The Keystone Pipeline and the Arkansas Leak

This image of Oil Barrels courtesy of Victor Habbick at

We are all still waiting for President Obama to make a decision about the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from the Tar Sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. The President has been under intense pressure, because environmentalists believe that this is their best opportunity to win a victory against global warming. Their case probably just became politically stronger this week when an Exxon Mobile pipeline in Arkansas leaked Albertan oil. This is the second spill of Oil Sands petroleum this week, because on Wednesday a train derailed in Minnesota and also released oil, although far less than the 10,000 barrels spilled in Arkansas. Given the fact that the Keystone pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels a day -much more than the pipeline that just leaked- it’s clear that the Keystone XL pipeline presents significant environmental risks, despite promises by the petroleum industry that this will be the safest pipeline ever built.

The GOP pushed Obama to approve Keystone in their weekly radio address, with the argument that Keystone would create 140,000 jobs. In fact, this number is much too high, and there is no credible evidence to support this figure. Indeed, the State Department recently stated that once the pipeline is built, it will only create 35 permanent jobs in the U.S. Still, such arguments have gained the pipeline critical support. A recent poll found that most Americans support the pipeline, and believe that it can be built in an environmentally sound manner. Other groups -in particular native peoples- are much more skeptical. Recently an alliance of U.S. and Canadian indigenous groups promised to unite to block not only Keystone, but also two other pipelines that are intended to bring Oil Sands petroleum to market.

In the end, the key issue for environmentalists cannot be the risk of a leak, although this is real, but rather the pipelines’ impact on carbon dioxide emissions, given that oil from Oil Sands takes more energy to process than traditional petroleum sources. And in the background, there is Venezuela, with its huge reserves of unconventional oil. I enjoy reading posts at a website, The Oil Drum, which is a venue for people who believe in Hubbert’s Peak; that is, that the world has reached the half-way mark in its production of fossil fuels, an event which will determine the planet’s future. It’s a great source for energy news and analysis, but I don’t agree with the central premise. I don’t think the question is when will we run out of oil, but rather how dirty will oil have to become before we stop using it. In this debate, the Keystone XL pipeline will be a key decision. Events in Arkansas this week may help to shape that outcome.

Prof. Shawn Smallman


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