National Geographic News
A photo of a whooping crane.

The Canada-to-Texas flight route of the critically endangered whooping crane passes along Keystone XL's route for hundreds of miles. Conservationists worry about the impact of pipeline power lines.


Mel White

for National Geographic

Published February 14, 2014

Climate change has been the focus of much of the opposition to TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. But many conservationists are also concerned about more immediate environmental consequences.

They're worried about the pipeline construction's impact on wildlife and ecosystems, and of possible spills of the heavy crude oil that will flow through the pipeline at the rate of 830,000 barrels a day. (See related: "Interactive: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.")

Some people, seeing a map of the pipeline's proposed 875-mile route through the Great Plains, may picture the region in the terms of 19th-century explorers who called it the "great American desert": a barren land lacking in natural-history interest. In fact, though the vast herds of grazing animals that Lewis and Clark saw are greatly diminished, rich ecosystems endure. And while the pipeline route crosses some agricultural land, much of it would traverse natural habitats in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska where harmful effects on native animals and plants could—some say would, inevitably—occur. (See related, "Oil Flows on Keystone XL's Southern Leg, But Link to Canada Awaits Obama Administration.")

A photo of the Yellowstone River in Montana
Rich ecosystems surround the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers (the latter is pictured here). Keystone XL would cross both rivers in Montana.

Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers

The Keystone XL route crosses the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, two of more than 50 crossings of perennial streams. Both rivers are home to the federally endangered pallid sturgeon, a bizarre-looking fish up to six feet long adapted to life in large rivers with silty bottoms. A serious oil spill has the potential to damage or even destroy habitat for this species. Such a spill could also harm habitat for least terns and piping plovers, two birds that nest along rivers and that have suffered serious declines in recent decades.

And pipelines do fail, conservationists note. The failure in 2010 of an Enbridge pipeline carrying Canadian crude oil triggered the costliest onshore oil spill in U.S. history, contaminating 40 miles of Michigan's Kalamazoo River and surrounding wetlands. Last year, another pipeline carrying Canadian oil, Exxon-Mobil's Pegasus line, ruptured in a the small Arkansas town of Mayflower, affecting wetlands connected to the largest man-made game and fish commission reservoir in the United States. (See related, "Oil Spill Spotlights Keystone XL Issue: Is Canadian Crude Worse?") Officials are still reckoning the lingering environmental damage after massive and expensive cleanup efforts.

In its recent Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the State Department admits that oil spills will occur and are a danger, but asserts that current technology and rigorous inspections make the odds of a serious spill remote. (See related, "3 Factors Shape Obama's Decision on Keystone XL Pipeline.")

Davis Sheremata, a spokesperson for TransCanada, said Keystone will incorporate construction and maintenance techniques more advanced than those of earlier pipelines. Safety measures "are the culmination of six years of consultation between TransCanada, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and many other federal and state environmental agencies," he said. "The required environmental protection and pipeline safety measures set a new, and very high, standard unequaled by any other pipeline project."

Whooping Crane

One of the greatest conservation concerns about the immediate effect of the pipeline centers on the critically endangered whooping crane. Most of these tall white birds nest in Canada and migrate through the central United States to and from their wintering grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast. The cranes' flight route passes directly along the pipeline route for hundreds of miles.

It's not the pipeline itself that's of greatest potential danger to the cranes, though. Pumps needed to keep the thick Canadian oil flowing through the pipeline require power lines to supply them with electricity, and conservationists wonder what will happen when more than 300 miles of new power lines appear in formerly wide-open spaces in the birds' flight path.

"The whooping crane is a species that we've really homed in on," said  Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. "Power lines account for about 40 percent of juvenile whooping crane mortality, which is a big deal when you're talking about a bird that has a population of about four hundred in the wild. Those concerns have never really been taken seriously."

TransCanada's Sheremata said his company and pipeline contractors "have committed to incorporate a number of conservation measures to prevent potential direct or indirect impacting to the whooping crane." Measures include installing and maintaining avian markers (conspicuous objects designed to make lines more visible to flying birds) at pump stations "to reduce impacts to whooping cranes from power lines."

