OPINION: The Keystone XL Pipeline: We Aren’t Fighting the Right Fight

Not just in the U.S. but all around the world, pipelines, in general, have been a hotly debated subject for decades. The Coastal Gaslink, Dakota Access, and Keystone XL pipelines are just three recent examples of underground pipes that have been the subjects of significant protests. In other parts of the world, they are frequently the target of terrorist attacks leading to ruinous environmental impacts. Even still, there are 2.6 million miles of buried pipeline in the U.S. alone.

At 1200 miles, the Keystone XL pipeline represents just 0.05% of the existing pipelines. So, why should we care about the K-XL? As it happens, the answer to that question is stuck in a heterogeneous sludge of complexities, falsehoods, and other details that could choke a wetland. Hopefully, you are in a comfortable place with a pleasing beverage and a carb-loaded snack. We are about to embark on a journey, and you will need your strength. If you are in the student union, I recommend the warm coffee cake. It is light and fluffy; everything in this article won’t be.

As we drill deep into the heart of this issue, the first layer of complexity we will encounter is zeal. Human nature is such that we often find ourselves impassioned though un-informed. No matter our creed, we all want to fight for what’s right and will do so with vigor at the drop of a pipe wrench. It is this quality we all hold in common that so often finds us divided. If we are to punch through this innate virtue in others to extract the truth from our world, we must first suspend our desire to jump to conclusions. We must open our eyes and see that we have been fighting against something that could have helped us all along.

The K-XL is proposed to connect the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the southern U.S. It crosses several sensitive ecosystems. It will also be buried above the Oglala Aquifer, which supplies about 30% of the water to American agriculture, saying nothing for the domestic supply; losing the OA would cripple the country’s food supply. What’s worse, the oil that comes out of the tar sands corrodes pipes and has leaked from pipelines three times more often than cleaner crude oils from other reserves. Some sections of the Keystone pipeline that have been in operation since 2010 have leaked as well. Furthermore, opening access to the tar sands has shown increased production of the heavier crude oil leading to 17% higher greenhouse emissions. That works out to an additional 178.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.

So, how could this possibly be a good thing? Especially at a time when we should be pushing for increased development of clean, renewable energy?

As crazy as it might sound, the K-XL reduces more emissions than it creates. A heavily cited study by professor Karen Clay at Carnegie Mellon University found that the energy cost of transporting oil by rail is double that of a pipeline. Moreover, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have a greater cost than pipeline spills and accidents — “eight times greater” to be exact.

There is still the matter of the Oglala Aquifer to consider. Unfortunately, as good a point as that would be, the existing ten-year-old KPL, which is roughly twice the proposed K-XL length, also crosses the OA. The K-XL at least would have the benefit of being newer and less prone to leak. As for the argument against the development of the Alberta tar sands, Canada has committed to developing its natural resources and has already side-stepped the K-XL hurdle with other pipelines along with rail transportation. So, whether they should or not is a moot point

because they already have. While we were spending so much of our energy resisting the K-XL, Canada figured out a way to bypass our efforts at the cost of adding miles transported. We fought so hard against a “bad” system that we ended up getting something worse instead.

However, this argument is far from decided. There still may be significant benefits from completing the K-XL, though none of those benefits should forgive the pipeline’s greasy past. In terms of oil spill safety, pipe ranks low on the list. The corrosive nature of crude oil is a beast of a challenge to overcome in any system. Still, the real challenges mount when one tries moving it through a pipe, even with its lack of moving parts. As it turns out, crude oil is like liquid sandpaper thanks to the large amounts of suspended solids, and the heavy oil from Alberta is worse than most in this aspect.

However, even without the bits of hard junk grinding their way through the pipe, there would still be a very corrosive element to crude oil. Any pipe—but oil pipes specifically—are subject to several other forms of corrosion. Galvanic action, sweet and sour corrosion, and stress fractures are just a few of the problems that shorten a pipe’s life. Given these unavoidable drawbacks, it is no small wonder why many people disagree with pipelines.

But given pipelines create eight times less greenhouse emission than rail and truck, affording them the smallest carbon footprint of any form of transportation, we may have been barking up the wrong drill derrick all along. If there could be a way to increase their safety record above that of even the safest modes of transport, suddenly arguments against the K-XL begin to dry up. The question then becomes, is there such a way? The short answer is maybe, but we’d have to fight for it.

After several catastrophic shipping nightmares, ships carrying crude oil now must have a double hull design. It is those kinds of innovations that give them their safety record. Now, double-walled pipes have been implemented and, though they do have a better safety margin, they still come with their own set of issues.

The trouble is the second concentric pipe wall prevents the inspection and maintenance of the first. The answer might then be secondary containment. There are a few different ideas on what this might look like, each coming with drawbacks but also rewards. One system of wrapping pipelines in a corrosion-resistant liner that permits pipeline inspection and can prevent spills seems promising but has seen limited use. Another idea that has come forward is the use of maintenance “vaults.” The pipeline could be buried in that vault, which would act as secondary containment and enable pipeline crews to access them. This would allow for the inspection and maintenance of the entire length of a pipeline while simultaneously assuring containment of any spill.

This option would mean that every inch of pipe would easily be accessible for continuous inspection or maintenance. This option, however, comes with the immediate drawback of a large price tag. Such an endeavor would mean a large enough increase in cost that oil companies would likely oppose the idea.

That is why I say we have been fighting the wrong fight. We have been fighting to stop pipelines and have lost that fight a million times over. We need to fight for effective secondary containment for any new pipeline within the U.S. instead. This change would allow us to transport our crude oil in not only the most efficient way but also the safest way. Now is the time to refine the way we transport our petroleum. We owe it to our future generations.