Striking Oil: Why the Keystone Pipeline Is So Controversial

The Keystone Pipeline is one of the most talked-about environmental and human rights issues in Canada today. Here's what you need to know.
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Striking Oil: Why the Keystone Pipeline Is So Controversial

The Keystone Pipeline is one of the most talked-about environmental and human rights issues in Canada today. Here's what you need to know.
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THE BACKGROUND

It’s long been said that history repeats itself.

Back in the 1950s, the TransCanada Corp. completed Canada’s longest pipeline (a.k.a. the TransCanada Mainline) carrying natural gas from Alberta to Quebec, amidst much political controversy that pitched Liberals against Progressive Conservatives, just like the Keystone Pipeline does today.

But before we dive into the Keystone Pipeline (and because we often get confused ourselves), let’s take a look at the major pipelines that currently exist in Canada:

• Enbridge Mainline

This pipeline was built in 1950, at which point, it ran from Alberta through Manitoba, North Dakota and Minnesota before reaching its final destination in Wisconsin. In 1953, it was extended to Sarnia, Ont. It was extended again in the 1990s.

• Trans Mountain Pipeline

The Trans Mountain Pipeline has been in operation since 1953, running oil from Alberta to B.C. The pipeline is often referred to as the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, after Kinder Morgan Energy Partners purchased the pipeline in 2005 with plans to expand. But in 2018, with construction on the expansion basically at a standstill, the federal government purchased the pipeline from Kinder Morgan (along with its controversial expansion plans: the “Trans Mountain Expansion Project”) for $4.5 billion and created a new “Trans Mountain Corporation,” which is accountable to the Parliament of Canada.

• Keystone Pipeline

Now owned by the TransCanada Corp. (misery loves company), the Keystone pipeline, which stretches from Alberta all the way down to Texas, is awaiting approval for the final stretch (phase 4), but keeps getting blocked by the courts. The controversies are endless: from conflicts of interest to diplomatic tensions, conflicting public opinion to Indigenous concerns, it’s a surprise that construction has progressed at all. Currently, the portions that are completed cover the route from Alberta down into the Houston, Texas area. Phase 4, which comprises the “XL” portion of the name “Keystone XL,” would extend the pipeline with 526 new kilometres in Canada and 1,371 in the U.S. (It’s a big one!)

OIL IN WILD ROSE COUNTRY

Alberta, Canada’s oil mogul, has been pushing for the completion of the Keystone Pipeline despite the controversies, which isn’t much of a surprise since oil is the backbone of Alberta’s economy. As of 2006, more than $100 billion was invested in the Alberta oil sands projects, and the province is the second-largest exporter of natural gas in the world. It’s safe to say that anything and everything pro-petroleum is in its best interest, even if it’s not in everybody else’s.

Which isn’t to say that everything has been perfect for Alberta’s oil industry. It’s recently faced setbacks, such as the blocked construction of Phase 4 of the Keystone XL pipeline, that have forced the province to sell oil at a “deep discount” that energy minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd and Premier Rachel Notley are none too pleased about. (Montana Judge Brian Morris ruled Nov. 8 to block the pipeline’s progression citing inadequate environmental safety surveillances and proposed measures. Go green or go home, friends.)

In short, more oil delivered to more places means more money, and more money means happy Albertans.

PUMP, PUMP, PUMP IT UP

So why so much plumbing? And why can’t Alberta sell its oil refined?

Given that Canada already has the TransCanada pipeline delivering oil from Alberta to Quebec, with 13 smaller pipelines in between and our rail system as a backup, building even more pipelines seems a little excessive, considering, you know, all the damage. (More on that later.)

When we talk about pipeline vs. rail, we’re really talking about ease, cost, and public safety. (Environmental impacts don’t tend to factor into this part of the conversation as much.) In both cases, accidents can and do happen. Neither method is foolproof.

A 10-year study conducted by the Fraser Institute revealed that accidents are 4.5 times more likely to occur when transporting oil by rail than by pipeline — a scary thought when you consider that trains transporting oil are also called “bomb trains.” Shipping oil by rail is definitely cheaper financially, but the health and safety consequences outweigh the cost; train derailments can wipe out entire towns in their explosive aftermath, and the greenhouse gases and diesel emissions alone, even when the ride goes well, are twice the cost of oil train derailments. (Pause for mild panic attack.)

Pipeline protests get more press, but it’s for the above reasons that quiet protests against oil transport by rail have been consistent and ongoing.

Most of that transport is dealing with crude oil. The fact of the matter is that when weighing demand for crude vs. refined oil against the cost of refinery processing units, Canada is getting more bang for its buck selling crude. However, we do export more refined oil products than we import, as of the end of 2017. It’s just not in our economic interest to refine our oil for home use.

A SLIPPERY SITUATION

We’d be sprouting grey hairs by the time we finished covering all of the issues that underline the Keystone construction and phase 4 proposal, so we’ll just stick to the most recent and critical. Just this past week, a pipeline off the coast of Newfoundland leaked an estimated 250,000 litres of crude oil into the Atlantic. (Just when we thought snowstorms were the worst of that province’s problems. 🙄) The cause of the spill is still being investigated, but the current storm is preventing any clean-up from happening and the leak has not been contained. Husky Energy has deployed tracker buoys to follow the spill’s progress (insert slow clap here), but until the seven-metre swells subside to at least four, responders can’t even confirm whether or not the pipeline is still leaking. (Well, f**k.)

And so marks the start of the worst oil spill in Newfoundland’s history.

It’s not the first Canadian oil spill, and chances are it won’t be the last. Before this White Rose Field spill, 2.3 tonnes of crude oil spilled into Vancouver’s English Bay in 2015, which Vancouver is still recovering from. (That’s not even considering the long-term environmental and animal welfare costs.) And let’s not forget the actual Keystone Pipeline spill back in 2016 when 55 tonnes (407,000 gallons, to put it in perspective) leaked onto farmland in South Dakota, not to mention the fact that pipeline-based accidents have steadily risen in Canada alone in the last year.

But we digress.

That’s just oil spills. We haven’t even touched on the Indigenous rights violations that have underscored many of the pipeline protests. Many of Canada’s 14 pipelines run or are planned to run straight through reserve land, and the Indigenous communities that have signed their support for various pipeline projects have done so only in the face of “crushing poverty” with a promised payout that could reduce their hardship — but only to a limited degree.

The good news? The pipeline debates have shown that economic views are shifting towards a more pro-environmental standpointAs was seen with Judge Morris’s recent ruling, environmental concerns are overruling political propaganda and certain economic agendas, especially as it pertains to pipeline construction. (Two green thumbs up.)

HERE’S THE DEAL

All this to say that the pipeline issue has been a long one, but attitudes, they are a-changing. With a green mindset at the forefront for both Canadian and American big thinkers (and voters, ahem), it’s a lot harder to get people to simply sign on the dotted line in exchange for a little mint. With Environment Canada reporting chemical seepage in the ground surrounding the Alberta oil sands and Athabasca River last year, and last week’s massive Newfoundland ocean spill, we doubt there’s going to be any Keystone XL construction anytime soon. (Put that in your pipe…)


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