Male Greater Sage Grouse
A male greater sage-grouse does a mating display. The proposed route passes within a few miles of dozens of grouse “leks,” sites where males dance to attract mates.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Although the greater sage-grouse isn't officially an endangered species, many bird experts believe it should be. They claim it has been kept off the list for fear of political backlash in conservative western states, where farming and ranching might face restrictions.

There's no question that the grouse has suffered from loss of habitat: 20 of 27 known population groups have declined since 1995. The pipeline route passes within a few miles of dozens of grouse leks (sites where males "dance" to attract mates); ornithologists fear that noise from construction, roads, and pumping stations could affect breeding success of these notoriously shy and easily disturbed birds.

In addition, power-line towers serve as hunting perches for eagles and hawks, which prey on grouse. In treeless areas where grouse live, towers will bring new threats and greater potential mortality by providing raptor lookouts where formerly there were none.

A photo of a Swift Fox.
A swift fox stands alert in the South Dakota prairie.

Swift Fox

The swift fox, a small canine of grassland regions, is another controversial species that the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity believes belongs on the endangered-species list. The CBD finds it "dumbfounding" that Keystone XL environmental-impact statements fail to address the pipeline's effects on the fox.

"It's like they took a map and drew a pipeline along the remaining locations of known bands of the swift fox," said Amy Atwood, senior attorney for the CBD. "That's where the fox lives, because those are the areas that are not being used for agriculture and are on public land. That's where pipeline companies like to site things these days to minimize landowner conflict or having to deal with eminent domain. And that's where the wildlife is. They've been pushed out of other areas."

A photo of the American Burying Beetle
Orange markings distinguish the American burying beetle, an officially endangered species, displayed here at St. Louis Zoo’s Monsanto Insectarium. It is the one species the U.S. State Department concludes unquestionably would be harmed by the Keystone XL project.

American Burying Beetle

The only endangered species that the U.S. State Department's Environmental Impact Statement concluded would be harmed by the pipeline is the American burying beetle. The odd splotchy orange 1.5- to 2-inch (4- to 5-centimeter) insect once roamed 35 states, but has been disappearing since the early 1900s and is now is found mainly in areas undisturbed by human influence, with populations in South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kansas. (The beetle is named for its habit of burying corpses of small animals, which are used as food by larvae hatched from eggs laid nearby.) The department's report admits that some beetles will be killed and their habitat destroyed by pipeline construction, but says that a monitoring and habitat-restoration program will mitigate the losses and the species will not be seriously threatened.

Although no one knows the precise reason for the American burying beetle's demise, one theory is that light pollution has disturbed the feeding and breeding habits of the only purely nocturnal species in the genus of burying beetles. (See related, "Why Are Corpse-Eating Beetles Being Released Into the Wild?")

In 2011, biologists hired by TransCanada actually collected and moved more than 2,000 American burying beetles in anticipation of pipeline construction, a move that drew a legal challenge from environmentalists. (See related, "Endangered Beetle Lies in Keystone XL Path.")

A photo of a Chestnut-collared Longspur
The Keystone XL would cross the North Valley Grasslands in Montana, a designated “Important Bird Area” that is home to species including the chestnut-collared longspur, shown.

Important Bird Areas

TransCanada rerouted the proposed Keystone XL to avoid most of Nebraska's Sandhills, a native grasslands that contains one of the largest aquifers in North America, the Ogallala, drinking water source for two million people in eight states. (See related, "Photos: Animals That Blocked Keystone XL Pipeline Path.")  But other ecosystems remain in the pipeline path.

In Montana, Keystone XL would cross the North Valley Grasslands, an officially designated Important Bird Area. (This is a designation used globally under an initiative of the nonprofit BirdLife International, and implemented in the United States by the Audubon Society and its partners.) In recent breeding bird surveys, grassland species showed the greatest decline of any group of birds in the United States. Two declining species, Sprague's pipit and chestnut-collared longspur, nest in the North Valley Grasslands.

