Redefining National Interest: Debates Over Keystone XL Pipeline

One of the hottest environmental issues during the Obama Administration has been the Keystone XL pipeline. In January 2012, President Obama exercised his veto power against the proposed project. The 875-mile long pipeline and related facilities were supposed to transport up to 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil from Alberta, Canada and the Bakken Shale Formation in Montana [1]. Once constructed, the pipeline that would go across the entire North America is expected to last for over 50 years.

There have been heated discussions over whether the project would benefit the U. S. Critics argue that oil production from tar sands would release large amounts of GHGs and wreak havoc on the surrounding natural environment [2]. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that if the pipeline is built, “essentially, it’s game over for the planet [3].” The main reason for the President’s veto also has been the allegations of bias in the environmental review process and concerns over potential pipeline breaks that could contaminate aquifers along the pipeline route [4]. Not only environmentalists but also state and local officials have been opposing the plan due to these risks.

On the other hand, the biggest rationale of the proponents is that it suits for the U. S.’s national interest. Canada has been one of the country’s closest allies and neighbors, with massive political and economic interests. From the American perspective, it might be seen preferable to continued reliance on Middle East oil [5]. Why, proponents say, is it too difficult to do the good Northern friend a favor? Moreover, over 70 percent of the oil hauled through the pipeline is expected to be consumed in the U. S., pulling down the oil price to benefit American consumers.

While pipeline champions’ arguments seem reasonable, there is one big flaw; the long-term environmental and energy security should be taken into account as a critical factor that consists national interest. The term ‘energy security’ is fuzzy as it is [6], but it is evident that environmentally risky projects would undermine the U. S.’s energy security in the long run. In the era of climate change, ensuring adequate, reliable and affordable energy is equivalent to transforming into cleaner energy infrastructure. As mentioned in the PBS debate, “What President Obama’s veto means for Keystone’s future,” building the pipeline itself might not be a big deal, but what it implies is important. The U. S. does not want to take a wrong turn now.

[1] US Department of State, 1 March 2013

[2] Norman J. Vig and Michael E. Kraft, 2013, Environmental Policy (8th edition), CQ Press. p. 103

[3] Jane Mayer, November 28, 2011, 19. “Taking It to the Streets,” The New Yorker.

[4] Norman J. Vig and Michael E. Kraft, 2013, Environmental Policy (8th edition), CQ Press. p. 102

[5] Ibid. p. 161

[6] Scott V. Valentine, 2010, the Fuzzy Nature of Energy Security, the Routledge Handbook of Energy Security.

[7] Image source: Associated Press, retrieved from


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