And while Republicans repeatedly touted the pipeline as a source of jobs, independent studies showed that any positions created were likely to be a lot more temporary, and a lot fewer in number, than anything being thrown around on Fox News. It’s fair to say that Keystone XL produced far more jobs for lobbyists, and far more dollars for campaigns, than it would have ever generated for pipeline workers.
And now it appears to be dead. Which is a great time to shove a stake through its heart. Because as anyone who ever watched a horror film knows, these monsters just keep getting up again.
It’s actually wrong to say that the Keystone XL pipeline is dead. Far from it. Most of the pipeline was completed years ago and is actively working right now.
As the “Phase IV” part of the name suggests, the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline Phase IV XL pipeline would not have been the first to send synthetic crude oil (syncrude) from Canadian oil sands into the U.S. What it would have done is connect together a whole series of pipelines so that light crude oil from Montana and North Dakota could have been added to the diluted bitumen, producing a product that could be handled by refineries at the far end of the pipe. In other words, it was as much about taking one of the worst forms of fossil fuel, produced in one of the dirtiest, most energy intensive ways, and turning it into something gas-tank acceptable by mixing it with only normally awful oil.
This wouldn’t be a completely new thing. Since 2010, the Phase I pipeline has been bringing Canadian crude from from Hardisty, Alberta, over 2,100 miles to Wood River, Illinois. In 2011, Phase II added another 300 miles of pipe to connect that pipeline to a distribution hub in Oklahoma. Over the next five years, a series of pipelines were added during Phase III, bringing the mixture of Canadian and American oil from Oklahoma to multiple sites in Texas.
There were repeated protests over the construction of all these pipelines. After all, just producing the synthetic crude that enters the pipeline on the Canadian end involves the release of ammonia, sulfuric acid, and tons of CO2. That’s in addition to the CO2 generated when the resulting oil is burned. Then there is the threat of spills. Since 1986, there have been an average of over 300 spills form oil pipelines each year in the United States, producing an average volume of 1,323,000 gallons of spilled oil. All oil is environmentally toxic. Synthetic crude is worse. And these pipelines repeatedly crossed not just rivers and reservoirs that provide water supplies to farms, towns, and cities, but lands belonging to Native Americans were given little say in their routing.
While Native American “water protectors” worked tirelessly to fight various phases of the Keystone XL pipeline, and joined with environmental activists in the effort to block both this pipeline and the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline—and while Meteor Blades followed it all with dedicated effort—it wasn’t until the Phase IV that President Obama took action to halt further expansion.
That pipeline started near the same point in Alberta, then it would have cut across Montana, South Dakota, and the Sandhills of Nebraska to connect with a portion of the existing pipeline. Compared to earlier pipelines, it was relatively short. However, it would have had a larger diameter and more than doubled the total amount of synthetic crude carried to the pipeline in Nebraska. Obama blocked that last leg of the project in 2015.
In 2017, Donald Trump removed every restriction that Obama had put in place and greased the rails for a rapid approval of the final permits. Within a year, TransCanada announced plans to ship an additional 21 million gallons of synthetic crude every day for the next 20 years.
Then, on the same day he took office, President Joe Biden revoked the permit for the pipeline. Despite threats to relaunch the same lawsuit that TransCanada had originally lodged against Obama, on Wednesday the company announced that it was abandoning the project.
That’s led to a lot of celebrating over the idea that Keystone XL is dead. Meanwhile, the Phase I-III pipeline is still pumping synthetic crude into the U.S. at an existing capacity of just under 25 million gallons a day. That oil is still going to Nebraska, and Illinois, and Texas. It’s still getting mixed with American crude. It’s still ending up in American gas tanks. The Dakota Access pipeline is also operating, carrying almost 20 million gallons a day across the lands of people who suffered protests and arrests in an effort to stop it. The last portion of all these pipelines went on line in 2017.
All of which makes it clear that ending Keystone XL Phase IV is a “victory.” Small v. Not a world-altering triumph.
And while TransCanada may be attributing the end of their plans to Biden’s decision on the permit, that’s really just for Republican consumption. It gives them a reason to go on Fox News, beat their chest over how Biden’s energy policy isn’t as good as Trump’s, and hey, aren’t you paying more for gas this summer? See! Biden cancelled the pipeline, and your gas prices went up.
The real reason that this pipeline died is much simpler. Check the dates above. All the other phases of the Keystone XL pipeline were completed in a matter of months. The 1,200 mile Dakota Access pipeline went up in a year.
Had TransCanada been interested in actually building the Phase IV pipeline, the time between when Trump rushed through the permit in 2017, and the time when Joe Biden took office, would have been enough to build it, pump years worth of oil, kick back, and light a few cigars with fresh Franklins.
The reason that the Phase IV pipeline wasn’t built is a lot simpler than who was in office in Washington. It wasn’t built because there was no market for it. Over the last several years, America has been suffering from an absolute oil glut. In 2016, 2017, and 2019 the U.S. had periods where oil had to be rerouted or production reduced because storage facilities were full. Much of the drive for the pipelines in the Phase 3 portion of the Keystone project was simply because all the sites around that Oklahoma hub were simply drowning in oil. Then in 2020, with demand reduced due to the pandemic, oil facilities over the U.S. and the world really got topped up. Whole tanker fleets were left at sea as the world ran out of places to put all the oil.
The plain truth is that when the Keystone XL Phase IV pipeline was planned, oil was still selling for between $90 and $100 a barrel. In 2020, that number plunged to essentially can’t-give-it-away prices. It’s since rebounded to about $70 (with the help of some hackers), but the writing for TransCanada is was already on the wall—synthetic crude is already far more expensive to produce than most “regular” crude oil. In a market where fracking has permanently burst the triple-digit price bubble of the previous decade, and increasing demand for electric vehicles makes future prospects for petroleum products pretty damn shaky, there simply isn’t a way to justify the Phase IV pipe.
They couldn’t have built it. But if they had … would anyone have wanted what it cranked out?
That’s not to say there’s not still a huge demand for oil. In the last two months, the International Energy Agency has repeatedly raised its estimates for global demand in 2021, as the economy appears to be recovering from the pandemic faster than expected. Pre-pandemic, global demand had still been increasing year over year, and that trend is expected to continue; though at a slower rate. But 2020 showed that, in the face of declining demand, the price of oil could fall by a lot. Quickly.
Even so, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the “death” of the pipeline could easily be a temporary situation. Widespread use of fracking is still young, and no one really understands how long revitalized fields and fractured shale beds will maintain production. Oil also remains a highly fungible commodity, and a serious drop in production anywhere on the planet could be enough to tick the price up to the point where the light in TransCanada’s eyes goes on again.
The biggest way to prevent the next section of pipeline from being built, and to ultimately close down the existing pipeline, isn’t to tear up its permit. It’s to see that new legislation on energy and transportation gets passed so that the demand for oil genuinely starts to decline. The only way to keep this Frankenstein from getting another jolt of life in the future, is to make sure it’s simply not worth it.