In south-central Nebraska the proposed pipeline route passes through the Rainwater Basin Important Bird Area, a 6,000-square-mile wetlands region that provides migratory habitat for literally millions of geese, ducks, and other waterbirds, including whooping cranes. The prospect of a significant oil spill in this vital habitat ranks among the greatest fears of wildlife experts opposed to the pipeline. Ninety percent of the greater white-fronted geese in central North America migrate through the Rainwater Basin, as do nearly 100 percent of the buff-breasted sandpipers.

Niobrara River

Farther north in Nebraska, the pipeline would cross the Niobrara River, a popular regional recreational resource. Though the proposed pipeline crossing has been relocated and would be sited 11 miles downstream from the official boundary of the part of the waterway that is designated the Niobrara National Scenic River, an oil spill would affect valuable wildlife habitat, a possibility that worries Marian Langan, executive director of Audubon Nebraska.

"We have a photo of a whooping crane that was taken on the Niobrara within a quarter-mile of where that pipeline is going to cross," Langan said. "When the State Department had hearings here, I submitted the photo, and they're ignoring it."

Apart from major river crossings such as the Missouri, Yellowstone, Niobrara, and Platte, the fate of small streams and wetland areas concerns the National Wildlife Federation's Murphy.

"The State Department relies on the Clean Water Act to make sure that these impacts are accounted for," Murphy said. "But a lot of these places are pothole-type wetlands that may not be protected under the act. What happens if there's no real obligation on the part of the company to clean them up? They're not year-round wetlands, but they're still used for stopover on bird migration paths and for things like amphibian breeding. So they're still important."

This type of habitat loss also worries Amy Atwood. "Lots of little wetlands are going to be destroyed," she said. "It's going to have an impact."

Whether on a river, small stream, or native prairie habitat, it's the possibility of a major pipeline leak that's the nightmare outcome for environmentalists. (See related: "Keystone XL Pipeline Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma.")

"One of the scary things about the spill that happened in Michigan was that the reaction time there was about sixteen or seventeen hours," Murphy said. "They misread their alert systems, and they actually ended up pumping more oil after the breach had taken place. It's easy to imagine if a breach happened in the right place in the line that a tremendous amount of habitat damage could occur very, very quickly."

Marian Langan agrees. "TransCanada will say, 'All these communities have emergency plans,' " she said. "'If something happens they can take care of it.' But if you talk to the people in those rural communities, they don't know what do. There's no capacity to clean up that kind of stuff in those remote locations. Maybe they have a cleanup contract with a company that's two or three hours away, but they don't deal with this kind of thing. They're not going to know what to do. It's just going to be a disaster."

If President Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline later this year, many conservationists and landowners along the route are prepared to continue their opposition. A well-organized group of farmers and ranchers in Nebraska continues to gather momentum in their anti-pipeline fight, and several Native American nations oppose the pipeline. The Center for Biological Diversity is among several environmental groups that have vowed to file lawsuits to block the pipeline project.

"We're going to be preparing a legal challenge between now and whenever approval comes down," Amy Atwood said. "These animals connect us to the past, to the people who used to live here. They're part of our nation's heritage." (See related: "Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom.")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Zena Lamp
Zena Lamp

I want the pipeline defeated and the entire issue laid to rest. RIP and let's strive to find safer alternatives. 

Turner Jock Moore
Turner Jock Moore

steven harper will eventually destroy every bit of woodland and wetland of canada and the usa

Bud Couch
Bud Couch

Why don't they just build new refineries at the source? There are existing pipelines that already connect all over the USA something like the electric grid. The Big Oil company's want us to foot the bill to build it so that they can pump the tar sand oil to the gulf so they can export it overseas and line their pockets and pull another one over on us. They already get 600000000000.00 (600 Billion in subsidies a year from us) !!! When are we going to wake up?   

jim adams
jim adams

We -- America -- are not destined to get this oil. Koch, Valero, et al are mining it here, transporting it to the Gulf of Mexico, processing it on the Gulf coast, and shipping it ALL over seas.(well, except for the processing waste and spills) That's why Koch and Valero want us to approve the pipeline so badly-- so they can get richer. Fracking made us almost self-sufficient in oil, gas without the Athabasca input which is more expensive.


