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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Pipeline Primer

The Keystone XL project: We examine the facts about jobs, spills, climate change and gasoline prices.


After more than five years of claims and counter-claims about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama is expected to make his final decision soon. So we thought it was a good time to sift through the disinformation and lay out some basic facts.

  • Building the pipeline will create jobs in the U.S., but not as many as supporters have claimed, and only for a year or two. The U.S. State Department estimates that 42,100 jobs would be added during construction, but that only 50 workers would be required to operate the pipeline.
  • Oil from Canadian bitumen deposits — which the Keystone would carry from Alberta to the U.S. for refining — results in 14 percent to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than oil typically consumed in the U.S. at present.
  • But that doesn’t mean that stopping the pipeline would prevent Canadians from extracting their crude and getting it to market to be burned, either in the U.S. or other countries. “Such a change is not likely to occur,” State concluded.
  • In fact, much of that oil is reaching the U.S. already — by rail — and more tank-car capacity is being added quickly. Canadians also are proposing two other pipelines to tanker ports on the Pacific coast, and a third project to nearly double the effective capacity of an existing line to the U.S.
  • Pipelines are dangerous, but tanker cars are more so. Rail accidents spilled more oil in the U.S. last year than in all the previous years on record combined. And in Canada, 47 people died in one fiery tanker-train disaster in Quebec last year.


The pipeline would be built by TransCanada Corp. and would run 1,179 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb., where it would connect with existing pipelines to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The U.S. segment would be 875 miles long, running through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The 36-inch diameter line could carry up to 830,000 barrels (nearly 35 million gallons) of oil per day.

Because it would cross the U.S.-Canadian border, it would require a finding by the Obama administration that building it is in the national interest. The State Department, after lengthy review, submitted its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Jan. 31, and said it would receive public comments until March 7. No date has been announced for a final decision.

The debate over the project has pitted environmentalists — who hope to block the project on grounds that it would worsen global warming and result in hazardous oil spills — against the president’s critics on the right — who say he should have approved it long ago to create jobs and lessen U.S. dependence on oil from less friendly countries.


Any big construction project requires workers to build it. How many? The U.S. State Department’s analysis says 3,900 would be employed directly if the job is done in one year, or 1,950 per year if work is spread over two. TransCanada Corp. puts the number higher, saying the project would support 9,000 construction jobs directly.

There would be additional, “indirect” work for companies supplying goods and services, including concrete, fuel, surveying, welding materials and earth-moving equipment required for the project, and “induced” jobs resulting from money spent by workers and suppliers, such as ranchers providing beef for restaurants and construction camps. Counting up everything, the State Department estimates a total of 42,100 jobs could be created. TransCanada has accepted the 42,100 figure for total employment.

Whatever the number, these jobs are temporary, lasting only for the year or two that it would take to complete the project. The number of permanent jobs is much lower. “The proposed Project would generate approximately 50 jobs during operations,” according to State’s analysis.

House Republicans are still claiming the project would create 120,000 jobs. But that’s based on outdated information. The House Energy Committee’s GOP majority website extrapolates from figures given by TransCanada two years ago — for a much longer pipeline than is now proposed.

That was before President Obama initially rejected the original Canada-to-Texas project pending changes in the route. Since then, TransCanada has completed a 485-mile segment of the original project — running from Cushing, Okla., to refineries in Texas — which did not require presidential approval because it did not cross an international border. Now named the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project,” construction began in August 2012 and was completed this year. It went into operation on Jan. 22.

The current Keystone XL project includes 875 miles within the U.S. And, as noted, even TransCanada says it would create about 42,000 temporary jobs, not 120,000.


Critics of the pipeline are fond of saying it would carry “the dirtiest oil on the planet,” and there is no question that the oil is significantly “dirtier” than most in the sense that it results in more greenhouse gas emissions.

It comes from Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan, in what the industry calls “oil sands” and environmentalist critics call “tar sands.” By either name, they are vast deposits of bitumen — a form of petroleum so dense that at a temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit it is “hard as a hockey puck,” according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. It must be heated or diluted to be made to flow through pipes.

The bitumen is found mixed with sand and clay. Extracting it requires a good deal of energy — either through open-pit mining from surface deposits or by injecting steam into deeper, “in situ” (in place) sites. Refining it into useful fuels also requires more energy — and hence more emissions — than lighter forms of petroleum.

