What You Should Know About the Keystone XL Pipeline

Read up on this controversial project that could affect gas prices, the environment, and more.

By Kelli Fitzpatrick
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It taps into the second biggest petroleum reserve on Earth.

In May 2012, TransCanada proposed a 1,179-mile pipeline extension called Keystone XL that would connect tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Kansas. This add-on would be the fourth phase of a 3,812-mile pipeline project. Alberta's oil sands, sand mixtures saturated with petroleum, lie under about 54,000 square miles of desert in the northeastern part of the province and could produce up to 169 billion barrels of oil. This reserve is dwarfed only by Saudi Arabia's oil sands reserve of 260 billion barrels.

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The Keystone XL was rerouted in 2013

KXL's original route directed pipes directly through the Nebraska Sand Hills, a National Natural Landmark that covers about a quarter of the state and sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world's largest sources of drinking water. Environmentalists worried that if the pipes leaked, as they did 12 times from 2010 to 2011, that a water source serving 2 million people would be threatened. The approved new route avoids the Sand Hills, but still travels through parts of the Ogallala aquifer. 

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The pipeline could create between 5,000 and 20,000 jobs.

However, estimates differ based on the source. Nebraska congressman Lee Terry says the pipeline could "put 20,000 unemployed people to work." TransCanada's estimate is 9,000 jobs. A study conducted by the Global Labor Institute at Cornell's University College of Industrial and Labor Relations puts the employment numbers between 2,500 and 4,650. The U.S. State Department predicts about 5,000 jobs.

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The majority of Americans seem to be in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to a June 2013 Harris Interactive Poll, 82 percent of registered voters believe that government approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline is in America's national interest, and 70 percent support the building of the pipeline. Other polls show similar support, with a Nanos poll finding 63 percent of Americans would prefer to be independent of foreign oil over environmental concerns, and a Pew Research poll showing 66 percent of Americans back the pipeline project.

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The president has hinted that he'll support the Keystone XL pipeline

At an April fundraiser, Obama expressed his views on the pipeline without actually mentioning it by name. He said that the earth's temperature probably isn't the "number one concern" for workers who have seen a raise in decades and are spending $40 to fill their gas tank. "If we invest now, we will create jobs, we will create entire new industries; other countries will be looking to catch up, they will be looking to import what we do," he said. 

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However, the program is still very controversial.

Protestors are unhappy with the environmental and economic implications of the Keystone XL. In traditional oil drilling, crude oil flows from deep wells on land or beneath the ocean floor, and even though oil spills happen and seismic waves can damage sea life, oil sand extraction is considered even worse. To extract one barrel of oil from oil sands, oil companies cut down trees and remove tons of peat and dirt to access the sand, then heat several barrels of water to strip the oil from the sand. Contaminated waste water is then deposited into nearby ponds (in 2008, a flock of ducks died after landing on one of the ponds). This process produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than producing a barrel of conventional oil. President Obama vetoed the extension in 2012, but a decision on the new Presidential Permit this year could prompt construction to begin in 2015.

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