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I traveled the length of the Keystone XL Pipeline: A Q&A with TED Book author Steven Mufson

Posted by: Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

StevenMufson_Q&AThis week, protestors in San Francisco called on President Obama to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been proposed to transport oil the 1700 miles from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. Advocates of the pipeline believe that it’s the holy-grail project that will create jobs for Americans, make us more energy efficient and ensure the country’s oil independence from countries whose political and moral values that we oppose. Opponents worry about oil spills — and the recent rupture of Canadian crude oil from an Exxon Mobile pipeline that littered front lawns in Mayflower, Ark., only increased these fears. Not to mention that construction of the pipeline would only continue our reliance on oil.

In the TED Book Keystone XL: Down the Line, Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson and photographer Michael Williamson travel the entire length of the proposed project and reveal starting realities about its impact on everything from the environment to town economies to people’s lives, in the areas through which it passes.

As debate over the Keystone XL boils over, it felt like the right time to ask Mufson a few questions. Below, his take on this highly controversial proposed project.

Why are Canada and the United States now in a rush to expand oil exporting? 

Canada is already a major oil exporter — in fact, they’re the biggest source of U.S. crude oil imports. Companies producing oil in the tar sands in northern Alberta are looking to double production there — and they need more ways to move that oil out. Currently, the limited options for transporting oil only pile onto the costs of production. The biggest and most natural market is the United States, both because our economy is big and because U.S. refineries on the Gulf of Mexico have been modernized and upgraded to handle low-quality crude oil like that coming out of Alberta. Once the crude oil is refined, it’s easier to sell in the United States or abroad. The United States both exports and imports refined products, though given the size of the U.S. refinery industry and relatively flat U.S. gasoline consumption, the volume of U.S. exports of gasoline and diesel has increased.

You say the pipeline is a Rorschach test of how Americans view energy issues. Can you elaborate?

For four decades, we have thought about oil as a scarce resource. We imported more and more at higher and higher prices and went to distant frontiers, whether onshore or offshore, to find oil and gas. The sheer scale of the oil sands in Alberta has been Exhibit A of those extremes. The Saudi oil minister has often said that prices had to stay above $60 a barrel to keep the Canadian oil sands economically viable. All of a sudden, the trends reversed and a slew of oil prospectors – like the North Dakota fracking pioneer Harold Hamm who is profiled in the book – and energy experts are talking about U.S. energy abundance. Imports have dropped nearly in half. U.S. oil output has climbed over 7 million barrels a day and the International Energy Agency has forecast that U.S. output will surpass Saudi Arabia’s by the mid-2020s. Canadian oil sands would compete for U.S. refinery space with Venezuela, and North Dakota, Louisiana and Texas shale oil has enabled the big refiner Valero to stop importing light, sweet crude oil.

It’s partly a matter of interpretation and partly a matter of outlook. There are the folks who worry about climate and make calculations about booming demand across the developing world. And then there are the optimists and industry people who see more opportunity – which in the case of prospectors and drillers translates into profitable opportunities.

So which is it? Are we energy rich or energy poor? The truth lies somewhere in between. Yes, the United States has surprising new resources at home, and U.S. consumption may have hit a plateau as fuel efficiency rises. This is a big benefit for the U.S. balance of trade and the domestic oil and gas industry. And while U.S. oil independence remains elusive, the Keystone XL pipeline would help make North American oil independence conceivable.

Why are two in ten Americans against the pipeline?

Opposition to the pipeline has three main themes. First, some oppose the pipeline because of climate concerns. The process of extracting oil sands crude – a mixture including low-grade petroleum known as bitumen –gobbles up much more energy than the process of conventional oil drilling. So it emits more greenhouse gases. Second, some people fear pipeline leaks, either near the vast Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains or in rivers that must be crossed. And third, some people – many on ranches and farms – oppose the use or threat of eminent domain to force them to sign deals with the pipeline builder and owner, TransCanada.

What are the environmental downsides?

