A happy ending to the saga of the Keystone XL pipeline

A decade on, the Keystone XL pipeline has finally met its end, signalling that there’s no room for oil in the energy transition.

After about a decade of battles and stories, of information and knowledge sharing to protect the land, a people, and an entire generation, the story of the Keystone XL oil pipeline has finally reached its epilogue. It won’t go ahead. And not because it was suspended, not because it’s on hold, waiting for this or that politician to make a decision. It was scrapped by the very same company that was planning on building it: the TC Energy Corporation. A happy ending, therefore, at a time when this kind of news seems increasingly rare, when we are constantly faced with facts and stories that paint a bitter picture of our climate and environment. Thus, let’s enjoy this moment and try to retrace the steps on this path that we hope many others will follow.

The story of the Keystone XL pipeline

The story of the Keystone XL pipeline is somewhat similar to the new Turin-Lyon high-speed rail project, which has seen fierce opposition in recent years. Its North American counterpart, in fact, involved the creation of a more efficient pipeline to work alongside the existing Keystone pipeline, which goes from Alberta, Canada all the way to refineries in the US state of Texas. The project, launched by what was then called the TransCanada Corporation (today TC Energy Corporation), was proposed and commissioned in 2010. It involved four phases, the last of which – the XL pipeline – was to be 1,897 kilometres long, connecting the city of Hardisty, Alberta, which is rich in bituminous sands, to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would reconnect with the existing southern part, which is already in operation.

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A map showing the planned location of the now-scrapped Keystone XL pipeline extension

As with the high-speed rail project, the old “leg” of the pipeline was considered to be logistically obsolete, especially on the Canadian front, which has always been in favour of the works. The new XL expansion was to be shorter and straighter, crossing through several US states. Hence the key role that the government in Washington was to play in this story. But there’s something else that influenced the final decision more than anything else: the type of oil that the pipeline was designed to transport. Oil from bituminous sands (also known as oil sands or tar sands).

Bitumen, a dense, viscous type of oil, naturally occurs in combination with different percentages of sand, water, and clay. Most bituminous sands in the world are located in the Canadian territory of Alberta, where the Athabasca River flows. Other reserves of bituminous sands are found in Russia, Kazakhstan, and, on a smaller scale, in Madagascar.

Keystone XL would have caused an unacceptable rise in CO2

This characteristic led the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assert that the impact of refining the bitumen, much more significant compared to refining “high-quality” crude oil, would have incurred too high an environmental cost. One that would certainly have gone beyond the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals needed to halt global warming. According to the EPA, a barrel of oil extracted from bituminous sands would have produced 17 per cent more CO2 compared to the average barrel consumed today in the US (the data is from a 2014 report). This is unacceptable for our current climate context.

In 2015, US President Barack Obama (whose VP was current president Joe Biden) thus decided to block construction on the extension of this pipeline, coherently with his leadership policy regarding the fight against the climate crisis and compliance with the Paris Agreement goals. Obama’s successor, however, took the opposite approach. By 2017, Donald Trump had already added construction of the Keystone XL pipeline (and the Dakota Access pipeline) back to the national agenda, to create jobs “like in the good old days”. This, however, didn’t seem to provide enough certainties to TC Energy, who needed to be sure of plans and strategies for the medium and long term. What if this was just a new false start? What if Trump was not reelected? Throughout the Republican presidency, the project was stalled. Then the pandemic came and blew everything away, including the wave of populism that had seemed so unstoppable. Biden‘s arrival at the White House signalled a fresh start, and the new President promised to take the climate crisis seriously from his first day in office. Biden rescinded all construction permits, putting the final nail in the coffin of the Keystone XL pipeline.

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Protest against Keystone XL © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“After a comprehensive review of its options, and in consultation with its partner, the Government of Alberta, it has terminated the Keystone XL Pipeline Project,” the TC Energy Corporation confirmed in a press release.

What we can learn from the Keystone XL story

This epilogue might well have come a long time ago, but history is strange, and oil companies are like cartoon villains who come back again and again, even when they seem to have definitively left the scene. Many people played a part in this story, from political progressives in the US to organisations that have fought for the climate for years (such as 350.org), from the international community to Native Americans, whose role, in this case, was somewhat less prominent given the immense extent of the project, which would have scarred a huge range of territories, from the North to the South of the US.

The successful stop to the Keystone XL pipeline can be an example to follow in the dozens of challenges we still face to stop oil giants from destroying our planet – the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines foremost among these. There’s no space for oil in the energy transition.

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