keystone XL Pipeline, but the environmental impacts cited as justification are highly disputed. 

Biden is sticking to his campaign trail word and cancelling the final leg of construction on the massive project, which runs from Alberta, Canada to Texas, as first reported by the CBC. The move is part of a slate of day one executive orders to address climate change, which also includes rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and halting oil and gas leasing from Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

The construction—or the nixing—of Keystone XL substantially affects a number of key political issues in the United States. At stake in the decision are thousands of jobs, the efficiency and logistics of America’s energy sector, and environmental concerns. (RELATED: Biden To Sign Record Number Of Executive Orders)

By including the order in his climate change policy set, Biden appears to be deferring to the environmentalist objectors. Activists like Greta Thunberg and the Sierra Club applauded the news. Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders also supported the decision, calling the pipeline a “disaster.” 

Opponents of the pipeline cite several objections to its completion, chiefly that it will further America’s reliance on oil, and fossil fuels generally, instead of facilitating a needed switch to renewable energy sources. 

Canada’s energy regulator projects that production of crude oil in the country will steadily increase until 2040, with or without the completion of Keystone XL. It is expected that oil transport levels will remain relatively equal without the completion of Keystone XL, and the slack of shipping will get picked up by rail and trucks, according to Edmonton Journal

Some critics also cite the danger of spills from the pipeline. Oil spills from pipelines like Keystone XL eject about three times as much oil as spills from rail and truck accidents, but they are substantially less likely to happen, research indicates

Others are concerned about the impact of the construction on wildlife. There are multiple natural habitats for endangered species that could be affected by the completion of the project. (RELATED: Climate Change Legislation Won’t Need A Price Tag Thanks To Democrats’ House Rules)

The source of the pipeline’s crude oil is also contentious. Keystone XL draws oil from Alberta’s oil sands, which are among the dirtiest sources of crude oil in the world. The extraction methods needed to draw oil from that kind of source are more environmentally costly than others. 

Still, the CO2 emissions caused by the completion of the pipeline would only make up about 0.2% of our remaining “carbon budget” to stay under global temperature increase goals, according to EPA estimates

Those estimates are years old. Recently, proposals for the pipeline’s construction have promised to make it carbon-neutral by 2023, with reinvestment going into green energy, according to the Edmonton Journal. Those changes were reportedly made with the aim of appeasing climate activists and a potential Democratic administration in Washington. 

As a result of those environmentally-friendly construction priorities, Keystone XL was said by some to be a “model for green pipelining,” the Journal reports. (RELATED: Macron Trolls Trump, Says Biden Can Help ‘Make Our Planet Great Again’)

If the oil ends up getting moved anyways, just via a different method, it could actually be worse for the environment. According to a University of Alberta study, rail and truck transport of crude oil not only results in more spills, but in the overall life of the process, also emits more CO2

That’s one reason geophysicist and former Editor-In-Chief of Science Marcia McNutt reversed her position on the pipeline to support its completion in 2014. The Biden administration is claiming to stand on the side of science, but the facts tell a much murkier story than anti-Keystone activists let on.