Although many pipelines and projects designed to transport oil have been built throughout the world, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline attracted significant media attention and became a symbol of American reliance on fossil fuels. The Keystone XL Pipeline was a 1,179-mile proposed alternative route to the already existing Keystone Pipeline (“Keystone XL Pipeline: Why Is It so Disputed?”). The XL pipeline was designed to transport oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada in a more efficient route to Nebraska, where it would meet up with the existing pipeline (U.S. Congressional Research Service). The XL pipeline would have transported 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil to the U.S. market, representing a significant increase over the 550,000 bpd that are currently transported down the existing portion of the Keystone Pipeline. With the addition of the XL-portion, the entire pipeline would have had the ability to carry 1.3 million bpd (“Keystone XL Pipeline: Why Is It So Disputed?”). TransCanada applied for a presidential permit to build the pipeline in the U.S. in 2008 and, after being denied, applied again in 2012. After another highly controversial and widely publicized review, the XL-portion of the Keystone Pipeline was again denied. This essay aims to analyze how societal constructs and needs for transportation create a demand for oil, and how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a direct result of this demand for fossil fuels, would have affected the environment.
Transportation has created an increased demand for oil throughout the world, and notably the U.S. 28% of all energy usage in the U.S. goes towards transporting people and goods (“Energy Use for Transportation”). Much of this energy usage is by automobiles; 58% of energy usage in the transportation sector is by cars, light trucks, and motorcycles, and another 23% of energy usage is by other trucks. This adds up to 81% of the energy usage in the U.S. is by some type of automobile (“How We Use Energy”). Other modes of transportation also contribute to the energy usage by the transportation sector, but represent a lower proportion of the energy used. For example, aircraft makes up only 8% of the energy used in the transportation sector (“How We Use Energy”). Therefore, the dependency on oil by cars and trucks is a large source of the demand for fossil fuels in the U.S.
The reliance on automobiles for daily life is considerably higher in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world. Despite having only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 1/5 of the world’s automobiles (“How We Use Energy”). Even compared to other developed nations, the U.S. drives significantly more. In 2010, Americans drove for 85% of their daily trips while Europeans drove for only 50-65% of daily trips. Additionally, for trips under 1 mile, Americans drove 70% of the time, while Europeans made 70% of the short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation (Buehler).
Societal structures have created this dependency on cars and trucks for the American way of life. The high dependency on automobiles in the U.S. began developing after World War II, when automobile technology developed to allow for “mass motorization.” Although there were similar technological advancements in both the U.S. and Europe post-World War II, there was greater personal wealth in American households. This allowed for more American families than their European counterparts to be able to afford cars (Buehler).
As more Americans began driving cars, there was greater need to develop roads. As there were more roads, society shaped into depending on vehicle transportation for daily function. While European cities were designed to have bike lanes, sidewalks, and crosswalks, American cities were planned around having roads, bridges, and car parking. American cities could therefore expand and grow larger, since vehicular transportation allowed for more traveling within a city (Buehler). For example, the city of Atlanta has grown to be 120 miles wide (“How Energy Availability Affects Economies and Societies”). Having such large cities creates a cycle of requiring greater transportation of both goods and people.
Roads connecting cities to both suburbs and other cities also became a priority in the U.S., resulting in the development of a network of highways (Buehler). The development of safe, reliable highways further encouraged the growth of suburbs and made it even more convenient for people and goods to travel by automobile (“How Energy Availability Affects Economies and Societies”). Therefore, a vicious cycle has developed between car dependency and the development of good, reliable roads.
Not only has American society grown dependent on vehicles for daily life, but has also become reliant on petroleum-based fuels to sustain this dependency. Petroleum is 92% of the energy used in the U.S. transportation sector (“How We Use Energy”). Therefore, not only are Americans reliant on cars and trucks for a way of life, but they also rely on dirtier methods of operating them.
Governmental structures have also shaped transportation in ways that increase the demand for oil. For example, in Europe, zoning laws allow for a greater mix of uses in residential zones; in addition to being allotted to build homes, European zones allow development for other uses, such as retail and offices. This reduces the amount of traveling required by European residents. However, in the U.S., zoning laws restrict use beyond residential purposes, increasing the distance many American residents must travel to acquire the same goods and services as their European counterparts (Buehler). With increased distances required to obtain goods and services, Americans must rely more heavily on cars and trucks for transportation.