How much “dirtier” is it? The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service surveyed published scientific literature on the subject, and those studies found variously that getting Canadian bitumen produced and processed into fuel produces between 70 percent and 110 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the weighted average of transportation fuels now used in the U.S. That’s what’s called a “well-to-tank” figure, the measure preferred by critics.

However, once it is in the tank, gasoline or diesel fuel that comes from Canadian bitumen is no different than fuel from any other form of petroleum. And burning the fuel in car and truck engines produces a lot more emissions than producing it and getting it to the pump.

So over the entire “life cycle” of a fuel — from in the ground to out the tailpipe — burning a gallon of fuel from the Canadian oil results in 14 percent to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions, on average, than burning a gallon of currently available fuel, according to the CRS study. That’s called a “well to wheel” figure. The State Department’s final environmental report put the well-to-wheel figure at 17 percent — squarely in the middle of the published studies surveyed by CRS.

CRS estimated that oil flowing through the Keystone pipeline would result in an increase in U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases equivalent to adding somewhere between 770,800 and 4.3 million passenger vehicles. But whether that would mean any increase at all in global emissions “remains uncertain,” CRS said. And the State Department said “such a change is not likely to occur.”

State said Canadian oil will probably end up being produced and burned anyway, even if the Keystone is not built. It said new data and analysis indicate that “rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if new pipelines are delayed or not.”

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency officially questioned a similar conclusion contained in an earlier draft of the report, and said State should “provide a more careful review of the market analysis” that supported it. State did so, conducting economic modeling of 16 different sets of supply-demand assumptions and pipeline constraints, which it said showed that “cross-border pipeline constraints have a limited impact on crude flows and prices.”

And meanwhile, more and more Canadian oil is already coming to the U.S. in tanker cars, just as State predicted.


Railroad Tank Cars: A substantial amount of Canadian oil is already entering the U.S. by rail, in tank cars, and the amount carried this way is rising sharply. No White House approval is required.

Figure ES-6

Rail shipments have skyrocketed since the time the White House rejected the original Keystone route, when the shipments were less than 20,000 barrels per day. The State Department’s final environmental report estimated that 180,000 barrels per day were already being transported by rail from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, amounting to nearly 22 percent of the volume that the Keystone could carry (830,000 barrels per day). And the industry is adding new rail capacity rapidly.

For example, on Dec. 20, plans for a new loading facility in Edmonton (Alberta’s capital) were announced. It is projected to be in operation by the end of 2014, with an eventual capacity to load 250,000 barrels per day for shipment to North American refineries. Another new rail terminal is planned for Hardisty (where the Keystone pipeline would originate) with a capacity of 140,000 barrels per day, to begin operations early this year. The international information company IHS estimates that as much as 450,000 barrels per day could be moving by rail by the end of 2014, according to CNBC.

Other Pipelines: Besides the Keystone, three other pipeline projects are being proposed to carry Alberta crude oil to market. Two would carry it across the mountains of British Columbia to ports on Canada’s Pacific coast, to be loaded on tankers and shipped mostly to China and other Asian markets (and with some going to California), while a third would nearly double the effective capacity of an existing line to the U.S. 

Kinder Morgan proposes to nearly triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain Pipeline to carry an additional 690,000 barrels per day. The company filed its formal application with Canada’s National Energy Board on Dec. 16, and says that if approved the expanded pipeline could be operational by late 2017. The project faces a long review, but the company says 73 percent of the expansion would be built on existing right-of-way.

Opinion in British Columbia is narrowly divided. A Jan. 22 poll by the Canadian polling company Insights West found that 48 percent said they favored the project, while 43 percent said they opposed it. The poll also showed that support has grown since another poll the previous year, when the pipeline proposal was in a preliminary phase. Insights West said that between the two polls, those favoring the project jumped by 10 percentage points, while those opposing it dropped by 14 points.

Enbridge Inc. proposes to construct an entirely new Northern Gateway pipeline to carry 525,000 barrels per day to the coast, and it has already cleared a major regulatory hurdle. A review panel of Canada’s regulators recommended approval of the project on Dec. 19, finding that it would be “in the public interest” provided that Enbridge complied with 209 conditions, which Enbridge says it is “working hard” to meet. Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, says the government will make its final decision by mid-June.

