Keystone XL, Back in the Pipeline

A Major Coup for Trudeau

A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline, Gascoyne, North Dakota, January 25, 2017. Terray Sylvester / Reuters

Robert McNally, a senior energy adviser to former President George W. Bush, once described the process of approving pipeline permits as “the most boring thing in the world.” But where the Keystone XL project is concerned he could not have been more wrong. The campaign to build the 1,200-mile project through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska has spanned three presidencies, redefined U.S.-Canadian relations, and galvanized the environmental movement on both sides of the border. Even now—with global-warming skeptic Donald Trump in the White House, and Keystone XL seemingly near approval—the project will still have important political ramifications in Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s green-energy reputation has been challenged by his role as international pipeline promoter. 

Given the strong opinions about Keystone XL that have formed on both sides of the debate, one might think that the project would fundamentally change the face of North America’s pipeline network. In fact, it would merely serve as an alternate route for the oil sands and crude that already travel within preexisting pipeline infrastructure, from Alberta due east to Manitoba, and then, following a 90 degree turn, southward into the American Midwest. Keystone XL would effectively be a giant hypotenuse that extends into a more or less straight line directly from eastern Alberta into Steele City, Nebraska.

Nevertheless, Keystone XL has always had huge significance for Canada’s oil industry because the capacity of the existing Keystone network has been maxed out. Alberta is completely landlocked—it is one of only two provinces that have no direct access to tidewater. Oil producers increasingly have had to resort to expensive and dangerous rail transport in order to get the fruits of the oil sands to coastal refineries. Although Trudeau has approved the twinning of the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, which extends from Edmonton to the British Columbian coast, more ambitious plans to construct completely new pipelines westward have met stiff resistance from British Columbia’s left coast environmentalists

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