National Geographic News
A photo of a TransCanada Keystone Pipeline pump station.

A TransCanada Keystone Pipeline pump station operates outside Steele City, Nebraska on March 10, 2014.

PHOTOGRAPH BY LANE HICKENBOTTOM, REUTERS

Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published April 19, 2014

The long wait for a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline grew even longer Friday, when the U.S. State Department announced it would allow more time for eight federal agencies to submit their views on the proposed project.

The State Department said additional time was needed because of ongoing litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court that leaves uncertainty over the pipeline's route.

The proposed pipeline would carry crude oil from Alberta, Canada, through Nebraska and five other states to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. (See map of the route: "Interactive: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.")

The Keystone XL project has become Exhibit A in a larger debate over whether the U.S. should enable further exploitation of the explosive oil and gas wealth made possible by new drilling techniques or should prioritize alternatives to the fossil-fuels that are stoking climate change.

Five Years and Counting

"We are extremely disappointed and frustrated with yet another delay," said Russ Girling, president and CEO of pipeline operator TransCanada in a statement.

Other supporters of the project were more blunt. "This decision is irresponsible, unnecessary, and unacceptable," said U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (Democrat, Louisiana) in a statement.

But some welcomed the pause.

"Getting this decision right includes being able to evaluate the yet-to-be determined route through Nebraska and continuing to listen to the many voices that have raised concerns about Keystone XL," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Louisiana Democrat Landrieu was among 11 senators who sent a letter this month to President Barack Obama urging him to approve the pipeline by May 31.

"This process has been exhaustive in its time, breadth, and scope," the letter said. "It has already taken much longer than anyone can reasonably justify."

First proposed in 2008, the TransCanada project requires presidential approval because it crosses international boundaries. The current decision pertains to the proposed northern section, running from Hardisty in Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. Construction on the southern leg of the Keystone extension, which runs from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas, is already complete. (See related story: "Keystone XL Pipeline Path Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma.")

Ongoing Controversy

In its announcement Friday, the State Department said it would take the additional time to review the "unprecedented" 2.5 million public comments it had received since the the last comment period closed on March 7.

Thousands of protesters have converged on Washington, D.C. and other parts of the nation at key points during the decision process, with opponents ranging from actress Daryl Hannah to former President Jimmy Carter.

TransCanada and other Keystone proponents, meanwhile, have run ad campaigns touting the pipeline's ability to create jobs and reduce dependence on "unstable" foreign sources of oil.

The latter claim has been questioned by those who point out that the United States imports far more oil from stable Canada than from any other single destination, and that the market (not the U.S. president or TransCanada) will determine where that oil goes once it is processed at Gulf refineries. (See related story: "Is Canadian Oil Bound for China Via Pipeline to Texas?")

Obama said last year that he would approve Keystone XL only if it served the national interest. That would be possible, he said, only if the pipeline "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

A final environmental impact statement from the State Department, released in January, acknowledged that when taking the life cycle of Canadian tar sands oil into account, from extraction to burning in gas tanks, it emits about 17 percent more greenhouse gas than the average barrel of U.S.-refined crude oil.

But the State Department also concluded that the pipeline was "unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States."

It noted that Canadian crude was already being transported in "substantial volumes" by rail. In other words, the oil would make it to market with or without Keystone XL. (See related story: "3 Factors Shape Obama's Decision on Keystone XL Pipeline.")

Sticking Point: The Nebraska Route

The Nebraska court case cited by the State Department in its new delay will decide whether the state's governor, Republican Dave Heineman, has authority to approve the final pipeline route.

TransCanada was denied permission to build the pipeline in 2011 in part because of concerns over its route through Nebraska's Sandhills region, a native grasslands that contains one of the largest aquifers in North America.

The company submitted a new application in 2012 with an altered route that bypassed the Sandhills. (See related photo: "Animals That Blocked the Keystone XL Pipeline Path.")

But the new pipeline route still would cross environmentally sensitive areas including the North Valley Grasslands, an officially designated Important Bird Area, and several waterways, including the Yellowstone, Missouri, and Niobara Rivers.

