Pre-20th century: Indigenous Cree and Dene, as well as Canadian fur traders, use
liquid bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands to seal their canoes -- and for a long
time, that’s about all the stuff is good for. Despite an 1888 Geological Survey of
Canada report that the Athabasca formation may contain the largest petroleum field in the
world, there is neither the technology to extract it nor the economics to make large-scale production worthwhile.
July 30, 1978: Syncrude ships its first barrel of oil produced from the Athabasca tar
sands. Tar-sands oil is more expensive, lower quality, and burns dirtier than crude
oil, but with the memory of the OPEC oil embargo still fresh and relations tense with
the Middle East, the hunt is on for oil that’s closer to home.
Sept. 21, 2007: With global oil prices rising, Canada’s National Energy Board
approves the original Keystone pipeline, an 1,830-mile pipeline built by
TransCanada that will transport 435,000 barrels of tar oil a day from Alberta to
despite environmental concerns, complaints from landowners, Indian tribes, and even
unions that argue that the pipeline would create few permanent jobs. Six months
later, George W. Bush’s State Department issues a “presidential permit,” allowing
the pipeline to cross into the U.S.
July 17, 2008: With construction of the Keystone well underway, TransCanada
announces plans for a much larger, high-capacity pipeline called the Keystone XL.
The new pipeline would stretch about 1,700 miles from Alberta through Montana,
South Dakota, and Nebraska, where it would link with the original Keystone
pipeline, then extend through Oklahoma and Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The route
would slice through the fragile Sandhills wetlands and over the Ogallala Aquifer,
which supplies almost a third of the irrigation groundwater in the U.S.
April 16, 2010: Despite serious concerns about how burning all that oil would
warm the climate, and massive opposition from landowners, the State Department
issues a draft environmental impact study claiming the Keystone XL will have
limited effects. Fifty members of Congress, backed by business leaders, argue that
the draft study is inadequate. The Environmental Protection Agency gives the report
its lowest possible rating and requests a do-over. The controversy is punctuated by
an 845,000-gallon tar sands oil spill from a third, existing pipeline into a tributary
of Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later says she is
“inclined to approve” Keystone XL.
June 2010: The original Keystone pipeline becomes operational, pumping tar oil from
Hardisty, Alberta, to Patoka, Ill. Seven months later, the pipeline reaches the oil hub
of Cushing, Okla. Around the same time, James Hansen of NASA lends his voice to the chorus of climate scientists fighting the proposed XL extension. In an op-ed published later in the New York
Times, Hansen says that burning all of the oil in the tar sands could mean “game over
for the climate.”
April 15, 2011: The State Department releases its supplemental environmental
impact study. The EPA upgrades the report to its second lowest rating, calling it
“environmentally objectionable,” while 34 members of Congress tell Secretary
Clinton it still ignores major climate and safety issues. In its first year of operation,
the original Keystone pipeline has racked up at least a dozen major spills, spurring
the U.S. Department of Transportation to state that the pipeline's operation is a “hazard to life, property and the environment.”
Aug. 20, 2011: After 20 prominent national climate scientists write to President
Obama pleading with him to block the pipeline, Tar Sands Action launches one of
the most ambitious acts of civil disobedience the environmental movement has ever
seen. Over the course of the two-week sit-in, over 1,000 protestors are arrested.
Their voices are soon joined by the governor of Nebraska, the National Farmers
Union, nine Nobel Peace Laureates including Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai
Lama, and thousands of citizens at protests across the nation.
Jan. 18, 2012: The Obama administration denies a permit that would have allowed
the Keystone XL to be built across the Ogallala Aquifer, halting the project to make
time for further study. By August, still lacking state and federal permits to build the
northern section of the pipeline, TransCanada begins construction on the southern
section in Texas, which requires no State Department approval because it doesn’t
cross the international border. President Obama says, incongruously, that the
southern portion of the pipeline is a “priority.”
Feb. 17, 2013: An estimated 35,000 people descend on Washington, D.C., for
the Rally for Climate Action, demanding a halt to the Keystone XL. The president,
meanwhile, is golfing with Tiger Woods and leading figures in the Texas oil and gas
industry. Two weeks later, the State Department releases its revised environmental
study, which doesn't even address the pipeline’s effect on climate change. The public has until
April 15 to comment on the study. Activists have vowed to hound Obama until he makes a final decision.