A Jan. 25 poll conducted for a Canadian news agency found the country’s public more likely to support the project (38 percent) than to oppose it (29 percent). And in British Columbia, a Jan. 5 survey by the polling company Ipsos showed 48 percent of British Columbia residents supported the project, while 32 percent opposed.

That could change, of course. A later poll commissioned by environmental groups found that 64 percent of British Columbia residents opposed “allowing crude oil supertankers through B.C.’s northern inside coastal waters” to load oil carried by the proposed pipeline. But the same poll found that 64 percent also said they “believe Enbridge will succeed in building its pipelines and tanker proposal,” while only 12 percent thought it would fail.

Enbridge also proposed March 3 to lay new and larger pipe along its 46-year-old “Line 3” cross-border pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisc. The company said this would have the effect of “restoring” the line’s effective capacity to 760,000 barrels per day from its current operating limit of 390,000.

The company said this would not require a new presidential permit, prompting an objection from the Sierra Club. Enbridge said the $7 billion project would be the largest in its history, and that it hopes to have it completed by 2017.


Pipelines can be hazardous. An average of 97,376 barrels (4.1 million gallons) of petroleum and other “hazardous liquids” have been spilled each year in pipeline incidents over the last decade, according to the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. These incidents have claimed an average of two lives per year, and resulted in more than $263 million in annual reported property damage as well.

Those figures include the most expensive onshore oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, caused when 30-inch pipe operated by Enbridge ruptured on July 26, 2010, near Marshall, Mich. That dumped more than 1 million gallons of Canadian diluted bitumen — the same material that would be carried in the proposed 36-inch Keystone pipeline — into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge is still struggling to complete the cleanup, having failed to meet a Dec. 31 Environmental Protection Agency deadline for dredging remaining oil residue that settled on the bottom of the river. Although Enbridge initially put the spill at about 840,000 gallons, the EPA said last year that 1.15 million gallons had been recovered and 350,000 cubic yards of contaminated river sediment remained to be recovered. Enbridge said in August 2013 that it had spent more than $1 billion on the cleanup and remediation to date, and the figure continues to rise.

A spill from the Keystone could potentially have similar effects. The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, in its final evaluation report on the project, found that the properties of the diluted forms of bitumen that would flow through the state in the Keystone pipeline “are similar in many respects to other heavy sour crude oils.” For what it’s worth, TransCanada says it plans to make the Keystone “the safest pipeline ever constructed in the U.S.,” adding more remote shut-off valves and inspections and burying the pipe more deeply than with other pipelines.

Quebec Oil Train Disaster
Quebec Oil Train Disaster

Rail transport is even more hazardous than pipelines, however. Last July, 47 people died in a single disaster when an unattended train including 72 tanker cars loaded with crude oil rolled downhill, exploded and burned in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec province. Forty buildings were demolished, and an estimated 5.6 million liters (1.5 million gallons) of crude oil spilled or burned.

And that calamity is by no means an isolated incident.

The tempo of oil-train accidents has increased along with the sharp rise in tanker shipments, as has the amount of oil discharged. Soon after the Casselton spill, an investigative news report by the McClatchy news agency concluded, based on federal data, that last year more oil spilled in the U.S. from rail tank cars than in all the nearly 40 previous years on record combined.

The incidents continue. On Feb. 13, several cars of a train carrying heavy Canadian crude derailed in Western Pennsylvania. This time only a few thousand gallons leaked out, and there was no fire or explosion.

But later that month, on Feb. 26, a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board, Robert L. Sumwalt, told a congressional hearing that incidents such as the Casselton explosion have become an “increasingly commonplace story.” He said continued use of tanker cars built to meet current federal standards poses “an unacceptable public risk.”  Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads is pressing the federal government to impose “more rigorous standards for tank cars carrying flammable liquids, including asking for retrofitting tank cars to meet the higher standards or phasing those that cannot be made safer.”

Based on relative safety records to date, the State Department estimated that an average of six deaths per year would result if the Keystone isn’t built and the same amount of oil is shipped by rail instead. More than twice as much oil is likely to be spilled as well, State estimated.