Officially endangered or threatened species including the whooping crane, swift fox, and American burying beetle risk being affected by the project, both during construction and via the new power lines that it will require to feed pumps once it's operating. (See related story: "Keystone XL Pipeline: 4 Animals and 3 Habitats in its Path.")

23 comments
Patricia McCann
Patricia McCann

The bottom line is,  our planet is becoming uninhabitable for the human race,  because of fossil fuels.   Let's face it,  we are running out of crude,  and going after the dirtiest, most corrosive form of oil proves it! 


We need our farmers,  ranchers,  clean water and air, more than we need more dirty fuel. This pipe line will not benefit America and puts an unfair burden on American taxpayers in the event of a leak that we know will happen.   It's high time America starts investing in green energy before it's too late.  

China should do the same.


An emphatic NO to the Keystone XL Pipeline

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

At least the "sticking point" in Nebraska is one of small-d democracy. Some Nebraskans believe it is illegal for a governor, by himself, to allow a project that will risk a major public use aquifer for the whole state, and require private property owners to give up their individual land rights to a foreign corporation's pipeline. The fact that next to zero jobs will exist after its completion almost never gets a mention either.

And of course, there's that annoying climate issue so few here think of as important. Our State Department's corrupt EIR that uses corporations tightly linked to pipeline supporters, magically dismisses common sense to say the project will do no real harm after all. Ta Da!

Cameron Spitzer
Cameron Spitzer

Oil barons and bankers own the US congress. Congress is the 800lb gorrilla.  They'll have their way on this project too.  They're waiting till after the midterms to disappoint the enviro voters.

Wayne Wright
Wayne Wright

When the politicians pushing for the pipeline retire on the public teat who do you think they are going to become multimillionaire lobbyists for? Everyone talks about the thousands of jobs being created but no ever mentions that once the pipeline is done, those jobs are gone. A few high priced maintenance people and unless there is a leak, the line will carry along on it's own.

There is a major pipeline running the length of British Columbia underground that is lovingly referred to as the thousand mile meadow. Every five years or so helicopters fly the length of it spraying defoliant to keep shrubs down and every summer mineralogy students in ATVs get paid to drive the length of it looking for oily spots on the ground. They wouldn't know there was a problem until some pumping station in the middle of nowhere suddenly stopped receiving product and then they would have to scour in between to find the problem while allowing how many millions of gallons to destroy the ecosystem.

We have yet to produce a state of the art tanker ship that hasn't run aground or had major spills. Trusting the subsidiary companies to ship our crude, et cetera is to save a few bucks and trust these companies to actually maintain their fleets. Politicians and corporate giants will promise the world because they know that when (when) a spill occurs, they'll say we're really, really sorry and quickly recoup the costs and fines in raised prices and government subsidies. They don't go out of business like a regular company because the demand still exists so they weather the short storm and carry on.

Green is the new catch phrase for every facet of our existence. Companies spend millions putting the word out as long as they don't actually have to spend (or lose) billions in the process. I worked for a large organization that gathered hundreds of employees at a festive weekend of golf and drinking to create a corporate mission statement. When the weekend was over they already had a mission statement prepared and printed. Quel surprise! That was the end of it. No actual policy ever changed or was altered but people sure whipped out that mission statement when ever the press was near.

Wayne Wright
Wayne Wright

Doesn't Canada have something to say about a pipeline running across their prairies? In fact, isn't a lot of raw product theirs to decide about? It's always whether the President or government will allow the pipeline measure to go through. And, if the pipeline is to lower American energy requirements and lessen dependency on foreign suppliers, why is it going all the way to port facilities in the Gulf? I'm not the brightest guy but I'm pretty sure a refinery or something in the North would still allow for dispersal to the rest of the country.  We know our corporations would pave the road with dead babies if they thought they could hide it and turn a profit. (Sorry about the horrible example but they can justify anything if there is a profit margin involved.) Expecting big business to police themselves is similar to saying the catholic church will stop molesting little boys after a few centuries if we give them a chance. We've seen time and again that multimillionaire heads of companies who have more than they could spend in a lifetime just can't seem to stop themselves from embezzling a few more million. They'll let children despair and die locked in sweatshops in Asia to keep from having to pay an American a living wage for the same work. They'll spend a million dollars advertising they have removed labels from T-shirts to help us out rather than admit it was to lay off a thousand workers and save half a penny an item.