In addition to those environmental issues, the pipeline is being built to provide outlets for oil from the oil sands in Alberta. Half of the oil sands are produced by a process that is akin to strip mining. Trees in Alberta’s vast boreal forest are cut down, wetlands and topsoil are peeled back, and black sands are taken by gigantic dump trucks to facilities that mix the sands with warm water to separate out the useful bitumen. The other half of the oil sands are produced by injecting steam in the ground and sucking up the petroleum. Alberta is vast, but visiting the big mining and drilling sites still makes quite an impression.

The pipeline itself would have no significant environmental impact – unless it leaks. The company has tried to address those concerns by saying it would drill deep below rivers and by making the pipe extra thick in some places. And it has sensors that alert TransCanada’s computer-monitoring center, in Calgary.

Why do some believe that tapping sands oil is ethically better than helping the economies of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela?

One key argument in favor of the pipeline is that it would bring the United States greater energy and national security. Many proponents say the United States would be more secure importing oil from Canada — a democratic, stable ally — than from Venezuela or the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was no great friend of the United States but much of Venezuela’s crude oil is also low quality, like Alberta’s, and Venezuela has been a major supplier to the U.S. refineries. So it might be more of an ethical issue. Would we rather buy from a democracy, or an Islamic state run by a royal family or from a country run by the heirs of the fiery populist ruler Chavez?

What will happen if the pipeline is rejected by Congress and the President?

Good question. One possibility is that TransCanada might file suit saying that the process was improper. But it is more likely that TransCanada would look to alternatives, most likely a line to Canada’s east coast and eastern markets. In addition, railways would step up efforts to add tank cars and tracks as they have done in North Dakota already. Foes of the pipeline hope rejection of the permit will slow down development of the oil sands, but the State Department’s new environmental impact statement issued in March says the oil sands crude will find one way or another to get to the Gulf Coast refineries.

Tell us a little about the effects of the project on the Native American cultures of the proposed area.

Many Native American tribes, especially in Oklahoma, have no problem with the pipeline. In Oklahoma, formerly called the Indian Territory, people have not been strangers to oil booms. But some Native Americans and their tribal leaders are bothered by the thought that the pipeline might inadvertently disturb ancient burial sites or other sacred grounds.  Indeed the pipeline’s route from Niobrara River in northern Nebraska to northern Oklahoma follows almost exactly the route, or Trail of Tears, that the Ponca Tribe followed when forced to move in the 1800s. In South Dakota, Native American tribes have also been outspoken, saying that the Keystone XL crosses treaty lands. The pipeline would narrowly miss the state’s reservations. But it has unearthed more than a century of mistrust and grievance among Native Americans.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty

Comments (6)

  • Ted Lutkus commented on May 29 2013

    The physical pipeline itself is not the major issue environmentally, but rather the effects that it would have could be catastrophic.

    “The pipeline itself would have no significant environmental impact – unless it leaks.” Yes, The pipeline is a method of transportation and aside from leakage there is not a significant threat to the environment. However with a project of its size, and the major impacts it will have, one has to look at the pipeline not as a physical goal but instead as a potentially huge impact on the United States. While abstract, I think that this specific point can be related to something like the Greensboro Counter Sit-Ins. The conflict that rose up nation-wide from the counters were not due to the physical action of sitting, but instead a message. Just like a Civil Rights movement, the Keystone Pipeline would be a message if approved or disapproved. The citizens of the U.S. can either take this opportunity to send the message that the environmental effects of oil companies are negative and unwanted, or we as citizens can deliver a message of hope and long-term responsibility for the planet.

  • Matt Smith commented on Apr 8 2013

    Now is the time to switch the conversation from approval to no-approval, as this pipeline looks eminent to be approved, to the conversation of what Syncrude, Suncor and Transcanada are going to do to allow the pipeline to get approved. At a minimum these companies should buy carbon credits to offset 100% of the carbon emissions of the pipeline. It is approximately 41 million tons per year of carbon (840,000 barrels x 365 days divided by 7.5 barrels in a ton of oil). Carbon Credit purchases are the only reasonable and an economic justification to Transcanada’s justification to do the project in the first place. The world gets two things from this deal: the pipeline the oil companies want so bad and Obama will probably approve because of the politics, and this will be the first step in solidifying a carbon program that the world needs so bad. For Transcanada, buying carbon credits is not a great deal of money as it would result in about 2.5 cents per gallon of gas produced for Transcanada and if the gas is going to be shipped to China, then China will pay 2.5 cents more per gallon and this cost won’t even be passed down to Americans.

