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In Search of the Keystone XL Pipeline — and Its Impact on the Midterm Elections

In Kansas — a key battleground state — it becomes apparent that the Keystone XL is a more visible political issue the farther away from it you are.

by Ari Ratner
Oct 22 2014, 9:25am

Photo via Flickr

The completion of a 1,179-mile extension (and partial replacement) of the existing 2,151-mile Keystone pipeline that brings tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas and Illinois has become a dividing line between Democrats and Republicans — even in campaigns far away from where the pipeline would actually run.

In Colorado, an ad sponsored by conservative group Crossroads GPS attacked Democratic Senator Mark Udall for not coming out in support of the pipeline. In Michigan, ads sponsored by Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land blast her Democratic opponent Rep. Gary Peters for opposing the pipeline. These are just a few examples.

With so much controversy surrounding the pipeline, I went out in search of it — and its impact on the upcoming midterm elections— in Kansas, one of the most critical battleground states that the pipeline passes through.

I couldn't find it.

Driving through the heart of the heartland — central Kansas, where the pipeline carries oil from refineries in Steele City, Nebraska to storage and distribution centers in Cushing, Oklahoma — it becomes apparent that the Keystone XL is a more visible issue the farther away from it you are.

Republicans argue that completing the pipeline would help safeguard US energy security, create thousands of jobs, and generate millions in tax revenue for local governments and growth for the economy as a whole.

Hundreds arrested at White House in pipeline protest. Read more here.

Democrats are more skeptical of the pipeline, pointing to the risk of oil spills and increased greenhouse gas emissions. They also worry that it would increase our dependence on fossil fuels at the expense of investing in green technology.

In Washington, the battle over the pipeline has grown into a years-long bruising confrontation between President Barack Obama and House and Senate Republicans.

Declaring that the Keystone XL would only be built if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Obama has delayed his decision on the project several times.

Obama initially turned to the State Department, which has partial jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses the US-Canadian border, for an impact assessment.

In January, the State Department released its contentious final assessment declaring that the pipeline would have a negligible environmental impact. According to the report, the majority of the oil transported through the Keystone XL would be burned regardless of whether the project was completed.

"Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs, and supply-demand scenarios," the State Department concluded.

President Barack Obama speaks about the Keystone XL pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma. (Photo by Matt Wansley via Flickr)

The Environmental Protection Agency took issue with the State Department's assessment, releasing a passive-aggressive takedown of an earlier State Department analysis.

"While we appreciate this effort, we also have several recommendations for improving the analysis and considering additional mitigation as you move forward to complete the NEPA process," the EPA said, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act.

Meanwhile, in Congress, the Republican-ruled House has voted to approve the XL extension eight separate times.

Cowboy Indian Alliance to Obama: Take your pipeline and shove it. Read more here.

In the Senate, the battle over the pipeline has been brutal, with 45 Republicans and 11 Democrats supporting it, just 4 votes short of the 60 required to pass a bill to move the project forward. If Republicans gain control of the Senate, they may decide to bring the pipeline up for a vote again and mandate its construction.

In that event, they would force President Obama to either accede to their demands or veto their bill. But right now, the Pipeline stands in limbo.

TransCanada — the Canadian company building the pipeline — has already finished pipeline construction in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas. It carries roughly half a million barrels of oil per day. The proposed 1,179-mile XL extension — which would run a shortcut across Montana and other parts of South Dakota and Nebraska — would increase production by anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 barrels per day.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The simple reality behind the pipeline's invisibility might be that the 36-inch diameter tube is mostly buried four feet underground. Pumping stations are supposedly visible every 30 or 40 miles, yet there's not exactly a yellow brick road to help find them. Locals were eager to help me find the pipeline, but I might as well have been stuck in Oz.

"You can see it by the first rest stop off Route 77, just past El Dorado" a woman named Ida, the 41-year-old owner of Zimmerman's Deli in Marion, Kansas told me.

I went to that rest stop. Couldn't find it.

Marion County Commissioner Dan Holub, 62, told me that I could find it in Abilene. I went to Abilene. Couldn't find it.

