The Keystone Pipeline System is a pipeline system built by TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, LP (“Keystone,” a subsidiary of TransCanada) to transport tar sands oil.  After bitumen (the source of crude oil) is extracted from the ground in regions called oil sands, it must be treated and converted into synthetic crude oil or diluted bitumen. Tar sands oil (synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen, aka “dilbit”, which come from tar sands) is an unconventional form of crude oil that is thicker, stickier, and heavier than conventional crude oil.  The Government of Alberta Department of Energy defines bitumen as “a thick, sticky form of crude oil that is so heavy and viscous that it will not flow unless it is heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons.”  These characteristics make tar sands oil more difficult to extract, transfer, and refine than conventional crude oil.  



DOS Fact Sheet
The process to refine tar sands oil generates from two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases generated by conventional crude oil refining.  This conversion process, which takes place at massive refineries near the oil sands,  requires from 110 to 350 gallons of water per barrel of oil produced.  The process leaves behind large amounts wastewater, byproducts, and “tailings” that are dumped in toxic “tailings ponds” that have been poisoning the waters of indigenous communities in Canada.  These tailings ponds are known to leak significant amounts of toxic chemicals and other contaminants into the groundwater.

Currently, the Keystone Pipeline System carries tar sands oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada to multiple destinations in the United States through the Keystone I pipeline and a separate Cushing Extension pipeline which began operation in 2010.  TransCanada intends to expand its pipeline system by adding a new pipeline to the system, the Keystone XL pipeline.  If approved, the Keystone XL pipeline would carry tar sands oil from the Oil Sands in Alberta to Texas along a route largely parallel to but just west of the Keystone I pipeline.  Keystone XL would consist of three segments:  

The “Steele City” segment - which would run from the U.S.-Canadian border in Montana, through South Dakota and Nebraska, connecting at Steele City, NE to the already existing Cushing Extension pipeline (which runs through Kansas and part of Oklahoma and ends at Cushing, OK)

The “Gulf Coast” segment, from Cushing, OK to Nederland, TX

The “Houston Lateral” segment, from Liberty County, TX to Moore Junction, TX

Background on EPA Approval/Denial Process for Keystone XL:

Because the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is an oil pipeline that would carry oil across an international U.S. boundary, federal law requires Keystone to obtain a Presidential Permit.  Before a Presidential Permit can be granted, federal law (Executive Order 13337) requires the Department of State (“DOS”) to determine whether or not the proposed project would be in the national interest.  

In addition, the National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to prepare a document called an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) before taking major action that would significantly affect the environment.  Because the most substantial federal decision related to the proposed project is whether or not to issue the Presidential Permit, and because the Department of State makes the national interest determination for that permit, the Department of State is the lead federal agency for compliance with NEPA and preparing the EIS.

In 2008, Keystone applied for a Presidential Permit for the entire 3-segment project.  That permit was denied in January of 2012.  TransCanada is now seeking to move forward with the Gulf Coast Segment separately, without a Presidential Permit.  For more information, click here.

What should we expect if Keystone XL is built?

Because Keystone I is owned by the same company that wants to build Keystone XL, and
because Keystone I carries the same product that Keystone XL would carry, a look at
Keystone I provides a good indication of what to expect from Keystone XL.

Facts about the Keystone I Pipeline:

TransCanada claims Keystone I was designed with state of the art safety features and was expected to spill no more than one every 7 years

Keystone I began operating in June 2010; since that time (over the course of a year and a half) the “state of the art” Keystone I pipeline has spilled at least 14 times

May 2011:  A broken pipe fitting in North Dakota caused a 60 foot geyser of tar sands crude oil and a 21,000 gallon tar sands crude oil spill

May 29, 2011: A pipeline malfunction in Kansas caused a 430 gallon spill

*For more information about tar sands oil spills, click here.