Keystone XL Timeline: Road to Controversy

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week the Senate failed to pass a controversial Keystone XL Pipeline measure that would have finished construction on the XL branch of the pipeline which has been frozen and unable to move forward while environmental impact studies are being done. Republicans in the House of Representatives successfully passed their own Keystone bill.

The Keystone issue is a long running one at this point, and with it gaining as much attention as it has recently — partly due to runoff Senate elections in Louisiana — it’s worth looking at the background and the journey to the controversy that it’s sparked today.

Keystone before the XL

First of all, the history of Keystone XL Pipeline is not the same as the history of the Keystone Pipeline. The original Keystone Pipeline has finished construction (both phase one and two completed at the end of 2010 and 2011, respectively), stretching from the Alberta oil fields in the western province of Canada to Illinois and Nebraska, Cushing, Oklahoma, and Texas. That part of the pipeline was worth $5.2 billion, according to the Pipeline and Gas Journal, was 2,148 miles long, and able to move 590,000 barrels per day of crude oil. The whole project has been a cooperative effort between TransCanada and American-owned ConocoPhillips.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Protests and time estimates

The Keystone XL section of the pipeline would be between Alberta, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and began construction August 9, 2012, after July approval from the government for the southern part of the pipeline. That same day protests were also launched in Texas and Oklahoma. Said TransCanada Chief Executive, Russ Girling, “TransCanada is now poised to put approximately 4,000 Americans to work constructing the $2.3 billion pipeline that will be built in three distinct ‘spreads,’ or sections,” according to The Los Angeles Times. At the time, Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, told the LA Times, “Originally, we had expected it would take a couple of years to build the entire pipeline. This, depending on the seasons and what we’re able to do, we’ll be able to do in less time.”

Looking back now, while Howard may have been speaking only in terms of building logistics and worker capabilities, this is something of an ironic statement. That said, there had been Environmental Protection Agency approval problems all the way back in 2010 when the EPA said that the impact study needed to be amended because it was deficient. Back and forth continued over data inaccuracies and disagreement on the degree or existence of environmental consequences, and the actual jobs — long term versus short term — that would be created by construction and in running the pipeline additions. There was further criticism from oversight, and subsequent criticism of the oversight itself.

The issue of Nebraska

The pipelines route through Nebraska was a controversial matter in September, when the Supreme Court heard arguments over whether or not the governor of Nebraska, Republican Dave Heineman, had the power to approve the construction of the pipeline when land owners were against it. Dave Domina, attorney to residents, told NPR at the time, “Only the Public Service Commission can handle the administrative process that goes with a specific route and its acceptance or rejection.” This hearing is still pending, and the undecided status of the case has had a detrimental affect on the pipeline’s future even in the latest Senate decision about the pipeline.

“We could have probably picked up a couple more [votes] had that process been completed,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) on the failed Senate vote, according to CNBC. “The question is,” Heitkamp said, “what is the president going to do with it once the Nebraska decision comes through. What’s his final decision going to be? And then if he decides to veto … do we have enough votes to override?” 

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why are problems increasing?

Look back at the history of the Keystone Pipeline, you might wonder why stumbling blocks only came later in the process. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of international programs for the National Resources Defense Council, explains it as a political matter. In praising the EPA review of environmental and health concerns, she noted to the Journal Star that this sort of thorough examination had not always been the case. “The first Keystone was under the Bush administration,” said Lefkowitz. “and the goal of the Bush administration was to push it through as quickly as possible.”

At present the Keystone XL Pipeline looks like it will be a delayed decision once more, even with the successful passage of a measure in the House. Given its rocky history with the Obama Administration and environmental interests, this is understandable. However, recent polls from Pew Research show that a fairly strong percentage of Americans are supportive of the pipeline, with 59% in favor, 31% in opposition, and 10% unsure.

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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