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Keystone XL Pipeline Is Moving Forward—5 Things You Should Know

As Nebraska signed off today on a proposal to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, here's how the project will likely impact the environment, people, and jobs.

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Miles of unused pipe sit ready for the Keystone XL Pipeline outside Gascoyne, North Dakota.


The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline has been a lightning rod for controversy and a symbol of the wider fight over the future of energy production and climate change policy over the past several years. On Monday the Nebraska Public Service Commission voted 3-2 to allow pipeline company TransCanada to move forward with finishing a section of the $8 billion, 1,179-mile project across state lands.

Here are five things to know about this project, which could carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day across much of the Great Plains, from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. (Learn more about controversies surrounding huge development projects.)

1. The pipeline has a complicated history.

The Keystone XL pipeline was first proposed nine years ago, during the rise of the tar sands oil boom in Alberta. But the project has faced intense environmental, tribal, and political opposition for years.

President Donald Trump announced in March that he was granting approval to the Keystone XL Pipeline, after he had vowed support for the project while campaigning for office. The Obama administration had previously ruled against the pipeline in November 2015, in large part citing an overall effort to turn away from fossil fuels on the road to addressing climate change. But in March, Trump said the pipeline would be “the first of many infrastructure projects” to stimulate jobs (see a map of the route).

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

TransCanada, the Calgary-based company behind the pipeline, was issued the construction permit from the State Department the same day.

The pipeline has been a hot-button issue for years, pitting the fossil-fuel industry against many environmentalists, who have said the project will increase the country’s reliance on oil (particularly dirty oil from Canada’s vast tar sands), harm sensitive lands and wildlife along its course, and signal to the world that the U.S. has not yet gotten serious about addressing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The country should invest more in renewable alternatives, a coalition of green groups has argued. (Learn about a young writer's five-month journey down the pipeline's proposed route.)

2. The pipeline may impact wildlife.

Opponents have warned that the pipeline could endanger many animals and their habitats in the U.S. and Canada through the infrastructure’s construction, maintenance, and possible failures that could lead to an oil spill.

The critically endangered whooping crane is at risk of flying into new power lines that would be constructed to keep oil pumping through the Keystone XL pipeline, the National Wildlife Federation has said.

While the greater sage-grouse isn’t officially an endangered species, it has already lost some of its habitat, and the Keystone XL pipeline route is close enough to areas where grouse mate that noise from roads, pumping stations, and construction could impact the breeding success of this shy bird. The Keystone XL pipeline route would go through most of the remaining locations of the swift fox, a tiny canid about the size of a house cat. The U.S. State Department’s Environmental Impact Report also said that some American burying beetles will be killed and their habitats destroyed by the pipeline, though the agency added that a monitoring and habitat-restoration program would help mitigate losses and the species wouldn’t be seriously threatened.

After initial opposition, TransCanada agreed to change its planned pipeline route to go around the environmentally sensitive Nebaska Sandhills, bury the pipeline deeper in the ground than they had planned, and closely monitor the pipeline’s safety. These steps are intended to help minimize the harm of an oil spill if one happens.

Related: What Are Fossil Fuels, Anyway?

3. The pipeline may increase oil production.

Once built, about 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day will flow from Alberta, Canada, to the refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast, which are built to handle the kind of heavy crude oil that comes out of the tar sands. Those refineries need crude oil in order to function and to support the people who work there, and places like Mexico and Venezuela, which typically export oil to the U.S., are beginning to run out of it.

4. Will the pipeline contribute to climate change?

Many climate activists have opposed the pipeline on the suspicion that it may increase our reliance on, and use, of fossil fuels, and further delay investment in more renewable technologies. However, a direct connection to this possibility has been hard to establish.

The State Department said in a 2014 assessment that the Keystone XL pipeline would have no additional impact on greenhouse gas emissions because the oil would be extracted from tar sands in Canada at the same rate anyways, regardless of whether or not the pipeline was built. The oil companies did have other options available, including sending their product via trains (which can increase risk of accidents), and other pipeline routes.

To make matters more complicated, the EPA contested the State Department’s finding, saying that extracting oil from the tar sands generates more greenhouse gases than extracting oil through more conventional methods and therefore contributes to a greater amount of greenhouse gas emissions over time. If more pipelines are built, more oil could theoretically be extracted at a faster rate, meaning greenhouse gases would actually be released more quickly, that agency said.The Natural Resources Defense Council agreed with the EPA, saying Keystone would accelerate the pace and expand the scale of tar sands extraction.

5. The pipeline’s mixed picture on jobs.

The State Department estimates that the Keystone XL pipeline would create 42,100 jobs over the one to two years of the pipeline’s construction and would create 50 permanent jobs. It would also contribute to keeping oil refinery jobs along the Gulf.

However, environmentalists counter that more jobs could be created quicker in renewable energy. Last year, solar employed more people than traditional coal, oil, and gas combined, they point out. (See dramatic pictures of solar and wind energy.)

Heather Brady contributed to this story.