The taxation structures in the U.S. also facilitate the dependency on automobiles. The U.S. does not tax gasoline nearly as much as Europe, making it more economically favorable for Americans to drive. The revenue that is, however, made from gasoline taxes in the U.S. serves as a further investment in driving by going towards uses such as roadway construction (Buehler).
Even American laws create a less favorable environment for those who opt not to drive. Laws involving pedestrian and driver accidents are much less favorable to the pedestrian in the U.S. as they are in Europe, which although may not actually cause increased vehicle usage, is a symbol of U.S.’s commitment to driving (Buehler).
The government has not only helped instill the demand for oil, but has also created a need for the oil to be produced domestically. In 2011, the U.S. imported 11.4 million barrels of oil per day (mpbd) and exported only 2.4 mpbd. Currently, the largest sources of U.S. gross oil imports are Canada (2.7 mbpd), Persian Gulf (1.9 mbpd), Mexico (1.2 mbpd), and Venezuela (0.9 mbpd) (U.S. Congressional Research Service 21). The U.S. has pointed to political turmoil and corruption in places such as Mexico, Venezuela, and the Middle East as reasons why the U.S. must decrease its dependency on oil supplies from these countries (“Keystone XL Pipeline: Why Is It so Disputed?”). The U.S. government has claimed that international events will impact U.S. oil prices, instilling a fear that U.S. would be powerless over the price it must pay for its addiction to fossil fuels. However, international events will still impact oil prices in the U.S., even if the U.S. produces more of its own oil. For example, even though the U.S. was importing almost no oil from Libya at the time, the disruption of the Libyan oil supply in early 2011 still caused oil prices in the U.S. to increase (U.S. Congressional Research Service 21). Therefore, despite a lack of evidence, the government has claimed a need for increased domestic oil production to reduce the effects of tumultuous international events in oil-supplying nations.
The accessibility of oil has also facilitated its demand. Initially, there was thought to be an endless supply of fossil fuels available. This perception of high availability created a low market price for fossil fuels. Even though it is now clear that there might not be enough fossil fuels to sustain our habits by the end of the century, consumers have grown accustomed to cheap prices, and competition between large companies has worked to keep customers happy and prices low (“Fossil Fuels”). Even though alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar, are also readily available, the technology is not as advanced, making it less economically efficient to extract and transport these types of energy. Since the environmental cost is not reflected in their market price, fossil fuels are more economically efficient, encouraging the dependency on fossil fuels for energy.
The demand for oil has had a tremendous impact on the environment. Large companies have exploited the natural stocks of fossil fuels whenever and wherever possible. In coordination with claims that the U.S. must get more of its oil from more reliable supplies closer to home, eyes have turned towards the Canadian oil sands. The Keystone XL pipeline was one of the major projects undertaken to increase U.S. production of oil. Analyzing the potential environmental impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other projects like it, is important in assessing the environmental costs of society’s dependency on oil.
One of the main environmental concerns surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline was the risk of oil spills. In the existing Keystone Pipeline, there were 1,692 incidents between 2002 and 2012. 79% of those 1,692 incidents were classified as small, meaning the spills were less than 2,100 gallons of oil. 4% of the incidents were classified as large, meaning that more than 42,000 gallons of oil were released (U.S. Department of State 18). These statistics illustrate that it is inevitable for at least some oil to escape to the environment when being transported such large distances. For the Keystone XL portion, it was estimated that at least 34,000 gallons of oil would spill each year (“In Harm’s Way”).
Different factors, such as proximity to water source, porosity of soils, volume of spill, duration of release, and the viscosity and density of the crude oil, determine the severity of an oil spill. The main concern surrounding an oil spill is the risk of surface or groundwater contamination. Wetlands, flowing streams and rivers, and shallow groundwater areas are particularly susceptible to contamination, and the XL-portion of the pipeline would have cut through many of these sensitive areas (U.S. Congressional Research Service 30). For example, the proposed route would have cut through the porous land of the Nebraska Sand Hills. Since the land in the Nebraska Sand Hills retains such large amounts of water, any oil spilled would be absorbed and be able to travel large distances. Therefore, the high porosity would have more severe and far-reaching effects on bodies of water and ecosystems (U.S. Congressional Research Service 18).
