With the previously rejected Keystone XL Pipeline once again ready for approval, the debate between environmentalists and pipeline supporters looks to strengthen in 2013. The dispute started in October of 2007, when TransCanada, a North American energy company, began constructing the Canadian portion of the pipeline. One year later, the United States Department of State issued an application for a Presidential Permit, authorizing the construction, maintenance and operation of the pipeline, a $7 billion project transporting tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas. The request was eventually rejected in early 2012 by the President due to its abbreviated deadline, a decision made unrelated to the pipeline itself.

Faced by heavy criticism for its effect on the environment, the new proposal for the Keystone XL Pipeline incorporates a number of changes to its route and design.

Protecting resources

The first and most significant change to the pipeline is its altered route, which will avoid the Nebraska Sand Hills if constructed. With thousands of ponds, lakes and streams, the Sand Hills is considered to be the greatest wetland ecosystem in the US. Even more, the Sand Hills are home to a rich and complex network of over 1,000 species of plants and animals, making it one of the most protected areas in the country. Unfortunately, the region’s beauty also leaves a lot to be lost.

Though it was the Sand Hills that headlined the argument against the first Keystone Pipeline proposal, it is the Ogallala Aquifer beneath the hills that makes environmentalists truly concerned. This reservoir, dating back to the beginning of the Pliocene, holds water at depths of 100-400 feet and covers 174,000 square miles across eight states, providing 30% of the water used for irrigation in the Great Plains. The susceptibility of the Ogallala Aquifer stems from the loose, permeable composition of soil atop that acts as the only source of protection from disturbance.

The risk of damaging the Sand Hill ecosystem and other ecosystems along the way has ignited a wave of opposition in the form of non-governmental organizations. For example, Tar Sands Blockade represents a Texas-based group of landowners working to stop the construction of the pipeline through nonviolent direct action, according to their website. From public protests to hunger strikes to barricades on-site, Tar Sands Blockade activists believe that the fight against “big oil”, is essentially a fight to protect their homes, land and planet from the destruction of the environment.

The scientific community, too, has issued concern. A study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, conducted by Dr. John Stansbury, estimated that over a 50-year period, “91 significant Keystone XL Pipeline spills can be expected.” The study also considered a worst-case scenario spill and determined that such a spill could contaminate 4.9 billion gallons of water, having the potential to expose hundreds of thousands of people to levels of highly contaminated drinking water.

The Cornell University Global Labor Institute recently published a report in March 2012, which highlighted the composition of tar sands oil as a major cause for concern:

“There is strong evidence that tar sands pipeline spills occur more frequently than spills from pipelines carrying conventional crude oil because of the diluted bitumen’s toxic, corrosive, and heavy composition. Tar sands oil spills have the potential to be more damaging than conventional crude oil spills because they are more difficult and more costly to clean up, and because they have the potential to pose more serious health risks.”

And while more reports on the potential risks of the Keystone XL are emerging, scientists agree that a systematic, multifaceted study is necessary to improve our understanding and strategy for potential spills.

In defense

TransCanada believes their new proposal addresses much of the previous criticism that underlined the pipeline’s potential risks to the environment. Their website states an alternative route, a higher number of remotely-controlled shut-off valves, an increase in pipeline inspections and deeper underground lines as modifications to the Keystone XL that would collectively minimize any associated risk. Their Final Environmental Impact Statement concluded that the 57 incorporated safety conditions (according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) “would result in a project that would have a degree of safety over any other typically constructed domestic oil pipeline system under current code.”

Furthermore, public polling, conducted by the Washington Post, shows that 59% of adults are in favor of the Keystone XL. The main reason for the majority’s support is based on their belief that the pipeline would generate a significant number of jobs, as 83% agreed with this statement. The President of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada, William P. Hite, believes “the Keystone XL Pipeline will play a vital role in putting deserving people to work in this difficult economy. It will also help promote U.S. energy independence”. It is worth mentioning that 61% of Nebraska residents support the construction of the Keystone XL, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Supporters of the Keystone XL conclude that the $7 billion project would stimulate $20 billion in new spending, introduce 20,000 jobs and benefit the country’s desire to become an energy-independent nation, as stated by API’s s Marty Durbin. This data was produced by API and based on the previously rejected proposal.

Entering a new year, both sides of the Keystone XL Pipeline debate continue to push forward. While the opposition fights to protect the country’s wetlands, pipeline supporters insist on creating jobs and oil. Will the Obama Administration strengthen environmental policy or choose national oil? The decision to approve or reject the Keystone XL Pipeline will be decided by the end of the first quarter this year.