What You Need To Know About The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline The long-delayed project is a jobs generator to some and an ecological disaster to others. Ahead of a key Senate vote, we revisit what the Keystone XL pipeline would do and why it's so contentious.

What You Need To Know About The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline

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If you took all the oil and gas pipelines in the U.S. and wrapped them around the earth, they'd circle the equator more than 100 times. But a relatively small pipeline, less than 900 miles long and not yet built, has become a huge symbol - the Keystone XL pipeline.


SENATOR MARY LANDRIEU: It's a symbol that represents American energy power.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We should judge this pipeline based on whether or not it accelerates climate change.


RUSS GIRLING: As I said, the need for this pipeline continues to grow and...


BILL MCKIBBEN: Above all - above all, stop the Keystone pipeline.


That was environmentalist Bill McKibben, and before him - Russ Girling, the CEO of Transcanada which owns the pipeline, President Obama and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Landrieu, who's fighting for her political life these days, has pushed for a vote to approve Keystone. And tomorrow in the Senate, that vote is scheduled. The House passed the same legislation last week, so after years of debate over this pipeline, the president could soon have a chance to sign off on it or to veto it. Two of our correspondents who have been following this story are with us now - White House correspondent Scott Horsley and energy correspondent Jeff Brady. Hi to both of you.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.


SIEGEL: And Jeff, let's begin by stepping back. Would you remind us what the Keystone XL pipeline is and what it's intended to carry that's so important to so many people?

BRADY: Well, it would move oil from Alberta up in Canada all the way down to the Gulf Coast. There are a lot of refineries there that can handle that oil. It would haul about 830,000 barrels a day, and of course, oil is very important for our economy. And this is oil that if it weren't coming from Canada, would likely come from someplace like Venezuela or the Middle East - places that are not quite as friendly to United States.

SIEGEL: This would be an international pipeline, so the State Department was called in to assess it. Scott Horsley, what does the State Department say about it?

HORSLEY: Well, the State Department finished their environmental review last January, and they left enough wiggle room, really, for the administration to go either way. But the basic conclusions were this pipeline would not make much difference to the price that consumers pay for gas at the pump. And it would not make much difference in whether those Canadian tar sands are developed and contribute to climate change.

SIEGEL: So as you say, the State Department came up with a report that would justify the president going either way on this. Where does the president stand on this?

HORSLEY: Well he's been really torn. He has unusual power here. In fact, the permit that Keystone needs is called a presidential permit. And the president has guarded that power fairly carefully. Back in late 2011 - early 2012, Congress tried to force his hand by giving him a 60-day deadline to make a decision. And the president said, in effect, don't rush me - if it's got to be 60 days, the answer is no.

Frankly, Obama knows that someone is going to be angry no matter what he does here. So he has basically stalled, and he's grabbed every opportunity to stretch this process out. The latest stretching device has been a court case in Nebraska, and he talked about that last week.


OBAMA: Right now you've got a case pending in Nebraska where the pipeline would run through in which a state court judge has questioned the plan. And until we know what the root is, it's very hard to finish that evaluation. And I don't think we should short-circuit that process.

SIEGEL: Well, this raises the question of environmental concerns in Nebraska. And Jeff Brady, roughly, what are those concerns?

BRADY: It's all about where the pipeline is going to be located. Early on, the route that was proposed went through these environmentally sensitive sand hills, the Sandhills region. You may have heard of it in Nebraska. And that route was widely criticized so they went back to the drawing board, came up with a new route, and then Republican Governor Dave Heineman - he approved that route. Opponents came back and said well, now wait a minute - the governor's not supposed to be the one approving routes. That's supposed to be done by the Public Service Commission. So they challenged it in court - that's before the Supreme Court now, and we expect a decision probably later this year or early next year.

SIEGEL: To give some sense of the intensity of feeling here, here is Nebraska farmer Randy Thompson speaking in a video released by the National Resources Defense Council.


RANDY THOMPSON: This pipeline would be a few hundred feet from one of my irrigation wells. And if it were to contaminate that well, it would virtually take out 80 acres of crops for us.

SIEGEL: Big concern there that the water supply might be damaged by the pipeline. Is that something you've heard often, Jeff?

BRADY: Of course. Environmental concerns are central to the whole issue here. It's not just about contaminating water in Nebraska and the other states along the pipeline route. This is also about what happens back in Alberta where the oil is processed from those oil sands. It emits an estimated 17 percent more greenhouse gases than traditional oil drilling in the U.S. So instead of just poking a hole in the ground and the oil coming out like we do in Oklahoma or Texas, this oil has to be mined from sand and then heated up. And heating it up emits more greenhouse gases.

SIEGEL: OK. Now, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu last Wednesday spoke about this and raised the question of the jobs that the XL pipeline would create, she said.


LANDRIEU: Not minimum wage jobs, but high-paying jobs for middle-class families. That's what we should be about here.

SIEGEL: Boy, are there different estimates of the jobs that would be created by the XL pipeline. Jeff, what have you heard?

BRADY: Yeah, there are different estimates. The State Department said 42,000 direct and indirect jobs. We're talking about the overall project there. But folks - especially people who opposed this pipeline - dispute a lot of that. And you can really move those numbers around in a lot of different ways to sort of make your point.

But the thing that you really can't dispute is that's just during the construction process which is probably about two years. After this pipeline is done, only about 50 people are going to be employed by it because that's why pipelines are so efficient. It takes few people to operate them.

SIEGEL: Jeff Brady, is it clear to you why this particular pipeline - in a country with so many pipelines running under it, why this one has taken on such significance?

BRADY: Well, you're right. There are a lot of pipelines, and this one is significant primarily because people have decided that it's going to be significant. This is the one that environmental groups said we're going to stop it right here. We want this - they call it dirty tar sands oil - to stay in the ground in Alberta. And so this is the one they've decided to oppose, and that's why we're all hearing about it.

HORSLEY: Frankly, Robert, when you're trying to tackle something as big and amorphous as climate change, it's easier to try to block a pipeline than to change people's driving habits or get them to buy fluorescent light bulbs or invest in green power. And so Keystone has become this larger-than-life political symbol, really out of proportion to its tangible impact on the climate.

SIEGEL: NPR's Scott Horsley and Jeff Brady, thanks to both of you for that update on the Keystone XL pipeline.

BRADY: Thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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