Five Questions about Keystone XL that Embarrasses Obama

Five Questions about Keystone XL that Embarrasses ObamaKeystone XL will have to wait. The bill for the giant pipeline to link Alberta, Canada, to the oil lung of the United States, the Gulf Coast of Mexico, was first blocked in the Senate on Tuesday, November 18. The text adopted on Friday, November 14 by the House of Representatives did not obtain a qualified majority of 60 senators who would have forced President Obama to decide, in the case of a cross-border project.

The vote, however, was tight (59, 14 Democrats and 41 against all Democrats), since it lacked a voice to the defenders of a project strongly criticized by environmental protection associations. In recent highlight the fact that the pipeline must send the US as oil from Canadian oil sands, which is obtained by particularly polluting methods.

Desperate attempt

This legislative offensive masked actually a desperate attempt by the outgoing Democratic senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, preserve his chances of re-election in the second round scheduled for December 6. President until the beginning of January of the Senate Committee in charge of Energy and Natural Resources, Mary Landrieu supported longstanding pipeline project.

By getting the head of the outgoing Democratic majority of the Senate, Harry Reid, the green light to put the text to voice, hoped to rally enough Democrats to pass it and attract votes remaining to push the Republican Bill Cassidy won on November 4 (he had not, however, received an absolute majority needed for Louisiana to be elected in the first round).

Obama veto

Torn between principled opposition and the temptation to help Senator in a struggle for which a favorite is not given, the Democrats finally chose to block a project that Republicans now wanted to place their top priorities with when they took control of the Senate (after that of the House of Representatives), during the Parliament elections.

A favorable vote of the Senate does not currently allow the missing part of the project (the section from Nebraska in Canada) to the day when President Obama vetoes it. The White House expected a notice in the State Department on the relevance of the project before deciding. The pipeline route is also the subject of an appeal to the Supreme Court of Nebraska, who could decide before the end of the year.

It is the bane of American environmentalists that creates embarrassment for the White House. The building of the pipeline will allow to route every week millions of barrels of oil sands from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. But the project raises economic and environmental issues. The matter should be decided upon within the shortest time frame, since Barack Obama has pressed Republicans.

What is Keystone XL?

Keystone XL (KXL) is a giant oil pipeline between Canada and the United States, launched in 2008 and supported by the TransCanada consortium. At a cost of $5.3 billion (€4 billion), it aims to deliver 830,000 barrels per day of crude extracted from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in the Texas Gulf Coast.

Its layout, with a length of about 1900 km, including 1,400 km over the US, will connect Hardisty (Alberta) to Steele City (Nebraska) with connections to other existing or planned pipelines. The goal is to shorten by half the current route of the Keystone pipeline between Alberta since 2010 to oil terminals in Illinois. TransCanada expects quick approval from Barack Obama to put the pipeline in 2015.

What risks does it pose to the environment?

In the initial layout, the portion between Alberta and Nebraska was criticized by opponents of the project, who warned against the risk of leakage of oil to the nature reserves of Sand Hills fragile ecosystems. Opponents point out that the original pipeline, Keystone, had a dozen leaks in its first year of operation, nearly 80,000 liters in North Dakota.

This is what led Barack Obama in January 2012 to reject the permit application and request an environmental impact study. Since TransCanada revised its copy and proposed a new route presented as more environmentally friendly and avoiding the problematic area.

Environmentalists criticize consistently the risk of groundwater pollution in case of leakage but also the origin of the supplied oil. The oil sands of Alberta, these viscous and heavy unconventional oil pockets, require more energy extraction and water-intensive than conventional oil.

Above all, it generates a large volume of greenhouse gases. The government of Stephen Harper itself has acknowledged, in a document submitted to the UN in December, the percentage distribution emissions to rise over the next few years, driven by Alberta, which has seen an increase in emissions of CO2 by 40% between 2005 and 2030. On Monday, February 3, a Canadian study published in the American PNAS concluded that surface mining oil sands of Athabasca (Alberta) would be two to three times more polluting and risky for environment and human health initially estimated. At issue: the emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) emitted into the atmosphere by the extraction of bitumen and on evaporation settling ponds.

What are the economic benefits?

Carrying 830,000 barrels of crude per day, Keystone XL would, according to the group, reduce US energy dependence from 40% on Venezuela and the Middle East. The opponents, themselves, argue that Keystone will have no impact on the energy independence of the United States because the majority of oil delivered to refineries will actually be exported to Europe and Latin America.

Reaching agreement on Keystone XL also sparks debate regarding its impact on the labor market. TransCanada believes it will create about 40,000 direct and indirect jobs and generate more than $2 billion (€1.5 billion) in revenue. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that the project will create 35 permanent maintenance jobs and deprive the green energy sector of thousands of jobs that could be created.

A position supported by Barack Obama, speaking in an interview to the New York Times in July, about 2,000 jobs created during construction – a year or two – and then only “50 to 100 permanent jobs in an economy that account 150 million.” It thus rejected the statements of the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, who said in May that “the Keystone Pipeline (would) create tens of thousands of American jobs.”

What is the project?

TransCanada announced on 22 January, the beginning of the operation of the southern section of the pipeline between Oklahoma and Texas refineries. This portion of the pipeline, 780 km long and lies entirely in the US, was not the subject of considerable controversy.

Especially on 31 January, when the project has passed a milestone, although not definitive. In a report, the US State Department reaffirms that the oil sands in Alberta requires more energy and therefore produces more greenhouse gases than conventional oil fields, but adds that the new pipeline would have no significant impact on the rate of exploitation of these reserves and hence CO2 emissions. The report also emphasizes the fact that alternatives to the pipeline, such as rail transport, would result in 28% to 42% more emissions.

The Secretary of State John Kerry would make a recommendation in late April on the report of the State Department, but delayed his decision by announcing the extension of the comment period of the relevant federal agencies.

Then, Barack Obama, pressed by the Republicans to take the final decision, with no specific date has been fixed. US President who seeks to make the fight against global warming a key focus of his second term, had said during a speech in June 2013, he would give the green light if the pipeline n was not likely to “significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

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