Opinon Wars: Keystone Pipeline XL

by Anush Arvind

Every once in a while, Anush and his alter ego, The Contrarian, get into a scuffle about the latest in environmental politics. Annoyingly, The Contrarian sometimes has a point worth writing down. Today, Anush’s alter ego has decided to publicly sit down with him and talk about the Keystone XL Pipeline, and President Biden’s latest executive order revoking the permit to finish its construction.

Anush: Alright, here goes nothing: I’m glad Biden cancelled Keystone. He’s keeping his campaign promise and he’s doing right by the Native Indians and the environment and ––

Contrarian: Hold on, hold on! I get it. You’ve got the whole “cut me and I bleed social justice” bit going. But let’s get some facts out of the way first, right? You can go full ham on how cancelling the fourth stage of the Keystone pipeline is going to avert existential disaster – Oh that’s right, the first three stages of the pipeline are complete and fully operational. Biden has only halted the fourth stage of construction with his latest executive order. 

A: Yeah, that’s what the XL stands for in Keystone XL: Extra Large.

C: Actually, it stands for “export limited.” But your sentiment is more or less accurate. Keystone XL is basically another pipeline laid between Steele City, Nebraska, and Hardisty, Alberta, in Canada. These two towns are already connected by a longer pipeline constructed in Keystone’s first phase, completed in 2010 during the Obama administration.

A: I was only joking. You’re right, though. The XL pipeline is actually specifically meant to facilitate the export of American oil to Canada, and is financed entirely by private companies. So no taxpayer money is being spent on it, but it would create about 45,000 jobs in the short run, according to a study by the Obama administration’s State Department. That’s $2 billion in wages, which sounds like a win-win situation – and for many conservatives, it is!

The Keystone Pipeline has been planned broadly in four stages. The final stage “XL” connects Steele City, Nebraska, to Hardisty, Alberta. COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA.

C: Yeah, but this isn’t really a political issue like that. Justin Trudeau, famously liberal, is actually in favor of XL, and was kind of disappointed that Biden revoked its permit. Both the Canadian and American economies benefit hugely from the pipeline.

A: But you’re forgetting that surging stock markets and oil magnates aren’t really my priority – and they shouldn’t be yours either. Any holistic assessment of the economy should include the loss incurred from the degradation of the environment, which this pipeline promises plenty of. This is, of course, not to mention the real, human cost XL would incur by its implicit violation of Native American sovereignty.

C: You’ve mentioned two things here – potential environmental damage and Indian sovereignty. Explain. 

A: Look, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me that XL won’t have any environmental impact on its own and that XL is just an additional pipeline where three already exist – 

C: And that any potential environmental impact this pipeline could have is just that: potential. There are risks, of course, but every major infrastructure project comes with its risks. 

A: Quite. But you’ve got to understand that there is more than just the risk of spillage involved here – spillage, by the way, in Nebraska’s extremely fragile Sandhills ecosystem. I mean, XL is set to cross the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, which provides drinking water for millions as well as a full 30 percent of America’s irrigation water. The existing Keystone pipeline has already leaked 21 times. 21 times! If the XL leaks – which is almost a given – it would be leaking into some of the most agriculturally important and environmentally sensitive land in the country.

C:  I’m not going to deny there are potential environmental risks. I will point out, however, that in the history of civilization, there hasn’t been a single infrastructure project that hasn’t come with environmental risks.

A: Okay, but this particular civilization is facing an existential threat in the form of climate change. And, because we have a grasp of science, we understand the threat and the ways we can mitigate it. Can’t say that about a lot of civilizations, can we? This pipeline is a long-term commitment to developing Alberta’s oil sands at a time when we’re trying to move away from the consumption of fossil fuels. Right now, we shouldn’t be devoting time and energy to make oil more cheaply available in the market.

The Keystone Pipeline XL is set to run through the fragile Sandhills region (pictured) in Nebraska. Environmentalists fear that oil spills there could lead to widespread ecological and agricultural damage. COURTESY OF U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY.

C: But you’re clearly forgetting the geopolitical element here. Look, not constructing XL will not have the effect of evaporating our economy’s demand for fossil fuels – we still need the oil. And we’ll continue getting it – from Saudi Arabia. A major objection of Keystone, and XL specifically, is energy independence from OPEC (i.e., the major oil producing countries, mostly in the Middle East). And I’m sure you have plenty of concerns bankrolling their extremely conservative view of the world in exchange for oil.

A: Yes, of course I do. The Middle East has a habit of treating women like sub-humans, taking Sharia law to unjustified extremes and exploiting foreign working classes unlike anywhere else in the world. But we haven’t talked about America’s history of exploitation and injustice when it comes to Native Americans. By forcibly infringing on sacred Indian land, Keystone becomes yet another instance in a long line of injustice the Indians have had to face. Just the optics of Keystone should be setting off alarm bells. Indian land being used against Indian wishes for the development of environmentally damaging technology that will only benefit a few of the wealthiest Americans at the very top? Surely this cannot be the most effective way of dealing with the Saudis.

C: Perhaps not. But it is the only viable option we have if we are to rid ourselves of our dependence on them. Every action that America commits to is an action that the forces of history will have shaped. America has a complicated history. It’s important we acknowledge that. But sometimes, the most practical solution – even from a moral standpoint – demands some sacrifices. You’re right, this project does not aim to better preserve our environment. But not finishing XL will not reduce our dependence on oil either. We can ensure though, that the government uses profits from Keystone to fund our commitment to preventing climate change.

A: One can only hope – and vote! – for that eventuality, I suppose. Biden hasn’t completely scrapped Keystone, so there definitely is going to be that oily lining you’re looking for.

C: Ugh.


(against Keystone XL)

The Contrarian

(for Keystone XL)

  • Keystone XL poses a significant threat to the environment because of the very real potential for oil spills in sensitive ecological regions.
  • No significant infrastructure project in the history of humanity has come without risk to the environment.
  • The XL project is a serious infringement of sovereign and sacred Native American land.
  • Some people will be disappointed, but this is for the greater good. The economy will prosper and thousands of jobs will be created – all of this without any expenditure of tax-payer money.
  • Keystone XL is a symbol of an expanding, fossil-fuel based economy at a time of climate crisis. We need to be moving away from fossil fuels.
  • Not building XL won’t in itself reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But it will help us reduce our dependence on foreign powers (like OPEC) for our energy needs.

Let us know what you think about Biden’s move to halt the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the comments below. Whose side are you on: Anush’s or The Contrarian’s?

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Jeff Austins
Jeff Austins
1 month ago

I don’t like that we are so reliant on oil for literally everything, but I’m with the Contrarian here. Under the Biden Administration, we’re back to doing deals with corrupt regimes to quench our oil addiction at the expense of US jobs and US scientists being able to monitor our ecosystems. Simply put, foreign independence is the solution for our oil addiction.

Grace Foreman
Grace Foreman
1 month ago

I’m definitely on Anush’s side here. I feel like the sentiment that “no big projects come without big risks” is a priority that needs to be changed in our economy. In my opinion, there are always other options, even if they might be really hard to come by. In the end though, knowing that we did something the right way will always make us feel all the more proud. I feel like marginalized groups like Indigenous peoples are kind of just put to the side in situations like these to where it feels ok to risk their safety and well-being. We need to start putting people over property.

Dilan Patel
Dilan Patel
1 month ago

Great discussion between Anush and the contrarian. I will have to side with the contrarian here. The reason being is because we have already commenced three stages of the project and completing the fourth stage would create jobs and would make the U.S. less dependent on OPEC. We have learned during Covid that being dependent on other countries is always the best course of action.



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