Keystone XL Pipeline May Create Jobs, But At Too Steep a Cost to Be Worth It

Anyone looking to make a point about the Keystone XL pipeline these days has their choice of a wide range of job creation numbers to justify their position, whatever it may be. Estimates for jobs created by the controversial project vary widely, as does their trustworthiness.

Yet, jobs numbers are just one of a multitude of factors that determine the worth of the Keystone pipeline. Indeed, job creation should not be the central goal of good energy policy, especially given the uncertainty in our estimates. Other factors, like safety, equitable distribution of impacts, affordability and detriment on our nations’ lands are paramount. On these metrics, Keystone looks like an unsavory proposition at best. The following infographic puts a few of these estimates in perspective;

Not all of those jobs estimates are created equal; many come from studies with deep conflicts of interest. The Paul Ryan budget numbers come from a heavily criticized TransCanada funded analysis, and even the State Department assessment was done by companies with potential conflicts of interest. More reliable sources tend to have lower estimates for job creation. President Obama himself has acknowledged that number of permanent jobs will likely be very low. 

The uncertainty in these predictions reminds us that there are more important factors in good energy policy than how many jobs it creates – like safety and environmental impact. Aboriginal groups in the US and Canada have a keen sense of these priorities, and they have allied together to fight the pipeline and the harmful environmental impacts it is likely to bring to their territories. 

"They've been stealing from us for the last 200 years … now they're going to destroy our land? We're not going to let that happen," said Martin Louie of the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation in British Columbia to The Guardian.

The alarm expressed by these activists is well-justified, even before climate change arguments are brought in. Tar sands oil is worse than conventional oil not only because it produces 5 to 19%percent more greenhouse gases, but also because its corrosive nature increases both the likelihood of pipeline spills and the potential damage from a spill. That’s a deadly combination. 

The 2010 tar sands spill on the Kalamazoo river offers a glimpse of what Keystone might have in store. The 1.2 million gallon spill has cost approximately 10 times more to clean up than a conventional oil spill because it is so difficult to remove from the environment. 

It is impossible to know just how many spills the Keystone XL pipeline will produce, but it seems inevitable that they will happen. According to an independent study by Dr. John S. Stansbury of the University of Nebraska, historical data suggests that expected spills are in the range of a whopping 91 spills over the 50-year design lifetime of the pipeline.

Such spills cause long-lasting environmental damage, are a detriment to human health, and, just to bring this full circle here, are job killers. A Cornell Global Labor Institute study suggests that the total number of jobs created by Keystone could even be negative, when factoring in job losses caused by oil spills. “Cleaning up spills and other environmental damage may create some jobs, but only at the expense of jobs in other parts of the economy,” like tourism and agriculture.

Clearly, job creation is not a good point on which to sell the Keystone project. Instead, we need to base our energy policy decisions on how to actually make energy in the best way, not on how to best create jobs. Trying to do both at once will probably ensure that we do both poorly, especially because producing energy is capital-intensive, not labor-intensive. Or, as the Economist puts it, please let’s “make energy policy about energy, not jobs.” Let’s focus on making energy that is “plentiful, cheap, sustainable (if not renewable), clean (relatively), safe (again, relatively), predictable, and broadly or equitably accessible.”

The Keystone XL project is a terrible way to achieve sensible energy policy objectives of clean, safe, equitable, or sustainable energy. We should hold our policymakers to a higher standard. Hazy job creation forecasts are not nearly enough to override these objections.