The next chapter in the Keystone XL pipeline saga has now begun. In January, President Obama rejected the first proposal from TransCanada, the pipeline company, on grounds that there was not enough time for a thorough environmental review of the project, which would carry crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast.
TransCanada recently filed a new application with the State Department, with alternative routes designed to avoid Nebraska’s Sand Hills region, an environmentally sensitive area that is at risk from potential pipeline leaks.
The department, which has jurisdiction over the project because the pipeline crosses an international boundary, must give the new application the most rigorous environmental review. It did a slipshod job on the company’s first proposal in 2010, brushing over some serious risks to the aquifer beneath the original route, as well as other environmental problems.
It is far from clear whether one of the new routes proposed by TransCanada would involve less potential damage in the case of a pipeline spill. And a route change does not alter other fundamental concerns. There has never been any doubt that extracting oil from tar sands is a dirty, energy-intensive process that damages landscapes, including huge swaths of Canada’s forests, and produces more greenhouse gases than conventional oil extraction.
The benefits, if any, would be minimal. The pipeline would produce at most a few thousand temporary construction jobs — 6,000 according to State Department estimates. The project would do little to reduce gas prices or American dependence on foreign oil, because most of the oil carried through the Keystone XL would be for export.