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What are the Keystone XL Pipeline Risks to Water Resources?

One of the issues most passionately discussed now in the media and blogosphere is the KeystoneXL Pipeline proposal, to allow Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada to build a pipeline to transfer tar sands oil from Alberta to Texas. 1,661 miles of Keystone Pipeline are already in operation; the XL pipeline is an extension intended to increase capacity and reach the Gulf of Mexico.

Existing Keystone pipeline and proposed expansion. Source TransCanada and Los Angeles Times

I wanted to leave aside the political rhetoric and simply look at what the potential implications of this project could be for water resources.  That’s easier said than done, as most of the information available about the project falls into two categories:  Pro and Con.

So what are the arguments?


The Pro-KeystoneXL lineup is relatively small and quiet.  It focuses on arguing that the project would create jobs and economic benefits, while having few environmental risks.  They don’t contend that the project would be good for water resources, but that the benefits outweigh the risks.

The centerpiece of the controversy is the US State Department environmental impact statement on the project released in August.  The conclusion was that the environmental risks were minimal.

Groundwater: In looking at the potential impacts on the Ogallala Aquifer and groundwater in general the report said, “Diluted bitumen and synthetic crude oil, the two types of crude oil that would be transported by the proposed Project, would both initially float on water if spilled. Over time, the lighter aromatic fractions of the crude oil would evaporate, and water-soluble components could enter the groundwater.  Studies of oil spills from underground storage tanks indicate that potential surface and groundwater impacts are typically limited to several hundred feet or less from a spill site.” And, “Construction of the proposed Project may result in temporary to short term increases in suspended solids in the shallow aquifers. The risk of dewatering shallow groundwater aquifers during construction or reducing groundwater quality due to increased sediments in the water would be temporary to short term.”

River and Stream Crossings: Three methods of crossing water courses would be used in the construction process, each again having only mild short term impacts.  In addition, “at all water crossings, Keystone agreed to use vegetative buffer strips, drainage diversion structures, and sediment barriers, and limit vegetation clearing to reduce siltation and erosion. After construction, the right-of-way would be restored and revegetated to reduce the potential for erosion of the stream bank.”

Construction intended to bypass surface water. Source: Department of State

Wetlands: Again the major disturbance to wetlands along the pipeline’s path would be during construction, subsequently mitigated by restoration.

Socioeconomics: The EIS predicts short and long term economic benefits.  “The construction work force would consist of approximately 5,000 to 6,000 workers, including Keystone employees, contractor employees, and construction and environmental inspection staff. That would generate from $349 million to $419 in total wages. An estimated $6.58 to $6.65 billion would be spent on materials and supplies, easements, engineering, permitting, and other costs…. An estimated $140.5 million in annual property tax revenues would be generated by the proposed Project.”

The few organizations speaking in support of the project tend to be established by industry and economic lobbying groups.  They support and expand on the conclusions of the State Department’s study, saying that the high quality of the planned construction will make the risk of oil spills negligible.

TransCanada: Not surprisingly, the company argues strongly for the benefits and safety of the project. “Leaks from pipelines are rare and tend to be small. In addition, Keystone incorporates proven design features and construction methods, as well as a state of art integrity management program. Overall, the approach helps ensure Keystone operates safely in the area such as the Ogallala Aquifer.  However, TransCanada also is prepared to respond to limit any release from the Keystone System and to clean-up if a leak were to occur.”

Partnership to Fuel America:  Established by the US Chamber of Commerce.  “In addition to improving the nation’s economic and energy security, the proposed project will provide approximately twenty thousand badly needed manufacturing and construction jobs, and contribute an estimated $20 billion in benefits to the U.S. economy.”


The voices opposing the project are numerous and outspoken. Many refute the State Department EIS and industry statements as inadequate at best, and fabrications at worst, and argue that the risks to North American water resources are unacceptably high.

The US Environmental Protection Agency rated a draft of the State Department report as ‘Insufficient Information’.  While not outright opposing the project, the Agency felt the analysis didn’t go far enough toward addressing serious potential water resource impacts.

