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Controversial oil pipeline vetoed by Obama

  • Written by  Tom Hayes
  • Published in Energy
Pins protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline proposed to run through Nebraska Pins protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline proposed to run through Nebraska Dave Weaver
26 Feb
In what has been seen as a key victory for environmentalists, President Obama has vetoed a controversial Canada-to-USA oil pipeline, citing issues related to ‘security, safety and [the] environment’

The Keystone XL Pipeline, which was first applied for in 2008, would expand an already existing oil pipeline that currently runs from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to the US Midwest, all the way to Port Arthur, Texas (a journey of around 1,179 miles). This would double the current capacity to 292 million barrels-worth of heavy petroleum per year.

The project first provoked serious environmental scrutiny due to its initial routing over the top of the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, which supports much of the surrounding countryside. Detractors of the project argue that this could lead to a serious environmental and human catastrophe occurring if the pipeline were to run into difficulties and leak. Although the project was subsequently rerouted to move the pipes further from the aquifer, the decision has since been reversed by Dave Heineman, the Republican governor who controls the region, placing the pipeline back on its original course.

President Obama seemingly agreed with the critics of the pipeline issuing a statement announcing the veto: ‘The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest – including our security, safety and environment – it has earned my veto.’ Tar Sands AlbertaTar Sands Development in Alberta, Canada. Image: Chris Kolaczan


Environmental issues have formed a major part of the argument against these proposed plans. Obama has consistently maintained throughout his presidency that he will not approve the project if research prior to its construction found it to ‘significantly exacerbate’ carbon-dioxide emissions.

Environmental campaigners have turned this project from a low-key infrastructure development into a national issue – using it almost as a ‘litmus paper test’ for Barack Obama’s promises to tackle climate change proactively. The Obama administration has previously vowed to cut US greenhouse gas emissions 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 as part of a concerted effort to combat global warming.

Today’s decision has been seen as an important milestone in the fight against climate change – one estimate from Maximillion Auffhammer purports that not approving the pipeline could leave as many as one billion barrels of Canadian tar sands oil in the ground by 2030.

‘This veto tells the world that our nation takes seriously the crisis of global warming, and that we will not support legislation that would let a Canadian oil company ship some of the dirtiest oil on the planet across the United States,’ stated Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, a vehement critic of the plans. ‘Climate change is real, it is caused by human activity and it is already causing devastating problems. Our job now is to aggressively transform our energy system away from fossil fuels into energy efficiency and sustainable energy.’

Most environmentalists see this desire to expand Canada’s tar sands industry as a dangerous one – coming at a time when they argue the world should be focusing on leaving much of its existing fossil fuels underground and focus more on implementing cleaner, renewable energy sources in order to avoid drastic climate change.

‘Hopefully the ongoing legislative charade has strengthened his commitment to do the right thing,’ said Bill McKibben, a founder of the group 350.org, which has led the campaign to urge Mr. Obama to reject the pipeline. Keystone ProtestProtesters of the Keystone XL Pipeline hold a banner in front of the White House. Image: Rena Schild


So far, the information regarding the overall impacts of the project have felt somewhat confused. The majority of energy policy experts are of the opinion that the project will have minimal impact environmentally or on jobs. A 2014, eleven-page State Department analysis, for instance, concluded that the project would have minimal impact upon the US’ contribution to climate change – the tar sands are almost certain to be developed in future regardless of the building of this pipeline, and so ultimately the method of transportation is likely to have negligible impact on carbon dioxide emissions.

This is the main basis, seemingly, of the arguments for supporters of the project. Most argue that the pipeline is preferable to using rail, the typical method of transportation currently used, which has suffered a number of high-profile crashes and derailments with extremely damaging effects in the past few years. Rail is also a much more expensive method or transportation.

This is disputed by those against the pipeline that argue that there are key logistical features that limit the growth of rail in Western Canada, while there is likely to be increased regulations on train safety given the high-profile crashes that have seemingly plagued the oil transportation method over the past few years – potentially making it an uneconomically viable option.

Lac-Mégantic rail disasterImage of the remnants of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster (Canada), where an oil train derailed and the subsequent explosion killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings. Image: Meunierd

Moreover, the pipeline’s supporters insist it will have economic benefits (the project is forecasted to have a value of contributing around $3.4billion to the US economy) and increase US energy security by increasing its energy supply from a friendly neighbour.

Over the past decade, the Canadian government has worked in partnership with oil companies to extract oil from the region’s tar sands, but it is finding it increasingly difficult to ship all that oil to refineries that would be able to convert it into usable fuel. It was hoped that this pipeline would reduce that pressure, and so the Canadian Government has vehemently supported this project. There are fears amongst the project’s supporters that this veto will thus strain relations between the two nations.

Opponents to the project, however, argue that the economic benefits are negligible when considered in the long term and will contribute, environmentally, to ecological destruction and climate change. They cite the findings of the EPA and the State Department, which have both asserted that the methods of extracting oil in this manner adds to greenhouse gases (the State Department claims that ‘oil extracted from the Canadian oil sands produced about 17 per cent more carbon pollution than conventionally extracted oil’).

Indeed some forecasts are so bad that they present the proposal as a pivotal moment in the Earth's history – NASA scientist James Hansen warned that burning every last drop of oil in the vast oil sands would mean ‘game over’ for the fight against climate change.

There has also been some debate over the economic benefits that this pipeline will really have – with the projected number of jobs created by this proposal fluctuating wildly depending on the source. The US State Department estimated that the project would create 42,000 jobs over its two-year construction, Obama, in July 2014, stated just a third of that number would be created in reality, with a mere 50–100 employees needed once the project was running. Meanwhile, the companies proposing the pipeline project argued that it would created up to 50,000 jobs in the construction industry alone.

Barack ObamaPresident Barack Obama. Image: American Spirit


By rejecting the legislation through veto, the President has not cancelled the project outright – rather he has overturned the decision of the senate (which voted 62 to 36 in favour of constructing the pipeline) to approve the motion to give himself the right to make a final judgement when or if he sees fit, although most on both sides expect this is a prelude to full rejection of the plan.

Not that those in support of the project have given up hope. TransCanada, the company proposing the pipeline, said it ‘remains fully committed’ to its construction, and the Canadian government said that, despite this setback, it believes that construction is not a matter of if, but when. US Republicans have also already announced their intentions to attempt to push through these plans, utilising public opinion (which stood at 66 per cent in favour according to one 2013 poll) later in 2015 as part of larger bills upon which there is likely to be more public pressure on the President not to reject.

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