In Abilene, mechanic and owner of John's Service named — you guessed it — John, told me that it was "somewhere east, but you ain't gonna see it."

"Why not?" I asked.

"'Cause it's buried," John replied.

It's not just that I couldn't find the pipeline, it's that many Kansans seemed to have more pressing concerns. Back in Marion, Ida told VICE News, "people don't seem to talk about it much."

"Yeah," Ida's friend and occasional volunteer employee Peggy, 62, added, "my sister in Arizona is totally against it. I haven't heard about it much one way or the other."

Craig Gabel, the leader of the local Tea Party-affiliated organization Kansans for Liberty, told VICE News: "I don't think it's on anybody's radar here in either the [Senate or gubernatorial] elections."

Of course, the pipeline has also been buried by other issues that Kansans seem to have prioritized — "like Medicare, education, and overseas stuff like ISIS," Peggy said.

Kansas is facing a critical Senate race between incumbent Republican Pat Roberts and Independent challenger Greg Orman, as well as a close gubernatorial race between incumbent Republican Sam Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis.

'We've taken this thing, this pipeline, that ultimately will create some jobs, and we can't dismiss that, but it also seems to be ground zero in this environmental war.'

On the subject of Keystone, Orman has emphasized the importance of the process of evaluating its economic and environmental impact. "We've taken this thing, this pipeline, that ultimately will create some jobs, and we can't dismiss that, but it also seems to be ground zero in this environmental war," Orman said.

Roberts has been unflinching in his support of the pipeline, even if his arguments are a bit out there. In a debate on October 8, Roberts said, "think what would happen if we would really open up that pipeline — we would start exporting natural gas to Europe, making Europe less dependent of Vladimir Putin. Energy — a proper energy industry — can make us energy independent — also helps our national security and world stability. It is that important and it is the driver of our whole economy. Open up the pipeline. Export the natural gas to Europe."

The race between Orman and Roberts may decide whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate — and thus whether the pipline extension is ultimately built. But for now, it doesn't seem like the pipeline has had any long-lasting impact on Kansas.

Voters in Colorado and Kansas are tuning out this year's election. Read more here.

One of the key arguments made by Keystone proponents is that it will lead to a windfall of new jobs in local communities.

Marion County Commissioner Dan Holub, a Republican, told VICE News that the construction of the original pipeline had no effect on local employment because, "the pipe that was bought, that's foreign pipe in the ground, and it was out-of-state labor. So that means that the dollars they spent, Kansas didn't see any of it."

With the pipeline's builder, TransCanada, claiming it would result in millions of dollars in tax revenue for local governments, how is none of that going to Kansas?

An exemption in Kansas allowed TransCanada to avoid paying millions in property taxes. "They spent $5 billion to build it, but Kansas didn't see any of it. Missouri's collecting taxes, Nebraska is collecting taxes. The tax issue is a Kansas issue," Holub told VICE News.

For the country as a whole, the battle over the pipeline's impact on jobs is equally fierce.

TransCanada claims that Keystone XL would create 42,000 direct and indirect jobs across the country.

Opponents disagree. According to investment strategist Jeremy Grantham, who runs the $106 billion investment management firm GMO LLC, "it is clear that the XL pipeline will not 'create' jobs. Every one of its potential workers, almost of whom already travel widely for jobs, could get a job several times over if given an hour on the telephone."

But, as my failed search for the Keystone in Kansas may suggest, the battle over the pipeline may be about politics as much as results you can actually see.

Andrew Eil, a former State Department official who worked on environmental issues, told VICE News that, "the big issues up for debate on the Keystone pipeline are more symbolic than substantive."

"Both the economic impacts overall and climate change impacts in the short-term are not so great as many politicians — on either side of the aisle — would have us believe," Eil said. "At the same time, opponents of the pipeline have an important point: because of its significant cost, the pipeline's construction itself may lock the US into a long-term commitment to tar sands oil as a fuel source. That would be inconsistent with President Obama's commitment to address climate change, and the global necessity to dramatically curb carbon emissions in the decades to come."

Ari Ratner is a fellow at New America. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner

Photo by Shannon Ramos via Flickr