They Killed Keystone. Now What?

A placard with the Canadian flag rests on the ground covered in oil as demonstrators conduct a die-in to protest against the Keystone Pipeline and the Alberta Tar Sands. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ NAM Y. HUH
A placard with the Canadian flag rests on the ground covered in oil as demonstrators conduct a die-in to protest against the Keystone Pipeline and the Alberta Tar Sands. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ NAM Y. HUH

Tens of thousands of people marched against the project. A massive coalition of indigenous, grassroots, and environmental groups came together.

Opposition to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline galvanized the environmental community and brought global attention to Canada’s tar sands oil industry. President Obama’s rejection of the permit was seen as a major coup for environmental activism.

But, like a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole, projects to bring tar sands oil out of Alberta keep popping up — and activists in both Canada and the United States are rallying to keep the infrastructure at bay.

Pipes, Trains, and Ocean Tankers

There are three main projects under consideration right now that would bring millions of gallons of tar sands oil out of Canada every day. Kinder Morgan wants to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline to the west, where oil could be shipped south to California’s refineries. Enbridge is trying to increase capacity in two pipelines in Minnesota which would feed into a system carrying oil down to the Gulf Coast. And TransCanada is proposing a major pipeline to the maritime provinces in order to ship tar sands oil down the Eastern Seaboard.

There is no existing spill response plan or technology or technique that would deal with a spill of bitumen

Oil from tar sands is incredibly heavy oil — it is very thick, tar-like. Technically known as bitumen, the petroleum product has to be diluted in order to flow through pipelines. Alberta has one of the largest bitumen deposits in the world. In fact, the Alberta tar sands produce more oil each year than the entire country uses. For this reason, and because some 90 percent of the facilities for refining the heavy oil are located in the Gulf Coast, the United States is the biggest buyer of tar sands oil.

And tar sands oil, from a climate and environmental safety perspective, is really bad.

Michigan River Remains Poisoned By Oil Five Years After Massive SpillClimate by CREDIT: Five years ago, a pipeline carrying crude oil from Canadian tar sands ruptured in Michigan, spilling…thinkprogress.orgAccording to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a gallon of gasoline from bitumen is responsible for 15 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than a gallon of gas from conventional oil. In addition, the energy-intensive tar sands oil extraction process uses a lot of water, which ends up in toxic man-made pools.


Bitumen also poses a greater risk to the environment if (or when) it spills. While convention oil is certainly difficult to clean up (see: Exxon Valdez; Deepwater Horizon), bitumen is even harder to put back in the bottle. Bitumen sinks. When an Enbridge line ruptured in the Kalamazoo River six years ago, the company had to dredge the river in order to get the heavy oil out. They had only moderate success, while devastating the river’s ecosystem.

It’s partly for this reason that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recommended in a report this week that the United States consider a ban on bitumen transportation in U.S. waters.

“There is no existing spill response plan or technology or technique that would deal with a spill of bitumen,” Josh Axelrod, one of the report authors, told ThinkProgress.

The other reason NRDC is recommending a ban on bitumen tankers is that it is a focused policy that does not depend on Canadian regulation. If bitumen can’t take the ocean route to the United States, the industry is stuck.

Congress could pass legislation, but it’s more likely that the Coast Guard would revisit its permitting policies, Axelrod said. At present, bitumen is covered under the same spill response standards as conventional oil, but the National Academy of Sciences has pointed out that the classification is incorrect. The Coast Guard could require companies carrying bitumen to have a more complete spill response program. Given that no modeling has been done for a bitumen spill in the Atlantic and there isn’t the technology to keep bitumen from sinking — nor does bitumen break down even to the degree that conventional oil does — higher oil spill response standards would likely be the equivalent to a ban.


“All they are left with are projects that get tar sands to water, and I think it is a major Achilles’ heel,” Axelrod said.

The industry is already on the ropes. The price of oil keeps falling, and tar sands extraction is expensive.

“The producers in Canada are losing money at this price point,” Axelrod said. “They are just bleeding.”

They are also running out of options to move the stuff.

In 2014, a proposal to run a pipeline northwest from Alberta, through British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, just south of Alaska, was approved by the Canadian government. But after a legal challenge brought by lawyers for First Nations, a court panel found that the indigenous groups had not been adequately consulted during the government process.

Now, the entire consultation will have to be redone, but environmentalists in Canada largely think the project is dead.

The Hero Canada Deserves

The 2014 approval was issued by former conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had strong ties to the tar sands industry. But Harper has been replaced by liberal Justin Trudeau, an avowed climate champion who enthusiastically embraced the Paris climate agreement, announced a partnership with the United States to reduce emissions, and ran his campaign with an emphasis on climate action.


A Brief History Of Canada’s Stunning About-Face on Climate ChangeClimate CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Obama are…thinkprogress.orgIt’s nearly time for Trudeau to put his veto pen where his mouth is. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion project, which will run through British Columbia to the Vancouver port, is coming up quickly. It’s expected that Trudeau will be faced with a decision at the end of this year or in early 2017.

“It is a real test for Justin Trudeau,” Cam Fenton, Canadian Tar Sands Organizer with

A vote in favor of the pipeline would be a political disaster. “He is going to face losing progressive support — especially younger people… and he’s going to lose the global celebrity status that he earned in Paris,” Fenton told ThinkProgress.

But with an estimated 50,000 job losses in the Alberta tar sands industry in the past few years, there will be political pressure to punt, as well.

Power To The People

Anti-pipeline activists are certainly not willing to leave the decision entirely in the government’s hands.

“The first backstop is indigenous rights,” Fenton said. “There are already multiple legal challenges” to the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

A public listening session that began in Alberta three weeks ago has been demonstrated the broad opposition to the project.

“Every one that has been open to the public has been filled with people who are opposed to it,” Fenton said. And as the meetings move down the pipeline route, opposition will only grow.

Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline catalyzed a movement. CREDIT: AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez
Opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline catalyzed a movement. CREDIT: AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez

Fenton’s group expects meetings next month in Vancouver, where the mayor himself has come out against the project, to be heavily attended.

This opposition is the progeny of the Keystone fight, even though, so far, it is smaller and more local. But while Keystone brought people together in ways that these disparate projects have not, the anti-fossil fuel movement overall was changed.

“What happened with Keystone has really inspired grassroots opposition to fossil fuel projects of all types. We’ve really seen that happen on the natural gas/fracking side of things. We’ve seen it happen with coal and coal terminals,” said Adam Scott, a senior campaigner for Oil Change International. “And it’s been effective, and it’s growing.”

Several environmental campaigners have told ThinkProgress recently that every fossil fuel project proposed in the United States today is facing significant grassroots opposition.

“It’s amazing. Climate activists went from feeling very un-empowered 10 years ago,” Scott said. “That’s really changed.”