So tell me again, pipeline apologists: Why do we need to build this pipeline?


We don't need the oil or gas from Athabasca Tar Sands so it's not about needing it;

There will be about 6000 temp jobs for a couple years and then a few dozen more permanent jobs, so it's not about jobs;

This Nat Geo article is about potentially losing to a bunch of animals and birds a lot of us think are very important -- so it's not about protecting nature;

Pipeline safety -- the pipes are supposed to be welded to high safety standards.Here's a photo  from the inside of one of the pipes.   This is one of thousands of pipes. The slurry they are supposed to be sending south is highly corrosive  - what do you think will happen to that pipe? Anyway, i'm a welder -- not a very good one BUT good enough to tell you that the weld in that photo is a terrible weld and if the pipeline companies were other than crooked, they would have stopped that whole section of pipeline for an inspection and rewelding or replacement of the shoddily welded pipes. So it's not about quality construction and infrastructure. (read the pbs transcript) This pipeline already has a record number of spills. Google: keystone pipeline spill history. Google: who will pay for Keystone spill clean-up? The corporations are all wriggling and squirming to avoid doing or paying for meaningful clean-up. Which means these large corporations,-- all getting government tax subsidies -- are playing the socialist corporation game -- they get all the profits and we taxpayers pay for all the failed risks -- like spills. So it's not about corporate responsibility. And various governments have graciously waved various taxes for these corporations --- so it's also not about monetary benefits to the public or states

Carlos Amera
Carlos Amera

TransCanada is indeed doing everything they can to prevent killing birds who might get contaminated by toxins from an oil sands pipeline rupture. Examples are that they have made only 98 bad welds out of 210 on the Keystone-XL South Pipeline.  That means at least 112 of the welds are good. In addition, they don't drop very many sections of pipe onto rocks during construction since this destroys the anti-corrosion coating that keeps the pipe from corroding through.  If they do drop a pipe, they cover it with a material like duck tape that is certainly safe,even though it may not be quite as good as replacing the pipe section.  Google Keystone and Public Citizen to read more of the extraordinary best practices used by TransCanada. 

Larry Powell
Larry Powell

Dear NG, several of the species mentioned also live or migrate to, or from Canada, where I live: Such as whooping crane, swift fox and greater sage grouse. So despite what my Prime Minister and his cronies might like you to believe, not all Canadians are cheerleaders for this misguided pipeline project, which will not only place these wondrous creatures at even more risk, but our precarious climate, as well.

Dianna Schwertley
Dianna Schwertley

Consider the consequences to all species if the Ogallala Aquifer is polluted.

From Wikipedia:   

The Ogallala Aquifer is a shallow water table aquifer located beneath the Great Plains in the United States. One of the world's largest aquifers, it underlies an area of approximately 174,000 mi² (450,000 km²) in portions of eight states: (South DakotaNebraskaWyoming,ColoradoKansasOklahomaNew Mexico, and Texas). It was named in 1898 by N.H. Darton from its type locality near the town ofOgallala, Nebraska. The aquifer is part of the High Plains Aquifer System, and rests on the Ogallala Formation, which is the principal geologic unit underlying 80% of the High Plains.

About 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States overlies the aquifer, which yields about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States. Since 1950, agricultural irrigation has reduced the saturated volume of the aquifer by an estimated 9%. Depletion is accelerating, with 2% lost between 2001 and 2009[ alone. Certain aquifer zones are now empty; these areas will take over 100,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall.

The aquifer system supplies drinking water to 82 percent of the 2.3 million people (1990 census) who live within the boundaries of the High Plains study area.

David J. Gildea
David J. Gildea

I am willing to bet that those who are blabbering about the destructiveness of this pipeline, drove a car to work and complained about the cost of gas (if you didn’t complain buy some gas for me, I think it is outrageous). Why are we not talking about solutions and only talking about the problems. Spend 10% of the time with the problem (now we know it), and 90% of the time with solutions (now we are working together). It is understandable that some will not work together or will refuse to. Those are on the fringe and we should leave them there. There is a middle ground…look for it.

