Foreign Policy Blogs

President Obama Re-elected and Keystone XL Pipeline Revisited


Oil_Sands_Map ; Source:


The Foreign Policy Association has recently released results of its 2012 National Opinion Survey with some interesting insights regarding the geopolitics of energy. Among other things, the survey finds that a total of 57 percent of the balloters believe that constructing the Keystone XL pipeline is in the U.S. national interest. This seems to be a solid result. Now, knowing that President Obama has just been re-elected and has already promised “to move the country forward” in a united and bipartisan fashion, we can  attempt to assess his view on the Keystone XL pipeline.

It is actually quite difficult to decipher what the President really thinks given his answers pertaining to non-renewable energy politics in general. In his rhetoric, he seems to cover all his bases – the entire energy spectrum and then dwelling on his favorite renewables – in order to keep everybody happy just like a lawyer doing a great job. However, while the broadcast media overall is listening in awe – rightly so because he is our President – they seem not to really get the content.

To follow is what President Obama had to say about the Canadian oil sands project during the second presidential debate on October 16, 2012 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York: “And with respect to this pipeline that Governor Romney keeps on talking about, we’ve — we’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire Earth once. So I’m all for pipelines; I’m all for oil production. What I’m not for is us ignoring the other half of the (equation). So for example, on wind energy,…”

Well, I think what is in question here is whether we should opt to have secure oil supplies from Canada through a pipeline which has to be unfortunately on U.S. territory. If we want to embark on a path towards some degree of energy independence, this would – at least in my opinion – be one crucial piece of the puzzle. I am not discounting the environmental risks associated with sending heavy oil from oil sands (tar sands) through a pipeline. There are many risk factors according to Oil sands diluted bitumen is acidic, hot, abrasive and viscous which all increases the transportation risk vis-a-vis conventional crude oil. However, that needs to be evaluated from a risk-reward perspective. Cecilia Jamasmie writes in a recent posts on that a “document obtained from Environment Canada confirmed what scientists from the University of Alberta published in 2010: there is mounting evidence of contaminants in the snow and in precipitation close to oil sands facilities.” In addition to that, gases are emitted potentially causing acid rain. So, these environmental issues obviously have to be addressed by the Canadian regulators alone.

What the U.S. has to focus on is the potential environmental impact of a pipeline spill on U.S. territory. We need to make sure that any potential impact can be limited. It is a fact of life that things happen and all we can and should do is getting and/or being well prepared. Have a strategy to deal with a spill but do not kill the whole project! The U.S. has to address, in particular, the following question: Given that “pipeline spills can and do occur, and there are indications that due to its corrosive qualities, tar sands oil spills are more prevalent than conventional oil spills“, how can we limit a potential impact and still move forward?

Note, if we do not move forward with this project, eventually the U.S. will have to bear the entire risk – potential environmental degeneration at the source in addition to the transportation-transit risk for the environment via pipeline – perhaps offshore in the Arctic (in Alaska) because we will need the oil supplies in the future.

On a personal note, I was sitting in the dark and cold for nearly a week in the “capital of the world” (New York City, Manhattan) using candles and flashlights. People are still lined up for gasoline. This experience should make clear to everybody how energy dependent modern life has become. There is no way back. If you prefer to live with limited energy supplies, there are still many dark places on this planet where you can use candles and enjoy the fresh air of a non-industrialized country. We need to be smarter than that and invest in energy infrastructure as well as energy diversification with short supply distances between source and market. How about using renewable energy sources in individual homes/buildings as back-up for non-renewable energy sources? The latter are rendered useless once the transmitting power lines are incapacitated.







Roman Kilisek
Roman Kilisek

Roman Kilisek is a Global Energy & Natural Resources Analyst.
His research focuses on global energy politics, mining, infrastructure and trade, global political risk and macroeconomics. He is fond of using scenario development and analysis.

He has lived on three continents and traveled to over 40 countries around the world. He now lives and works in New York City.

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