Bringing crude oil from Canada into the US has its pros and cons

After months of anticipation, the results of the 2014 congressional midterm elections are in, and they give Republicans ample cause to celebrate.  Republican control of both houses is indeed promising for the GOP, since key lawmakers such as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky can use their newly minted leadership positions to take action on important issues.  Many people fear, however, that gridlock will persist.

One such instance is the congressional approval necessary for the Keystone XL pipeline project. The TransCanada oil pipeline, which President Obama originally rejected in January 2012, met its death in Congress once again this past November.  The bipartisan effort spearheaded by Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana fell one vote short of passage.  According to CNN, McConnell indicated that congressional approval for the project would be a priority in the new Congress this coming January.

Built by TransCanada Corporation,the pipeline is an underground transcontinental conduit for carrying crude oil from Canada to refineries in the United States.  The disputed portion, Phase IV, begins in Alberta, Canada.  It then crosses into Montana and runs through South Dakota and Nebraska, covering around 875 miles on the American side of the border.  When completed, it will carry up to 830,000 barrels—or nearly 35 million gallons of oil—per day.  Another segment of the pipeline, running through Oklahoma to Texas, is already completed.  Since this section falls entirely within the United States, it did not require congressional approval.

There are many persuasive arguments in favor of approving Phase IV of the pipeline.  First, the pipeline benefits the United States economy.  According to the State Department, which was tasked with analyzing the pipeline’s effect, construction of the pipeline will create nearly 42,000 jobs. Second, it promotes American national security.  Proponents argue that it is better to obtain oil from Canada than from less friendly countries.

Moreover, if the pipeline is not approved because of environmental concerns, it is unlikely to make a material difference in the amount of crude oil Canada produces.  Pipelines are already in place to ship the oil to China and other Asian markets via the Pacific Coast.  The oil is also commonly transported to American refineries by rail.  However, this is risky, as rail transport of oil has resulted in serious accidents.  In Quebec, in one such incident, an unattended tanker train derailed and rolled downhill.  The accident started a blaze that killed 47 people, demolished 40 buildings, and wasted approximately 1.5 million gallons of crude oil.

Despite these concerns, there are also many persuasive arguments on the opposing side of the debate.  While rail transport is dangerous, pipelines carry their own risks.  The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimates that pipeline accidents have resulted in 4.1 million gallons of spilled petroleum and $263 million in property damage every year over the last decade.

Environmental arguments are also popular.  The Canadian crude oil that would be transported in the pipeline, called bitumen, burns no differently than any other kind when it is used in cars, but requires greater energy to extract and refine, making its net emissions greater.

Debra Javeline, Professor of Political Science, explained to the Rover, “Spills, leaks, and other environmental damage are already problematic and costly, and any community that is unfortunate enough to be forced to accept the pipeline has or will have greater exposure to soil and water contamination and other public health threats, again without most of the promised economic benefits.”

Speculation about the behavior of the new Congress must occur in the context of a proper understanding of gridlock in general.

“Gridlock in American politics is not the result of a hyper-polarized electorate or an unusual political happenstance. It is an intended product of our constitutional design,” Matthew Hall, Assistant Professor of Political Science, told the Rover.  “The framers created a system of government with numerous veto points that requires huge supermajorities to enact significant change. Such a system entrenches the status quo.”


Katelyn Doering is a senior political science major and philosophy, politics and economics minor.  Contact her at