The way in which the land is used, in addition to the land’s natural properties, also determines the damage from an oil spill. Humans use many surface and groundwater sources along the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline for drinking water and for commercial or industrial use. The Keystone XL pipeline would have crossed 1,073 bodies of water and many areas where the groundwater level is close to the surface, heightening the threat of an oil spill (U.S. Department of State 21). The Nebraska Sand Hills are also home to the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater aquifer systems in the world. The Ogallala Aquifer accounts for 78% of the region’s public water, 83% of the water used for irrigation in Nebraska, and 30% of the total water used in the U.S. for irrigation and agriculture (U.S. Congressional Research Service 19). Therefore, contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer would have both local and widespread consequences. The land that the pipeline would cross through is also home to hundreds of species of plant and animals. Contamination would be particularly threatening to areas with sensitive wildlife or plant species (U.S. Department of State 18). Even small amounts of oil that get deposited in the bottoms of rivers and streams can be continuously released over time, making an oil spill both difficult to clean up and the harmful effects long-lasting (U.S. Department of State 19).
Even without an oil spill, the Keystone XL pipeline would have severely impacted wildlife. The pipeline itself is a form of transportation that would cut through land and continuously affect its surrounding environments. The project would have directly disturbed 15,500 acres of land and require the construction of hundreds of new roads. Extraction of the tar sands has resulted in habitat loss for many species in the Canadian boreal forests. For example, the woodland caribou have dropped in numbers due to loss of habitat (“In Harm’s Way”). Land disturbance along the route of the pipeline would have also caused habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation (U.S. Department of State 24). Many vulnerable species, such as the black-footed ferret, the American burying beetle, and northern swift foxes, would have suffered as a result of the land change (“In Harm’s Way”).
Power lines have been a particularly harmful addition to the habitats of many species of animals. The project would have required 378 miles of new power lines to be constructed. Power line collisions have proven to be extremely harmful, and the pipelines from the Keystone XL pipeline would have affected species such as the interior least tern and the piping plover. New power lines would have also further threatened the endangered whooping cranes. Only 300 whooping cranes remain in the wild, and their lankiness makes the species particularly vulnerable to power line collisions. The proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline would have run through the migratory corridor that 90% of the remaining whooping cranes use, making the power lines very dangerous (“In Harm’s Way”).
Additionally, the type of oil that would have been transported through the Keystone XL pipeline was a major environmental concern. The oil sands in Alberta have excessive amounts of bitumen, commonly known as asphalt or tar (Hurst). The bitumen extraction process releases three times as many greenhouse gases as conventional extraction processes (“Keystone XL Pipeline” – Friends of the Earth). Extraction of bitumen also requires large amounts of water. In the current Keystone Pipeline, it takes 3 barrels of water to extract 1 barrel of oil. 95% of the 2.4 million barrels of water that is used to extract the oil each day is so polluted that it must be stored in human-made pools, called tailing ponds. Once in the tailing ponds, the toxic water can reach clean water supplies, proving to be hazardous (“Keystone XL Pipeline” – Friends of the Earth).
In addition to the many direct effects, the Keystone XL pipeline also would have had many indirect impacts on society and the environment. The approval of the XL pipeline would have further promoted U.S.’s dependency on fossil fuels (U.S. Congressional Research Service 18). The project would have encouraged the growth of the fossil fuel industry, while disincentivizing projects aimed at efficiently harnessing renewable energy sources (“Keystone XL Pipeline: Why Is It so Disputed?”).
Other indirect impacts of the pipeline would have included greenhouse gas emissions. While greenhouse gases are directly emitted in the oil extraction and transportation process, this only represents 20-30% of the greenhouse gases emitted in the oil’s lifetime; 70-80% of the greenhouse gases are emitted during the combustion of the oil (“Keystone XL Pipeline” – Center for Climate and Energy Solutions 20). Therefore, it would not have been the project itself that would have released significant amounts of greenhouse gases, but the combustion of the oil made available as a result of the project that would cause greenhouse gas emissions (U.S. Department of State 15).
Although the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline was a step in the right direction towards reducing dependency on fossil fuels, the fight is not over. Currently, protesters and environmental activists have been raising concerns about the Dakota Access pipeline. Similarly to the Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed 1,200 mile-Dakota Access pipeline is designed to offer a more efficient mode of transporting 470,000 barrels of crude oil to refineries for ultimate use in the American transportation sector (“Dakota Pipeline: What’s behind the Standoff?”). The Dakota Access pipeline has the potential to perpetrate the U.S.’s dependency on oil and take away from efforts at efficiently harnessing renewable sources of energy.
The continuation of fights against pipelines in the U.S. has illustrated the need to analyze the societal pressures and constructs that drive the demand for projects intended to increase access to fossil fuels. Understanding the role that energy plays in shaping society and the reverse role that society plays in shaping the demand for fossil fuels will be instrumental in finding long-term solutions.
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