Krish Pillai
Krish Pillai

Where have you gone Mr. Roosevelt? The nation turns its lonely eyes to you...

Robert Strahlendorf
Robert Strahlendorf

Can you imagine how long an article like this would be if they wrote it in regard to the millions of birds killed by windmills? They don't because they know windmills won't help mankind, but the pipe line will, so Nation Geographic is against the pipe line.

jim adams
jim adams

I get the long impassioned presentation above. As a naturalist and a former zoology major, i really get the disruptions this will cause to already severely disrupted ecosystems.

Still, we are talking apples and they are listening for oranges while talking bananas. Kinda a melange of nonsense when put that way isn't it.


So: here's the oranges and bananas.

This pipeline is about money. Koch and Valero (and some others)stand to make billions of dollars. And that's what's important. They've carefully done their prep work and are very annoyed that a bunch of impoverished do-gooders would try to disrupt their sacred right to make money in a nation built on free enterprise. They've gotten eminent domain rights passed in relevant states which gives them the rights to pass their pipelines thru the states and the property owners are left being (mostly) responsible for cleaning up any messes, spills, and/or problems which just happen.

They have had their markets picked out for a long time -- those countries which have the highest dollars per gallon cost for gas and oil. That's where they will make the most money. And as public relations (to grease the skids, as it were): many politicians in their hip pockets, and  they made up stories about how there are thousands and thousands of jobs coming to the US, and the US will get cheap gas and oil because of Keystone.

They've spent millions working against any ideas which might put a damper on their rightful money maker -- getting richer from the Athabasca Tar Sands. It's all a bunch of do-gooder nonsense aimed at stopping them from making money -- the climate change BS, these environmental cleanliness laws, workplace safety rules, clean atmospherics laws. It's all a bunch of liberal BS to keep them from their rightful place in the 1% of the 1% -- the Crem de la Crem -- which they deserve (and if you ask them, you will be told so). 

. You don't like Koch safety rules (or lack thereof)? Go work some place else. You don't like dirty air? so move somewhere else-- and take your damn animals and birds with you.  THIS IS ABOUT THE IMPORTANT THINGS IN LIFE: MAKING MONEY AND THE POWER THAT GOES WITH IT. and you little pissants  get out of our way.


This is a short, blunt statement of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the Koch' and Valero's money grubbing. It ain't nice, and it ain't purty. And they really don't get that their money grubbing antics are leading to global warming at a rate which may end up being global suicide (go to (google: methane bomb)

Maggie P.
Maggie P.

Keeping all earth in mind, in this case the N.American continent, please expand this line of inquiry - on wildlife habitat, species disruption and losses - all the way up past Ft. McMurray, Alberta and north into the Athabaska watershed. Threats from broken migration pathways of some caribou herds, lesions in whitefish from Lake Athabaska, and other indications of damage are already present. 

Please also run an examination of *all* birds that migrate from south to north along the major flyway that happens to run almost perfectly 'atop' the pipeline route. 

Include in these expanded wildlife, habitat, and watershed threats - the location of 'lake sized' toxic holding ponds along the Athabaska River. It's informative to reference recent tank and holding pond spills in West Virgina. 

It's past time for the general population to become aware of these risks and already present harms. It's ironic that 20-30 years ago American and Canadian school children were 'pointedly' encouraged by schools and parents to help "save the Amazon". Today, these same children have grown to become parents, and have not necessarily been encouraged to bring childhood awareness forward. One wonders what happened to 'larger understanding', now that "the story of the Amazon" has become a reality in American and Canadian lands and watersheds.

Mike Kulpa
Mike Kulpa

 Power lines could be buried and double hull pipes wouldn't be a bad idea either. This oil is needed and a way should be found to build the pipeline while also protecting the wildlife.

