Keystone XL Pipeline Defeated

November 8, 2015

This brief Teachable Instant activity explores the fight over the Keystone XL Pipeline - and how climate activists finally succeeded in defeating the project.   


Read students the following quotes:

"Together, ranchers, tribal nations and everyday people beat this project back, reminding the world that Big Oil isn’t invincible and that hope is a renewable resource. But the win against Keystone XL is just the beginning... Everywhere you look, people are shutting down fracking wells, stopping coal export facilities, and challenging new pipelines. If Big Oil thinks that after Keystone XL the protesters are going home, they’re going to be sorely surprised."  - Mae Bove, Executive Director,

"This decision will cost thousands of jobs and is an assault to American workers. It’s politics at its worst. Unfortunately for the majority of Americans who have said they want the jobs and economic benefits Keystone XL represents, the White House has placed political calculations above sound science. Seven years of review have determined the project is safe and environmentally sound, yet the administration has turned its back on Canada with this decision, and on U.S. energy security as well." - Jack Gerard, President and CEO, American Petroleum Institute

Ask students:

  • What recent news development are these two people talking about?
  • What interests are they each representing?

Elicit or explain that on November 6, 2015, President Obama announced that the Keystone XL Pipeline project would not be approved.

For seven years, Keystone XL has been a hot political issue. The pipeline was to have carried oil from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska. There, it would have connected to an existing pipeline leading to Texas Gulf Coast oil refineries that can process this unusually heavy tar-like crude oil. The fossil fuel industry and its allies in the Republican Party (along with some Democrats) have been staunch advocates of the project. Environmental, Native American, and other activists have fiercely opposed it. The long bitter fight came to symbolize opposing world views.

Huge quantities of oil are already being extracted from the earth and transported by thousands of miles of pipeline in the U.S. and Canada. So what makes this project so controversial?



Student Reading:  
Keystone XL Pipeline Backgrounder

For centuries, the world has depended on energy from sources underground fossil fuels. Because these fuels coal, oil and gas are formed over millions of years, the supply is limited. The world has reached a point where easy access to these fuels is disappearing. To find new sources, the energy companies have turned to riskier and more dangerous methods of extraction. These include the following.

1)  Fracking.  High-pressure water, laced with toxic chemicals, is directed deep into the earth to split apart rock that has natural gas captured inside it. Fracking has produced a lot of gas, but it has serious environmental problems. The extraction uses a tremendous amount of water, which is poisoned in the process and can end up in the underground reservoirs pumped up for drinking water. In addition, the wastewater pumped deep into the earth has caused hundreds of small earthquakes in fracking areas.

2) Ocean drilling. As oil on land and in shallow water becomes harder to find, oil companies are finding it profitable to drill in deep water, with sometimes disastrous consequences. The 2010 BP oil disaster, the largest single oil spill ever, dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (and killed eleven workers). This was not an isolated incident. According to the National Oil Service, there are thousands of smaller spills each year.

3) Tar sands oil. Some heavy crude oil is trapped in a mixture of clay, sand and water. Because the oil is not free flowing, but found in a thick sludge, it takes an enormous amount of water and energy to refine the oil into a usable form. Environmentalists call tar sands oil the world's dirtiest oil because it is so difficult and destructive to retrieve and process. Extracting oil from the tar sands has already turned large sections of Canadian forest into a wasteland. If oil companies continue to tap this vast reserve of oil, an area of forest the size of Florida will be destroyed, wreaking havoc on plants, animals, and water systems. Tar sands oil is the substance the Keystone Pipeline would carry.

Effect on Climate Change

"Moving to tar sands, one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet, is a step in exactly the opposite direction, indicating either that governments don't understand the situation or that they just don't give a damn."  - James Hansen, former NASA climatologist and climate change activist

The human contribution to global climate disruption is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels.

To separate the oil from the sand requires burning natural gas, a climate-disrupting fuel. Tar sands oil releases yet more greenhouse gases when it is burned. In addition, the boreal forests now on top of the tar sands remove carbon from the atmosphere, so stripping the land of trees to get at the tar sands leads to further climate disruption. 

The U.S. State Department, which initially downplayed the environmental impact of the tar sands oil, concluded that the oil carried by Keystone would add 27 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year. This is a relatively small amount compared to the total amount of world emissions per year. But after years of organizing, climate change activists have persuaded the Obama administration that building the pipeline nevertheless marks a significant turn in the wrong direction in the battle to slow climate change.

The world’s climate scientists have agreed that to prevent the worst effects of climate change, most of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, unburned.  Many climate change activists saw the fight over the Keystone XL Pipeline as a way to build public understanding and support for the need to "keep it in the ground."

Economic Concerns

Pipeline proponents argue that it would be an economic boon and contribute to "energy independence." They maintain that:

  • The Keystone Pipeline would create about 40,000 jobs (though only about 40 would be permanent jobs). Many labor unions have supported the project for this reason.
  • The pipeline would benefit consumers through lower gas prices.
  • The United States would reduce its dependence on oil from countries whose governments the U.S. opposes, such as Venezuela.

Resistance to Keystone

The decision to stop the pipeline came after a vigorous campaign by climate change organizations, environmental groups and Native American groups. has led hundreds of protests at the White House and around the country. Residents of many towns along the pipeline route in Nebraska and other states formed their own groups to fight the pipeline. Thousands of people were arrested. Organizers across the U.S. and Canada (and elsewhere) engaged in many creative actions, from Native American groups that set up tipis in view of the White House to a parade of Nebraskans carrying carved pumpkins protesting the pipeline in a march to the governor’s mansion.

The concerted protests and education campaigns brought growing support for the cause, and eventually led to President Obama’s rejection of the XL Pipeline.

For Discussion

  1. Majorities in the Senate and in the House of Representatives approved the Keystone Pipeline, but a large coalition of climate change organizers, local activists and Native Americans led a persistent campaign to end it. Does this represent a failure of democracy or a success? Why?
  2. The Pew Research Center finds that 45% of Americans think climate change is a serious issue, but only 20% of Republicans do. Why might this be?
  3. What do you think of the argument that the XL Pipeline should be built because it will create up to 40,000 jobs?
  4. What does this victory for climate change activists mean for the broader fight to drastically reduce carbon emissions? 


Class Activity

Divide the class into four groups, each supporting a different strategy for dealing with climate change.

  1. Elect legislators willing to mandate the necessary economic changes
  2. Organize direct actions and public education campaigns to increase pressure on fossil fuel companies and governments to "keep it in the ground" and cut greenhouse gas emissions
  3. Encourage the scientific and engineering communities to invent technological fixes that address climate change
  4. Allow the market to reward or punish businesses based on their climate impact

Ask the groups to research their positions, then advocate for their strategy in a class discussion.