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Keystone XL: National Security Arguments Hide Real Debate

No large pipeline project in recent memory has gotten more press than Keystone XL, a pipeline proposed by TransCanada to carry oil from the oil sands in Alberta and other Canadian sources to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. Both supporters and oppon

ents of the project cite national security concerns as a major factor in their support or opposition to the pipeline. But will this pipeline really affect national security, or is the disagreement symptomatic of deeper divisions on US energy policy?

Keystone XL is an expansion and extension to an existing pipeline that will provide capacity to accommodate oil sands crude and extend the pipeline’s reach beyond tankage at Cushing, OK and refineries in the St. Louis area to Gulf Coast refineries. Normally, interstate oil pipelines do not require permits from the U.S. government. However, any pipeline that connects the United States to a foreign country requires executive permission in the form of a Presidential Permit. , issued by George Bush in 2004, requires the Secretary of State to review applications for such a permit and award them based on a finding that the project serves the national interest. The national interest has been defined for purposes of the Presidential Permit as a reckoning of the environmental, economic, energy policy, foreign policy and national security issues related to the project. During the review period, the State Department consults with federal agencies as well as the public on these issues. The President may choose to overrule the Secretary of State’s determination. Note that while the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) produced during the NEPA review of the project is subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), the State Department’s national interest determination is not. The Presidential Permit has been found by at least two Federal courts to be an exercise of the President’s inherent constitutional power to manage foreign affairs and therefore is not an agency action subject to review under the APA. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate v. US Dept. of State, 659 F.Supp.2d 1071, 1078 (D. S.D. 2009); Sierra Club v. Clinton, 689 F.Supp.2d 1147, 1163 (D. Minn. 2010).

In July, the House passed a bill that would require the President to make a decision on permitting Keystone XL (H.R. 1938, The North American-Made Energy Security Act) within 60 days of the passage of the law. However, that bill died in the Senate. On December 1st Rep. Denny Rehberg (MT) re-introduced the bill. Nothing further has happened to it; it seems unlikely that the Senate will pass it, and if passed, it could face legal challenges.

Proponents of the XL project claim that increasing imports from Canada will keep America more secure because it will decrease the need for imports from conflict-prone areas of the world. In addition, it will direct Canada’s growing oil sands development to the United States instead of to other countries. The State Department has found some substance in these claims, stating in its Environmental Impact Statement that Keystone XL would “counteract insufficient domestic crude oil supply while reducing U.S. dependence on less reliable foreign oil sources.” In 2010, Mexico and Venezuela were the top suppliers of heavy crude oil (the kind that would come from the Keystone XL pipeline); market demand of Gulf Coast refineries for this heavy crude oil is rising, while imports from Mexico and Venezuela are falling. Keystone XL would meet the demand and accelerate the decline in imports from Mexico and Venezuela, as well as those from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, the two other largest exporters of oil to the US.

An argument against this claim is that Canada is still a foreign country, and even though it is more stable than our other exporters we still cannot rely on them for our energy needs. Canada has its own energy policy issues, and there are many groups inside Canada with growing opposition to exploitation of the oil sands. The US’s focus should instead be on actual domestic sources of energy, rather than oil from our neighbors to the north.

Opponents of the project also claim that national security will be better protected if we wean ourselves off of oil all together, and importing it from Canada rather than other countries will only create the illusion of improved security. Retired Army brigadier general Steven Anderson wrote in an op-ed in October that the pipeline “would set back our renewable energy efforts for at least two decades, much to our enemies’ delight.” This general also testified before Congress that his experience in Iraq taught him that “the greatest threat to our security is our over-reliance on oil.” However, this argument bears on US energy policy in general rather than providing a specific explanation for why Keystone XL will harm national security interests. While General Anderson raises the important issue of reducing the US’s reliance on oil and its replacement with domestically-produced renewable energy, he does not do enough to connect that goal with the Keystone XL project. Keystone already brings Canadian oil to refineries in the Midwest. The XL expansion and extension would merely connect the increased supplies of Alberta heavy crude to Gulf Coast refineries, where it can be more effectively commercialized. Those Gulf Coast area refineries have experienced increased demand, and if the XL project does not get constructed that demand will be filled by foreign crude oil. The Keystone XL project has been proposed because it has been judged to be a commercial business proposition – if opponents want to change the way the US uses energy, they should propose taxes, credits, subsidies or other incentives that change the market and perhaps upset the economics of the XL project. Only by encouraging the economic viability of other forms of energy can they succeed at lowering US demand for oil and make the oil sands undesirable. Simply to forbid a single aspect of an energy project (in this case the border crossing) may make political sense, but as a tool of national security it does little to promote confidence in those charged with safeguarding it.

While there are legitimate environmental and economic concerns about the project that should be investigated thoroughly before the State Department makes its determination, claims about the project’s impact on national security on both sides of the issue appear to be overblown and a distraction from the real issues. The tension over Keystone XL is really a debate about the direction we want US energy policy to go in. Using national security as an all-powerful watchword does both sides a disservice by distracting us from an honest discussion of how to shape energy policy and at the same time trivializing matters of national security.

Photograph obtained from


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