John Huscio
John Huscio

@David J. Gildea  I'll gladly pay more for gas if this abomination of. Project is canceled. Besides, the oil being transported through the pipeline will be going to China or India, Americans won't benefit from it in any way.

Carlos Amera
Carlos Amera

@Krish Pillai Up to the rest of us now.  Guess we'll have to step up to the plate and take responsibility for stopping this dreadful pipeline by ourselves

Carlos Amera
Carlos Amera

@Robert Strahlendorf The pipeline will be a great blessing for mankind when it contaminates our water reservoirs.  I'm not exactly for sure how this will be, but you can bet that pipeline companies exists only to serve the best interests of the general public.  If we can't trust our wonderful pipeline companies that create so many jobs for us, who can we trust?  By the way, all the oil sand pipeline ruptures that you read about are not real.  They are figments of the imagination of a few liberal environmentalists and sensationalistic journalists.

Larry Powell
Larry Powell

@Robert Strahlendorf  I have seen articles in publications such as NG about the damage which wind turbines do. This does not, IMHO, invalidate this article. We all need to find new pathways to alternative energy sources. Our fixation with fossil fuels must end.

Bruce Maine
Bruce Maine

@Robert Strahlendorf The loss of birds to wind turbines is far less than those caused by cats, buildings and pesticides.  In all of the above scenarios efforts are being pursued to minimize the impact.  Have you read "The Sixth Extinction"?

Carlos Amera
Carlos Amera

@jim adams If climate change isn't real, then how come my Texas homeowner's insurance went up 30% this year, as did everyone's all over the state?  How come my friends in Lafayette LA have to take at $15,000 deduction on their homeowners insurance and can't get more than 80% coverage for each hurricane?   Lafayette is pretty far inland.  Exceptional weather events like this didn't use to happen, but now everyone is paying thousands of extra dollars every year for the rest of their lives for insurance that doesn't cover what it used to?  I guess this probably doesn't make any difference to you if you're an exec in a Koch Brothers company. 

Larry Powell
Larry Powell

@Mike Kulpa  The oil is needed only if we continue on our thoughtless path of consumption, consumption, consumption. We need to change that to;

conservation, conservation, conservation.

Stephanie B
Stephanie B

Please inform yourself about the many hazards of building anything in the Midwest. We just spent weeks being below zero air temp, and we can spend weeks in the summer being above 100. We have many native species that are still here only because they are not being disturbed. I think every one of you that thinks we need to put this through needs to come out here for at least a week and see what you are truly jeopardizing. Those of us that live in the flyover states know exactly where your wheat, corn, and steaks (etc) come from: Here. And we can't do it with polluted water, loss of habitat for our wildlife which actually helps us produce with our livestock and crops, etc. money is not a good enough reason to do such a horrific travesty to our western lands. They are planning on using eminent domain to basically steal land from landowners who do not want this pipeline going through their ranch,farm, yard of their home. How is is this anything but a land grab for private money? Talk to some of the Wyoming or North Dakota landowners and see how much they are enjoying their situations with oil & natural gas wells being drilled on their land, ruining wells (remember, there is no other water when you don't live in a city besides your well) and migration patterns of wildlife that were here long before we were.

my final words to you are: West Virginia Chemical Spill. I'm sure the water is fine. Here, have a glass.

Robert Strahlendorf
Robert Strahlendorf

@Bruce Maine @Robert Strahlendorf So, in the cases of wind turbines, cats, buildings, and pesticides you and/or National Geographic want to pursue things that minimize the impact. In the case of the pipeline you and/or National Geographic want to stop it entirely. This doesn't change my original point.

jim adams
jim adams

@Carlos Amera @jim adamsYou mis hear me. I'm not a climate denier -- never have been.,  I 've been an environmentalist since about the first Earth Day

And go back and read my last paragraph, check out my planetextinction link , and google:methane bomb. 

Re-read the middle section of what i wrote from the: The Kochs are the problem and this is what they are doing

Recent Energy News

See More at The Great Energy Challenge »

The Big Energy Question

Share Your Opinion »

The Great Energy Challenge

The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.

Energy News, Blog and Interactive Features »