Keystone XL pipeline clears major hurdle despite recent leak

Keystone XL pipeline clears major hurdle despite recent leak
© Getty Images

Nebraska’s independent Public Service Commission (PSC) gave its approval on Monday for the Keystone XL pipeline project that would transport up to 830,000 barrels per day of oil from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. The PSC approved a “mainline alternative route” that takes a somewhat different path than the route proposed by TransCanada.

In November 2015, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama opens up about singing 'Amazing Grace' after Charleston shooting: 'I've used up all my words' Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Why the 'Never-Trumpers' flopped MORE denied a presidential permit that was needed to cross the U.S. border. President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE reversed this through an executive order in March. However, the actions by Trump and the utility commission in no way indicate if and when oil will actually flow.


Keystone XL would connect with existing pipelines that cross three Canadian provinces, through North and South Dakota and across the length of Nebraska to Steele City on the Kansas border.


There, one section continues east to Illinois while another extends south to Cushing, Okla. Volumes of oil had backed up in Cushing until TransCanada completed a section to the Gulf Coast refineries. 

Keystone XL had previously received approvals in Canada, Montana and South Dakota, as well as by the governor of Nebraska. Following Trump’s action, TransCanada sought approval by the Nebraska regulators. They claimed that agreements had been reached with more than 90 percent of the landowners along the original route.

The project has had to deal with a variety of environmental concerns. This included the higher carbon dioxide content of the heavy crude produced in the oil sands, estimated to be about 15 percent higher than light, sweet crude produced in North Dakota and other places. 

Environmentalists protested the initial route below the Ogallala Aquifer. TransCanada moved the pipeline route farther east in Nebraska to allay these concerns. Their existing U.S. pipelines had a few small leaks, but last week experienced a 5,000-barrel leak on private land in South Dakota — just before the Nebraska PSC decision.

The oil price collapse raised doubts about the project’s commercial viability. Could Canadian crude, which is expensive to produce, be competitive in the world market after absorbing a Canadian carbon tax, as well as transportation and refining costs?  

Just last month, TransCanada terminated an even larger project called Energy East that would have transported Alberta crude to the eastern Canadian maritime provinces. The length and cost would have been about double that of Keystone XL. This narrows the options for shippers, and analysts believe this will encourage them to book volumes on Keystone XL.

TransCanada held an “open season” this fall in which shippers made firm commitments for pipeline capacity. The company indicated that the offers were comparable to what they received in a prior round, in the range of 500,000 barrels per day.

The province of Alberta, which has its own equity oil, had committed 100,000 barrels per day to Energy East; the company hopes this will be transferred to Keystone XL. Pipeline commitments can be a chicken-and-egg game: Shippers may be reluctant to commit unless they know the project will be built, but it is difficult for a pipeline developer to advance a project without the commitments.

TransCanada had already invested in pipe inventory, so construction would likely begin in 2019 and deliver crude in late 2020 or early 2021.

Benefits to Canada include capital investment, jobs, export earnings, tax revenue and a boost to the Alberta economy, which confronted a multibillion-dollar deficit with the oil price collapse.

The U.S. would further strengthen its energy security, gain thousands of construction jobs for the next two years and attract capital investment and jobs in the refining sector plus multiplier effects. The U.S. already imports more petroleum from Canada than any other country (38 percent, according to the Energy Information Agency).

Saudi Arabia, which owns the Texas Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, ranks second with 11 percent. Venezuela, which is experiencing turmoil, is third at 8 percent. Many U.S. Gulf Coast refineries are configured to process heavy crude most efficiently, which is imported from Canada, Venezuela and Mexico.

This project was initiated nearly a decade ago and has confronted a wide range of challenges. It may still face litigation and will need to reach agreements with a new set of landowners. TransCanada now has to consider all these factors as it makes its final investment decision in the coming months.

Bill Arnold is a professor in the practice of energy management at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. Previously, Arnold was Royal Dutch Shell's Washington director of international government relations and senior counsel for the Middle East, Latin America and North Africa.