  • Jeff Broady commented on Apr 7 2013

    For me, it is not about the pipeline itself.

    Is the oil that is refined in Texas for Domestic use or solely for export?

    What will the tax revenues for the US be?

    And, most importantly, I am deeply opposed to the method of mining these tar sands. The environmental implications are enormously devastating.

    Please review:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/garth_lenz_images_of_beauty_and_devastation.html

  • Rob Dekker commented on Apr 7 2013

    There have been dozens and dozens of posts about the Keystone XL, but somehow I feel that some basic answers remain unanswered.
    For example :

    - Domestic consumption is on a down trend due to improvements in engine efficiency, so why would we want to INCREASE our imports by building a pipeline from Canada ?

    - Is it true that refineries in Gulf are in a “tax free foreign trade zone” so that profits made from the oil flowing through the Keystone XL is not subject to US income tax or state tax, as long as they are exported ?

    - How is it possible that a foreign corporation can use “eminent domain” to force this pipeline over US land owners ?

    - Why did the US State Department investigate the environmental impact of laying the pipe, but completely ignored the environmental impact of producing the oil that flows through it ?

    - Is it true that to 830,000 bpd Keystone would cause and extra 500,000 ton per day of toxic sludge be pumped into unlined toxic waste ponds held back by the largest dams on the planet, and that these dams are made of … sand ?

    - Where is the environment impact study for these tar sands open pit mines ?

    - Why do so many politicians insist on letting this pipeline cross the border ?
    The argument of ‘jobs’ is ridiculous. Even by TransCanada’s own assessment this pipeline will only create a few thousand temporary jobs, with most of them going to Canadian expats. That’s less than a drop in the bucket for the US economy, which added a “paltry” 88,000 jobs in the last month alone.
    The argument of ‘energy independence’ is equally ridiculous. Last time I checked, Canada was a sovereign nation, and besides that, only the refineries in the Gulf get to decide which oil they buy from whom.

    So why on Earth would the Keystone XL be such a hot item on the Republican political agenda ?

    The undue weight that the Republicans (and even some Democratic Senators) give to this pipeline, even though there is NOT A SINGLE rational reason presented in favor of this pipeline, is a strong indication that fossil fuel lobbyists are working our democratically elected government officials. And that is concerning, to say the least.

  • Darrell Foley commented on Apr 5 2013

    Thank you Rachel for clarifying that this could “make us more energy efficient and ensure the country’s oil independence from countries whose political and moral values that we oppose.” — More often then not the term used to sell this idea is simply “securing America’s Oil Independence”… implying that it is US crude, and that it’s in America’s best interest to ‘keep it American’… which was about as logical as saying the US needs to secure it’s American beef industry by importing Alberta beef, or securing Vermont’s maple syrup by importing from Quebec…”Support the United Auto Workers – Buy a Chrysler 300 (built in Brampton, Ontario, Canada)… or the 2 dozens other cars built here in the Great White North!”

    “The pipeline itself would have no significant environmental impact – unless it leaks.” Ya, they do leak… One example would be the Enbridge oil spill of 2010 in Michigan flowing into Talmadge Creek which flows into the Kalamazoo River. Aside from 22 violations that Enbridge received relating to the spill it ended up costing (by summer 2012) $765 million, a far cry from the 1 month and $1 million estimate. When they say there will be no environmental impact, it will not leak, a disaster is unlikely, or that it will be cheap – I call BULLSHIT.

  • Charles Bradford commented on Apr 5 2013

    What about this. The pipeline is not about Oil or Jobs but that is how they are selling it.

    What if it were about Water? Canada has way more water than it needs so if you are a big corporation why not buy up the water rights and sell the commodity to Dust Bowl States and Mexico?