“The SDElS presents a limited analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the alternative routes and offers qualitative judgments about the relative severity of impacts to different resources, e.g., considering potential impacts from spills to the Ogallala aquifer less important than impacts to surface waters from a spill associated with an additional crossing of the Missouri River…. Our review of the aerial photography also indicates that there may be numerous wetland crossings that would impact more than 0.5 acres of wetlands, which is the upper threshold for impacts under the US Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) nationwide general permit for utility line crossings in waters of the United States. In that light, and recognizing that there will be several hundred acres of wetlands affected along the entire pipeline route, we recommend that the Corps review the proposed wetland impacts as a single project requiring an individual Clean Water Act Section 404 permit.”

Friends of the Earth:  One press release rejected the State Department findings: “Friends of the Earth’s initial analysis is that the State Department’s updated environmental impact review failed to acknowledge the true extent of the project’s threats to the climate, to drinking water and to the health of people who would breathe polluted air from refineries processing the dirty tar sands oil, among other glaring oversights.”  Another press release accused the State Department of bias in cooperating with TransCanada to push through approval of the project.

Natural Resources Defense Council staffer, attorney Anthony Swift, said, “TransCanada has admitted that Keystone XL’s real time leak detection system will not detect pinhole leaks and can’t be relied upon to detect leaks smaller than about 700,000 gallons a day… An undiscovered three week spill could contaminate a large three dimensional chunk of the Ogallala Aquifer nearly half a mile long. And responders will not be able to simply remove the contaminated soil – they will have to pump contaminated water out, which will draw more water into the area of the contamination. In short, a Keystone XL tar sands spill in the Ogallala Aquifer would be a disaster.”

Construction of the existing Keystone pipeline in 2009. Source: South Dakota Tar Sands Pipelines, flickr

Carrie La Seur, president of Plains Justice, said in Grist, “Keystone XL won’t carry “light, sweet” crude, which floats on top of water and can be mopped up with absorbent booms. Bitumen—a tarlike substance mined from the Alberta tar sands, chemically diluted, and heated to improve flow—will travel at high pressure across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to Gulf Coast refineries. If and when it leaks into water bodies, this product will sink. To judge the risk of that happening, it helps to know that the first piece of the Keystone system, TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline that crosses the eastern Dakotas, has sprung a dozen leaks in its first year of operation.”

The arguments against the project go beyond the pipeline itself, to concerns about how the tar sands are produced before ever entering the pipe for transport.  Tar sands extraction and processing require large amounts of water, though some of the water can be recycled.

A Government Accountability Office study in 2010 said, “GAO’s review of available studies indicated that the expected total water needs for the entire life cycle of oil shale production ranges from about 1 barrel (or 42 gallons) to 12 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced from in-situ (underground heating) operations, with an average of about 5 barrels, and from about 2 to 4 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced from mining operations with surface heating.”  In addition to water use during production, there are also concerns about wider contamination. “Surface and underground mining of oil shale will produce waste rock that, according to the literature we reviewed and water experts to whom we spoke, could contaminate surface waters.” And, “the withdrawal of large quantities of surface water for oil shale operations could negatively impact aquatic life downstream of the oil shale development.”

Past pipeline spills show that accidents do happen, and that the concerns about impacts on water, wildlife, greenhouse gas emissions, ecosystems, and neighboring communities are not without merit.  In the end, we will see how much these issues influence the final decision on approval or rejection of the KeystoneXL pipeline project, and how much of it will be just plain politics.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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David Groenfeldt
12 years ago

This is a refreshing overview, laying out the arguments on both sides of the pipeline issue, but that’s exactly the problem. By focusing only on the environmental impacts of the pipeline, the “forest” of Tar Sands mining and the impact on those lands (in Canada) and on the planet, are left out of the picture. The “real” environmental impacts of the pipeline include all those scales, just as corporations concerned about the sustainability of their products have to include their whole production line in their analysis. The US State Department has adopted Britain’s strategy of “Divide and Conquer” in holding community sessions along the proposed pipeline route and asking, in effect, whether those folks are interested in jobs. Of course they are! But taking a larger frame, there is a huge environmental, economic, cultural (the native tribes in Alberta have been fighting the Tar Sands for years with little press coverage) and moral cost to building the pipeline. If you’re interested in this kind of perspective, check out the Water Ethics Network (click on > Initiatives > Water Ethics Network).