Gasoline Prices

Some proponents have claimed the Keystone project would hold down gasoline prices for U.S. motorists, while foes have claimed that it would do the opposite, at least for Midwestern motorists. We find that neither claim is valid.

The State Department’s analysis concluded that either way, the Keystone project would have “little impact on the prices that U.S. consumers pay for refined products such as gasoline.” That’s because Gulf Coast refineries that process heavy crude could continue to get it from Venezuela or the Middle East, as they do now, if they can’t get it from Canada, the report said. And even if the Keystone isn’t built, Canadian crude still “could reach U.S. and Canadian refineries by rail.”

Other independent experts have said essentially the same thing. Curt Launer, a managing director at Deutsche Bank, has been quoted as saying, “Keystone wouldn’t have a significant impact either way on overall North American energy prices.” Another expert, Morningstar analyst David McColl, was quoted in the same article saying the Keystone would have “no material impact” on gasoline or diesel prices. And even TransCanada doesn’t include lower gasoline prices in its list of the “economic benefits” it claims would result from building the pipeline.

Critics have argued, on the other hand, that Midwestern prices would actually increase, but there’s little support for that idea.

The critics have pointed to an unusual market situation in which crude oil was selling in Oklahoma — as measured by the West Texas Intermediate benchmark price — at far below the world price as measured by the North Sea Brent benchmark. That was due in part to a pipeline bottleneck at Cushing, Okla., that allowed a glut of oil to build up from booming production in the Dakotas and Canada. In 2012, the price for WTI averaged $18 per barrel less than the average world price, according to the most recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But that “discount” fell below $4 per barrel in July 2013. It rebounded to $14 per barrel in January, and EIA projected that it would average $11 per barrel for all of 2014.

But even when the discount was greater, the lower price of crude oil in the Midwest never translated into consistently lower prices at the pump. A look at EIA’s weekly figures shows that since the start of 2011 the average price of regular gasoline in the Midwest has been only 4 cents a gallon less than the national average, and has ranged anywhere from 20 cents a gallon less to 21 cents a gallon higher. Those who assumed that refiners were passing on their lower costs to consumers were simply wrong.

The State Department analysis came to the same conclusion, finding no correlation between wholesale gasoline prices in the Midwest and the average WTI discount. (See section in the “Market Analysis” section.) In a footnote (number 10), the analysis commented that the cheaper Midwestern crude oil “benefited … refiners,” not motorists.

So, while building the pipeline would undoubtedly provide consumers with some measure of insurance against supply interruptions, as would any additional supply route, there’s simply no evidence that it would have any noticeable effect on prices at the pump, either up or down.

Alleged Conflicts

Foes of the pipeline say the State Department report reflects a pro-industry bias because of an alleged conflict of interest by a firm hired to assist in its preparation. The Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth accused the consultant, Environmental Resources Management, of having ties to the oil industry and hiding a previous connection to TransCanada.

For example, “ERM and TransCanada have worked together at least since 2011 on another pipeline project in Alaska,” Friends of the Earth stated in a July 10, 2013, news release. But ERM said that was wrong. “ERM’s affiliates performed services on the Alaska Project only on behalf of a company other than TransCanada,” the company said in a July 17, 2013, letter to the State Department.

Indeed, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General investigated, and confirmed that work was done for URS Corp., which was hired by Exxon Mobil Corp. The Alaska project was a joint venture between TransCanada and ExxonMobil, but it was ExxonMobil that paid URS, which in turn paid ERM’s affiliates. The inspector general found this didn’t violate any conflict of interest rules, and cleared the department of any wrongdoing in a report released Feb. 26.

Another issue raised by critics is that ERM employees working on the Keystone evaluation had previously worked on projects for TransCanada, and one had formerly been a TransCanada employee. But the inspector general found that didn’t violate any conflict-of-interest rules. The inspector general said the department had substantially followed all regulations for vetting consultants for conflicts of interest, and at times had been even “more rigorous” than required. Overall, the inspector general found that “the Department’s conflict of interest review was effective and that the review’s conclusions were reasonable.”

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups vowed to fight on regardless of the OIG report. On March 3, several hundred people were arrested in student-led protests in Washington, D.C., where some secured themselves to the White House fence with plastic zip ties.

— by Brooks Jackson


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