3 Security Concerns with the Keystone XL Pipeline

As protesters continue to urge the Obama administration to stop the construction of a 1,600-mile crude oil pipeline, national security issues should be considered.

Canada is often considered the United States’ most peaceful and friendly ally. Our neighbors to the north are held in such high acclaim that many have used national security concerns to support the proposed construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. However an examination of the pipeline plan reveals three serious national security issues.

1-The Keystone XL as a terrorist target

Photo: MATEUS_27:24&25 / flickr

It’s hard to think of a larger target for our enemies to take aim at than a 1,661-mile pipeline measuring 36-inches thick and filled with flammable crude oil. To put this in perspective, consider that the entire length of the border between the United States and Mexico spans 1,989 miles. To guard the border, the United States government spends the money to arm, train, support and employ more than 20,000 border patrol agents. Whether this government program is able to effectively prevent illegal immigrants and contraband from coming into the United States has been hotly contested for decades.

The Keystone, which is just 300-miles shorter than the border, will travel through or near several of the United States’ major population centers. New Orleans, Houston, Oklahoma City and Lincoln, Nebraska all have populations of more than a million and are near the proposed pipeline. These population centers, along with Austin, Texas, Topeka, Kansas, Cushing Oklahoma and those living in North and South Dakota, would each be vulnerable to attacks if the wrong people decided to mess with enormous pipeline.

In 2005 Gal Luft, the Executive Director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) proclaimed that pipeline sabotage is becoming a “weapon of choice” for terrorists. Luft explained that the ease and large impact of messing with pipelines was behind attacks in India, Turkey and Colombia. The threat of terrorist attacks on pipelines has become so strong that Luft has said there are clear economic implications for consumers. Whether perpetuated for political or criminal reasons, assaults on oil infrastructure have added a “fear premium” of roughly $10 per barrel of oil.

2-The Keystone makes the United States no less dependent on foreign oil

Image: Oil Change International

Proponents of the Keystone XL have argued that the pipeline will make the United States less dependent on oil that comes from unfriendly parts of the world. While this claim is designed to resonate with those concerned about our foreign relations, the facts are that the Keystone XL will not lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but instead transport Canadian oil in American refineries for export to overseas markets.

As reported this week, the Keystone XL is an export pipeline. “The Port Arthur, Texas, refiners at the end of its route is focused on expanding exports to Europe, and Latin America. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s heavy crude oil will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks.” Furthermore, information obtained from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Canadian National Energy Board points out that Valero, the customer for crude from the Keystone XL has developed a strategy to refine the Canadian crude in the United States and export it to foreign markets without paying taxes in the U.S. “Because Valero’s Port Arthur refinery is in a Foreign Trade Zone, the company can carry out its strategy tax-free.”

3-The Keystone XL is a threat to water and food security

Image: Human Resource Development Group

Beyond the concerns protecting the Keystone XL from terrorists and allowing it to pump oil to countries friendly to them, there are fundamental concerns about what could happen to our domestic security if the Keystone XL is developed.

The Keystone XL pipeline will travel directly over the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been vital to the United States’ as well as global food supplies since the 1950’s. Scientific America has already said serious damage to the aquifer would damage “one fifth of the total annual U.S. agricultural harvest.” Losing the Ogallala, according to that investigation would mean that, “more than $20 billion worth of food and fiber will vanish from the world’s markets.”

This damage is not something that is out of the realm of possibility. Heavy taping of the Ogallala has lead many to say the supply is already threatened.  Moreover, the fact that the giant water supply to America’s breadbasket is remarkably shallow (anywhere between zero and 400 feet according to the USGS) means the level of exposure to a crude leak is only heightened.

Pipeline leaks have become more abundant in the United States in recent years. Before the well-documented failure of an Exxon pipeline in Montana sent tens of thousands of gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River this summer the U.S. had already been seeing a steady dose of pipeline issues. Between January 2010 and February 2011, there were nine major pipeline explosions that resulted in 18 deaths, 13 injuries and 85 destroyed homes in the United States. One of those accidents included the spilling of 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. If a similar accident, or a series of them were to compromise the Ogallala the damage would be catastrophic according to a report in the Telegraph. “If it does, the impact on the world’s food supply will be far greater. The irrigated Plains grow 20 per cent of American grain and corn (maize), and America’s ‘industrial’ agriculture dominates international markets. A collapse of those markets would lead to starvation in Africa and anywhere else where a meal depends on cheap American exports.”

These are the facts that make the Keystone XL expansion proposal a national security issue. In a world where oil and food markets are global and the threats to keeping these markets free come in many forms the Keystone XL expansion provides a lot to consider.

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