11 years ago

[…] threat to global climate is small. Opponents cite concerns about pipeline spills and safety, major water contamination and consumption during production and transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, and expanded dependence on fossil […]

11 years ago

[…] threat to global climate is small. Opponents cite concerns about pipeline spills and safety, major water contamination and consumption during production and transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, and expanded dependence on fossil […]

11 years ago

[…] threat to global climate is small. Opponents cite concerns about pipeline spills and safety, major water contamination and consumption during production and transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, and expanded dependence on fossil […]

11 years ago

[…] threat to global climate is small. Opponents cite concerns about pipeline spills and safety, major water contamination and consumption during production and transportation, greenhouse gas emissions, and expanded dependence on fossil […]

Alistair Kewish
7 years ago

There is another approach, of course, which is so patently obvious it got overlooked.

Quick reference to erstwhile Hadrian’s Wall built across England from the west coast to Newcastle.
How to bypass it?

Easy. Sail round it.

Load your bituminous oil onto tankers and cruise south to Mexico ( a country highly likely to welcome some real investment)
Create a shorter pipeline to connect with the Gulf of Mexico and keep everyone sweet and happy betwixt and between.

The news of the existing system springing lots of leaks is hardly reassuring.
The B plan is to create a new port on the west coast of Canada and ship stuff out that way.

Such obtuse thinking only ends in deciding to design and route a pipeline across territory which doesn’t want it and where jobs are created, is a poor palliative to its original intentions.

In all this, no- one is daring to suggest how long the pipeline will be in use. Strange, or what?

Alistair Kewish
7 years ago

If you will forgive me, an additional comment might be germane here. I went away and took a look at the geography of the US, reference to that same bitumen being transported by rail out of Canada and down south until Brixton is within reach.

Funny how no- one remembered that America still has an extensive rail network linking major centres. Or did some alternative lobby get its foot wedged in the door?

From geography, never a string topic with Old Colonials, we have to calculate the actual cost of ‘ oil by rail’. Alongside of which we need to do a risk assessment as to its period and drawbacks.

I wonder how many Native Americans would like to give their full backing to that same bituminous product being shipped by rail. No new infrastructure needed:; no new pipelines, no potential disruption, in fact an end to obtuse and pig- headed inability to try just once to use what is there instead of creating a whole host of fresh problems because you are so severely blinkered?

I despair of so called intelligence when seeking a logical solution.
Thank you for reading my comments.

Larry Follett
Larry Follett
7 years ago

All arguments aside. How is it more cost effective to have this stand-off than rerouting the pipeline a few miles?

Cynthia Bloxom
Cynthia Bloxom
6 years ago

PIPELINE! yes or no
correct me if I am wrong but I am sure they can lay a safe pipeline. It will cost double or even triple but can we put a price on life for all. Big oil companies and our government want it for they reep the profits at our and our environments expense. why cant they lay a double line with sensors the inner pipe will carry the oil and if it ruptures it will spill into the outer pipe and the sensors will immediately send notice a fail safe system oh yea price! what about the price of environmental clean up oh yea the big companies get out of paying for all the fall out look at Exon Valdez people lost their livelihoods committed suicide the environment and animals died n suffered to this day the big oil companies have yet to fully compensate. go British Columbia
Alberta pipelines: 5 major oil spills in recent history when does it end what future do our children have why should a farmer wake up to gooey black stuff seeping through the ground because of a break contaminating water for all we put a man on the moon Why cant we build a safe pipeline Please Share if you Agree!