Keystone XL Oil Pipeline: Today's Most Explosive Environmental Debate

Canada wants to build a pipeline that would send oil to the U.S. Here's why environmentalists the world over are dead-set on stopping it. 

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Even if you don't pay a whole lot of attention to the fine points of U.S. energy policy, there's a good chance you've heard about the Keystone XL pipeline by now. The proposed 1,661-mile pipeline would transport crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta Canada down to Texas' Gulf Coast refineries. And stopping its construction has become the cause célèbre of the global environmental movement from the Dalai Lama to Robert Redford. This weekend, a group of environmentalists will attempt to form a human ring around the White House in hopes of swaying President Obama, who has said he will make the final call on whether to greenlight construction.

The world consumes 90 million barrels of oil a day. Keystone XL would add 560,000. That's not much.

This controversy is another chapter in that centuries-long tug-of-war between creating energy jobs and preserving the environment. Here's The Atlantic's guide to the basic issues.

Who's building Keystone XL, and why?

Canada is already America's top supplier of oil. But the province of Alberta has just begun to emerge as a major force in the world energy market thanks to its abundance of petroleum-rich tar sands. Canada has known about the stuff for centuries, but the difficult and expensive process of refining it into fuel made mining the material economically unfeasible.

But crude prices have surged in the past decade, and the world's largest energy corporations are thirsty for more oil. Alberta has access to 170 billion proven barrels of the stuff, making it the world's third largest source, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Top international energy companies, including Exxon and Royal Dutch Shell, want a piece of the action.

But as mining ramps up, the oil companies need an efficient way to transport and refine their new stock of heavy crude. Enter TransCanada, which builds and operates pipelines across North America. TransCanada already runs a major pipeline, known simply as Keystone, that delivers oil to the Midwest and Oklahoma. But the company has its sites on Texas. The Gulf region is the U.S. capital of heavy crude refining, meaning its plants have both the special technology and capacity to handle what's being dug up in Alberta, as well as a distribution network that can deliver the end product to the East Coast and Midwest for sale. The Gulf is also an export hub, too, which would open up an even broader market.

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Is it bad for the environment? 

Because the pipeline crosses international borders, approval falls to the State Department. Initially, it looked like a sure bet. Hillary Clinton told an interviewer she was "inclined" to approve it, even before an official analysis of the environmental impact was complete. But resistance by green groups has swelled into an worldwide movement. The fiercest opposition is in Nebraska.

There are two big issues at play here. Global warming and Nebraska. First global warming: Because of the intense amount of energy required to refine oil from tar sands, it's considered a particularly dirty source of fuel. According to some estimates, it produces 15% more greenhouse gases than your average barrel of oil once production is taken into account. Al Gore may have severely stretched the truth when he claimed that "gasoline made from the tar sands gives a Toyota Prius the same impact on climate as a Hummer using gasoline made from oil." But he captured the sentiment shared by environmentalists who would prefer that the tar sands never be developed.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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