Murray Rushing
Murray Rushing

This is really about which pigs at the congressional trough gets the most slop.  Right now, the nation needs to have Keystone approved, but the oinkers that are holding out to sell their vote for their own pork barrel projects that will, of course, benefit them personally don't give a darn about what is best for the nation.  This is ANOTHER reason we need to get rid of the career criminal politicians that are screwing the nation for their own good.  Vote out ALL incumbents since they are inept and are not doing the job they're sworn to do.  FIRE THEY THAT ARE SUCKING OUR NATION DRY - BOTH PARTIES!

Donnie McBee
Donnie McBee

This indecision is still about the money!   The dirty tar sands oil will go on the market no matter what...........As long as the pipeline is delayed, Warren Buffet makes billions.  (owns the railroad)  And if the pipeline goes through, the Koch brother's profit!  Both methods of transportation is dangerous, both are bad on the environment.   Rail, as we have seen can dangerous for the obvious reasons, wreck, and spills. pipelines can be bad from installation, and spills..........which is safer?  Probably the pipeline............

But I think this administration has kicked the can down the road long enough.

Yes or No......... But a decision should have been made long ago!

Dave Moore
Dave Moore

Until after the November mid-term elections. Don't want to anger those special interest votes!

st ir
st ir

We should send the pipeline to the west coast and sell the oil to someone who would be glad to get it.

If we sell to the states we will have to discount the price ( as usual)

Sell it to China as this will reduce our Us dependence and increase the profits which could be used to help the communities which this projected pipe line would impact!

Bruce Williams
Bruce Williams

I don't understand how they can say that rail can move as much as the pipeline.   That goes against everything the industry has been saying.  ON the one hand, they say they need the pipeline to ensure the product gets to market,  on the other hand they say all the product will get to market regardless, so there's no impact on CO2 from the pipeline.  Can't have it both ways....In reality, it's about lowering the oil companies transport costs.    Is the risk worth it?  Is there any benefit to US consumers?  doubtful.....

Robert Morris
Robert Morris

I certainly hope the EPA does not delay the diplomatic recognition agreement the State Department  negotiated with Mexico or the Canadians retaliate to make us cover their losses.



Murray Rushing
Murray Rushing

@Donnie McBee I agree that this obamanation administration has delayed making a decision simply because some pigs at the trough would be hurt whichever decision was made.  This could be excused if it was a matter of principle, but it is unforgiveable since it is simply a matter of political expediency.  As far as picking out one fat cat over another that will benefit from yes or no, that is ridiculous since SOMEONE is going to benefit either way.  Yes, there are inherent dangers involved whichever decision is made but the greatest danger is making no decision at all.  If this administration demonstrated ANY DECISIONS BASED UPON PRINCIPLE I could support it, even if I didn't agree with the particular decision involved.  The fact is, however, that this administration has demonstrated time and again that they are concerned ONLY WITH THE POLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS AND ARE NOT BASED IN THE LEAST UPON WHAT IS BEST FOR OUR NATION!

Wayne Wright
Wayne Wright

@st ir It's so funny that the authorities given a choice between lowering our energy costs substantially or making a penny profit between what they can sell the product for versus the cost to buy the same product back from someone else, will always choose the profit because that's where big bonuses come from. Somehow actually saving money is in a whole different realm than making a profit. Save your company a million dollars and you get a plaque but earn them a million dollars and you get a promotion.

Murray Rushing
Murray Rushing

@st ir No disrespect intended, but your rainbow pie would probably really be delicious, if it was real, but it is just a figment of your imagination.

