The Cost of Cutting Keystone

McHenry Lee, JHU:

Last Friday, President Obama officially rejected the Keystone pipeline. His announcement ended a seven-year saga that became symbolic of a philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats on energy policy. Critics of the project lambasted it for its potential negative environmental consequences as well as not addressing the American reliance on fossil fuels. On the other hand, proponents of the project cited it as a clear source of economic growth and job creation while also limiting American dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Specifically, the President cited the partisan nature of the pipeline as one of the reasons for his rejection, saying, “It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.”

However, this was not the sole reason Obama vetoed the project. The President went on to say, “The project would not have lowered gas prices, improved energy security or made a meaningful long-term contribution to the economy.” In this regard, the President was correct. The Keystone pipeline by itself would not have been a fix-all solution for the economic woes of the United States, nor would it have significantly reduced American dependence of foreign oil. It was, however, emblematic of an ongoing effort to modernize America’s outdated energy infrastructure.

President Obama and many Democrats in Congress have made developing infrastructure a tenet of their platform. In this regard, the Keystone pipeline represented a privately funded, shovel-ready project that would have helped modernize the country’s crumbling energy infrastructure. Projects like Keystone are essential if the United Sates intends to be fully committed to the current energy boom, as the Obama administration in the past has said they do. This is because the volume of Canadian Oil and American natural gas being shipped throughout American train tracks and highways is only going to increase in the near future, especially with the rejection of Keystone. These methods of transportation are exponentially more dangerous than pipelines, as made clear by 2013 Lac-Megantic Rail disaster. Since then, there have been several more train derailments and the potential for these disasters is only going to increase in the near future. By rejecting the pipeline, the Obama administration will ensure that crude oil and natural gas will continue to be shipped via these dangerous measures indefinitely.

For these reasons, the State Department actually asserted that the Keystone project would reduce CO2 emissions because it reduces the amount of oil and gas transported by trucks and rail, a method that is both more hazardous and emits more carbon than pipelines. Therefore, by building more pipelines and reducing the dependence on costly and dangerous rail, energy transportation could be modernized, safer, and more carbon efficient.

One of the main arguments that environmentalists used against the pipeline was that it ran directly through the Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest, thus any potential spill would contaminate the drinking water of thousands of Americans. Although this seems like a reasonable risk, the same independent State Department report said that the pipeline actually poses little to no threat to the Ogallala aquifer. Current regulations ensure that TransCanada would have to put in enough protections to ensure that no major leak would occur. Even if one did, the characteristics of the aquifer ensure that no spilled oil would spread and contaminate the aquifer itself, mainly due to the fact that the aquifer is positioned far enough underground.

The timing of the announcement coincides with the upcoming global warming talks in Paris. President Obama has said that the United States needs to take a leadership role on climate issues, and supporting the pipeline would have “undercut that global leadership.” Unambiguously the President is trying to set a higher standard for developing economies, like China, which emit carbon at much higher rates than their developed counterparts. Although this is a noble goal, rejecting Keystone is not the proper way to go about it. As previously stated, Keystone is actually a safer and greener alternative to the current methods of crude oil transportation. Its rejection sends the message that political posturing on climate issues is actually more important than realistic action.

Climate activists saw the Keystone project as deepening America’s dependence on fossil fuels. However, no viable alternative to oil and natural gas is close to being realistically implemented on a national level. This means that our society still depends on fossil fuels, whether we like it or not. Because of this, the rejection of Keystone will have no impact whatsoever on the rate at which oil sands and natural gas are extracted from the ground and shipped to refineries throughout the United States. Symbolically rejecting the project just keeps American infrastructure outdated, unsafe and does not provide any realistic alternative to developing nations whose dependence on fossil fuels is only going to grow. The only solution to solving the fossil fuel issue is to find a realistic and viable alternative to oil and natural gas, not to attempt to ban these forms of energy.

By rejecting Keystone on environmental grounds, President Obama is putting politics and symbolism ahead of realistic climate policy. Canadian and American companies show no intentions of slowing down energy production, and by not providing safer means of transportation, the administration is only endangering the environment that the President is so passionate to protect. The benefits of Keystone are clear and tangible while the environmental symbolism of rejecting the pipeline is solely political posturing.



  1. The pipeline would have cemented our dependence on an outdated energy resource. The fact of the matter is that with the right policies, the transition towards electrified transportation could be a rapid one, and one that would dramatically reduce our need for any oil or gas resources. Though the policies do not look too promising, the construction of the keystone pipeline would have dismissed any near-future opportunity of electrifying transportation, a transition that would benefit and promote the wide-scale implementation of distributed renewable energy systems. In order to stay below the two degree benchmark, a swift transition away from conventional oil-based transportation is imperative, and the construction this pipeline would have made this impossible.


  2. The issue here is less about your broader point, though it’s obscured by a clunky first paragraph. Rather, it’s that your writing lacks simplicity and stylistic sophistication. I would argue that it’s an attempt to mask a deep insecurity about your writing style, which is why you create unnecessarily ornate sentences. If you need a decent reference for good writing, visit:


  3. This is a wildly uninformed article. Citing the Washington Post is one thing; however if you refer to the actual State Department study, the EPA clearly states that, “Final SEIS states that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from developement and use of oil sands crude is about 17% greater than the emissions from average crude oil refined in the IS on a well to wheels basis. On this subject there is no dissagreement … its use will significantly contribute to carbon pollution.” I’m not sure if you actually read the study you are exclusively relying upon to support your claims.

    Also here are some factual scientific articles that completely contradict the ‘Facts’ used in this article.

    This article disregards the majority of scientific evidence on the subject. This is not a partisan issue, it is one of common sense. Use factual evidence to support your claims.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Although the Stockholm study conflicted with findings in the state department study, the scientific consensus on the issue of oil sands is far from set in stone. No one is denying that this form of Canadian crude oil is harmful for the environment, but the whole point of this article was that companies like TransCanada are going to drill and ship oil whether the pipeline was built or not. Given that rail and highway transportation are the only means of shipping the oil if no pipelines are built, I argued that President Obama had a duty to the American people to not expose them to the risk of potentially disastrous derailments, like the one that happened in Canada. By not building Keystone, we are inviting the potential for a Lac-Megantic rail disaster to happen here, which could cause irreparable damage to the local environment like it did in Quebec.

    The Stockholm research was also questioned by many outside groups who saw their analysis of oil supply and demand as questionable, with Ben Brockwell of the Oil Price information service, an organization specializing in petroleum supply and demand, saying “For one thing, people are more environmentally aware then they used to be, and there is no guarantee that lower oil prices would necessarily increase consumption in the way they used to, he said. Keystone XL is largely “irrelevant,” because of the bigger pressures affecting oil prices, such as fuel economy standards, he said.” The Stockholm study assumes that an increase in supply will increase demand, which Brockwell says isn’t necessarily true, and was one of the tenets of my article.

    The State Department study actually cited the Stockholm report in its findings, which was mentioned in this article that you cited


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