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Tina Casey headshot

A Lesson from the Death of the Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

By Tina Casey

The on-again, off-again Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline is finally off, and environmental and Indigenous activists who protested the project are taking a well-deserved victory lap. Protests against the pipeline have continued for well over a decade (including the 2011 protest pictured above, which occurred in Washington, D.C.)

However, oil is still on. After all, pipelines are not the only way to get crude oil from one place to another. U.S. business leaders who profess to care about the climate crisis should stop waiting for activists to target individual fossil energy projects and start insisting on federal policies that accelerate global decarbonization.

Oil by pipeline, freight cars and tanker trucks

Keystone XL developer TransCanada (now called TC Energy) and its allies seemed to have hit on a winning argument back in 2013, when a rail disaster in Canada underscored the dangers of transporting crude oil by rail.

Keystone supporters argued that oil pipelines were less risky than transporting crude on either highways or railways. However, that didn’t stop the Obama administration from declining to issue a key permit for the project, which would have piped tar sands oil from Alberta in Canada, down through the U.S. midsection to Gulf Coast refineries.

The Trump administration revived the project and issued a permit for the pipeline, but was doomed once again when President Joe Biden took office. As one of his first official acts on Inauguration Day, President Biden issued a sweeping executive order on climate and environmental policy, which included revoking the Trump-era permit.

Safer transportation for tar sands oil

Keystone allies excoriated the new president for revoking the permit, and they continued to argue for the “vastly greater safety” of Keystone XL compared to rail or truck transportation.

However, railway and tar sands oil stakeholders have already figured out a potential workaround.

In 2019, the company CN Railway introduced a brick-like form of tar sands oil under the trademarked name, CanaPux.

The oil pellets “are not volatile, dust-free, do not burn, spontaneously combust or explode while being shipped, and do not pose a risk if involved in a derailment,” CN Railway asserts.

CanaPux pellets are designed to float in water, and they improve spill response as in the event of an incident they would simply need to be picked up. They are designed to prevent the product from leaking in the environment. In addition, CanaPux reuses polymers that would typically be landfilled,” the company adds.

If all goes according to plan, the Canadian energy company API will produce CanaPux in Alberta at scale and ship them to China by way of the west coast of Canada.

After Keystone, what’s next for TC Energy?

On its part, TC Energy has made the best of the situation. In a public statement last week, the company confirmed that it is terminating the Keystone XL pipeline project. It also indicated that it has plenty of other fossil energy pots on the stove.

In an interesting twist, TC Energy has been expanding its renewable energy portfolio. However, the main thrust of that endeavor is to decarbonize the energy consumption of its pipeline operations.

Those pipeline operations appear to be on the uptick. When TC Energy confirmed the cancellation of Keystone XL, it also promised that it will “continue to build on its 70-year history of success and leverage its diverse businesses in natural gas and liquids transportation along with storage and power generation to continue to meet the growing and evolving demand for energy across the continent.”

One of those projects, for example, is a new 416-mile natural gas pipeline that will enable Canada to export liquid natural gas to markets in Asia.

Ending the fossil energy whack-a-mole

TC Energy argues that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal for power generation. That line has lost its luster over the years as new evidence emerges about risks to the climate. However, natural gas still has a solid foothold in power generation as well as hydrogen production and other petrochemical fields.

Companies like TC Energy will continue to pivot from one fossil energy project in the coming years, as long as willing buyers keep coming for their products.

U.S. business leaders are helping to break the chain by cleaning up their supply chains, in addition to decarbonizing their own operations, but so far these efforts have been slow and piecemeal. The missing element is a comprehensive approach that integrates climate action into every area of government policy and enables the U.S. to spur global action by coordinating its considerable buying power on a national level.

The new president’s executive order has set the stage, in terms of articulating a holistic approach. Now it’s up to the U.S. business community to put real teeth in it, by supporting representatives in Congress who are willing to move forward on climate legislation.

Image credit: SecretName101/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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