Wayne Wright
Wayne Wright

@Bruce Williams When the politicians pushing for the pipeline retire on the public teat who do you think they are going to become multimillionaire lobbyists for? Everyone talks about the thousands of jobs being created but no ever mentions that once the pipeline is done, those jobs are gone. A few high priced maintenance people and unless there is a leak, the line will carry along on it's own.

There is a major pipeline running the length of British Columbia underground that is lovingly referred to as the thousand mile meadow. Every five years or so helicopters fly the length of it spraying defoliant to keep shrubs down and every summer mineralogy students in ATVs get paid to drive the length of it looking for oily spots on the ground. They wouldn't know there was a problem until some pumping station in the middle of nowhere suddenly stopped receiving product and then they would have to scour in between to find the problem while allowing how many millions of gallons to destroy the ecosystem.

We have yet to produce a state of the art tanker ship that hasn't run aground or had major spills. Trusting the subsidiary companies to ship our crude, et cetera is to save a few bucks and trust these companies to actually maintain their fleets. Politicians and corporate giants will promise the world because they know that when (when) a spill occurs, they'll say we're really, really sorry and quickly recoup the costs and fines in raised prices and government subsidies. They don't go out of business like a regular company because the demand still exists so they weather the short storm and carry on.

Green is the new catch phrase for every facet of our existence. Companies spend millions putting the word out as long as they don't actually have to spend (or lose) billions in the process. I worked for a large organization that gathered hundreds of employees at a festive weekend of golf and drinking to create a corporate mission statement. When the weekend was over they already had a mission statement prepared and printed. Quel surprise! That was the end of it. No actual policy ever changed or was altered but people sure whipped out that mission statement when ever the press was near.

Murray Rushing
Murray Rushing

@Bruce Williams Bruce, this is just another of the obfuscation, outright lies and so-called spin (another word for half-truths) that is used by career politicians that are oiling their own gears at the expense of the nation with no regard what is actually BEST for the nation.  FIRE ALL OF THE CAREER POLITICIANS AND GET SOME PEOPLE IN GOVERNMENT THAT ACTUALLY GIVE A DAMN FOR WHAT IS BEST FOR THE MAJORITY OF OUT CITIZENS AND THE NATION AS A WHOLE!

Murray Rushing
Murray Rushing

@Robert Morris I hate to point out the obvious to you, Robert, but we have not had a "State Department" for a number of years.

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

@Murray Rushing @Donnie McBee Clearly, our children and future generations WILL NOT BENIFIT. They will be seriously hurt by this pipeline and by our fossil fuel addiction. Are our brains so addled that we cannot stop ourselves (and our Oligarchic Lords of Addiction) from the destruction of our own culture???

It is far cheaper to go green today than to attempt to repair the un-repairable, disastrous, extinction mandating climate we are creating by burning these fuels.

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

@Wayne Wright @st ir

Mass extinction.

That does not have a pricetag, but it is what we are pushing ever faster towards. It won't matter if you have so much money, no oxygen? no food? no water? we'll all be dead, or at least all of our precious grandchildren, since we'll mainly all be dead anyway. It all depends on if we hit the switch on our methane bomb, and this additional tarsands heat could do it.

Read the new IPPC report that just came out and get your heads out of the tarsands. They give us only 15 very affordable years to turn it around!

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

@Murray Rushing @Bruce Williams

That's ridiculous!

In our free-contributions-for-the-superwealthy elections, Big Fossil Fuel will run the whole show. It'll quickly take down the remaining vestiges of democracy in one election. We must clean up the campaign funding system first, then we can more easily drop bad actors. We need a Constitutional Amendment to de-personify, i.e. remove constitutional protections from corporations and their money.

John Patt
John Patt

@Elise Villemaire @Murray Rushing @Bruce Williams  Fossil fuels are in their death throes. Five years from now they will be like the 8-track. They will not be able to compete with inexpensive solar and other forms of energy. The FF companies will have diminished profits and diminished political clout. Remember that the Almighty Dollar is an impersonal god, and this time may be on the side of common sense. In the meanwhile, keep your AC down to 72, and turn off the lites when you leave the room.

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