Security, scarcity, and the political pipeline

Sean Gillonby Sean Gillon, University of Wisconsin – Madison

The Keystone XL pipeline proposed by TransCanada Corporation has become a highly politicized economic, energy, and ecological debate.  If approved by Presidential Permit, the 1,700-mile pipeline would carry some portion of the estimated 1.75 trillion barrels of tar sands oil (bitumen) that lie in western Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and along the Gulf Coast in Texas.  A recent bill requires Obama to make a decision on the pipeline within 60 days.  The permitting process has opened the project to debate and provided opportunity for opposition.  Media coverage has trained its gaze around the common jobs versus the environment trope, with a dash of energy security thrown in for good measure and urgency.  The work of critical geographers, which I turn to after providing some summary background, aids in fleshing out this issue.

Proponents of the pipeline predictably argue that the Keystone XL and the tar sands it carries will bring energy security and jobs.  A TransCanada study pegged the number of jobs at 20,000 (13,000 in construction and 7,000 in related manufacturing), a number widely circulated in public officials’ and media accounts.  That number, however, is in “person years” – each “job” is one person working for one year.  If each employee worked on the project for two years, for example, the number of “jobs” would be halved.  TransCanada may be accustomed to flexible labor-sourcing strategies, but these Keystone XL positions hardly represent lasting, meaningful employment opportunities that pipeline advocates tout.  Others assert that the pipeline will create 120,000 jobs – another TransCanada number based on an imaginative 100 year timeline, which hints at, if nothing else, how long tar sand oil may be with us.  By contrast, a Cornell University Global Labor Institute study produced different results: between 2,500 and 4,650 temporary jobs.  Supporters also argue that the pipeline’s construction will improve US energy security by bringing a scarce resource to market.  TransCanada CEO Russell K. Girling put it this way: “If Keystone XL dies, Americans will still wake up the next morning and continue to import 10 million barrels of oil from repressive nations without the benefit of thousands of jobs and long-term energy security” (quoted in Broder and Frosch 2011a).

Opponents of the pipeline submit that associated negative environmental impacts far outweigh the pipeline’s benefits.  Greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil extraction are 30–70% higher than those from conventional oil.  The oil pipeline was also slated to run through the ecologically important Sand Hills of Nebraska and over the shallow Ogallala aquifer, the Great Plains’ freshwater source.  Nonetheless, in the initial environmental impact report, Cardno Entrix, a private company reportedly hand-picked by TransCanada to conduct the State Department analysis, found that the pipeline would have minimal impacts.  Critics of the State Department’s review process have also drawn attention to possible preferential treatment that TransCanada may have received due to its ties with Paul Elliot.  Elliot acted as a top official in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and is currently the chief Washington lobbyist for TransCanada.

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The focus on job numbers, energy independence, and immediate environmental impact in media discussion obscures more fundamental issues to which critical geographical perspectives can speak.  Whether or not to extract and import tar sand oil is often depicted as a question of improving energy security in a time of energy scarcity.  The implied antidote is securing increasingly unconventional oil from domestic or “friendly” sources (i.e. tar sand and deep-water deposits).  Mazen Labban, however, points out that any serious energy analyst would argue this kind of energy self-sufficiency is not possible, or even desirable: “The task is to derive energy security from managing interdependence in the world energy market and the global system of international relations as a whole” (2011: 329).  This is a global, not national, task the US takes to heart as justification for pre-emptive market and military aggression; room for improvement abounds.

Critical geographical analyses also suggest that tar sands investment is not driven by energy scarcity.  Tar sands and Keystone XL appeal might be better explained by the relative ease and profitability of oil industry investment than our running up against the limits of conventional oil extraction.  The Canadian government is relatively foreign investment-friendly, especially when compared to countries more prone to resource nationalism (see here for a list of Alberta tar sands investors).  And despite the energy intensive refining processes that poor quality tar sand oil requires it is profitable as an investment because the supply is large enough to maintain a “normal flow” of oil through expensive extraction and transport infrastructure.  “Accounts rooted in economic geography…can open up the ‘black box’ of investment to show how its spatiality and scale are responses to corporate objectives conditioned by logics of accumulation, rather than reactions to depletion” (Bridge 2010: 527).  US Energy Information Agency official Philip Budzik said as much: “…long-lived productive assets such as oil sands provide a company some insurance as to its long-term financial viability” (quoted in Broder and Frosch2011b).

Finally, in contrast to the common assertion that rising oil prices make tar sands oil a viable energy source, Huber (2011) points out that oil, like all other natural resources, is not a resource until socially and politically defined as such (see Harvey 1974).  The Keystone XL pipeline is part of a political process making tar sand oil a resource central to the US energy portfolio for decades to come.  The task, according to Huber, is to trace how resources become part and parcel of “the production and reproduction of real life” – a particular kind of life in this case, an oil intensive one (see Huber 2009).  In short, how and whether oil will be drawn out of the tar sands is not a security and scarcity issue.  It is a political question about oil industry profitability and the reproduction of a particular socio-ecological configuration of consumptive life, with the Keystone XL pipeline serving as method and mascot.


Bridge G (2010) Geographies of peak oil: The other carbon problem. Geoforum 41(4):523–530.

Broder J M and Frosch D (2011a) U.S. delays decision on pipeline until after election. The New York Times 11 November (last accessed 10 January 2012)

Broder J M and Frosch D (2011b) Politics stamps out oil sands pipeline, yet it seems likely to endure. The New York Times 24 December (last accessed 10 January 2012)

Harvey D (1974) Population, resources, and the ideology of science. Economic Geography 50(3):256-277

Huber M (2009) The use of gasoline: Value, oil, and the ‘American way of life’. Antipode 41(3):465-486

Huber M (2011) Oil, life, and the fetishism of geopolitics. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 22(3):32-48

Labban M (2011) The geopolitics of energy security and the war on terror: The case for market expansion and the militarization of global space. In Peet R, Watts M and Robbins P (eds) Global Political Ecology. London: Routledge


  1. iowabarncat

    Very unbiased and based on the facts. I totally agree that Keystone is just a political pawn in our current election cycle. It’s being sensationalized equally by way out of the mainstream conservatives and liberals for political gain. Tar sand extraction unless we can further reduce the cost of energy used in actually capturing a unit of energy through technology just isn’t a very good return on investment (ROI) right now, period. I would just say that its in the interest of the US to maintain its access or keep the option on the table if future technological breakthroughs allow for a less environmentally intrusive extraction with a higher net energy ROI. The fear mongers will tell you we need to act now to box out our competition, mainly China. There is probably a little validity to that argument. Personally, I think true energy independence can really only be accomplished by going further with nuclear. There is no higher ROI and I highly doubt there ever will be. The world’s hunger for energy will surely only grow as more impoverished countries realize the luxuries that we ourselves enjoy in the first world.

  2. saraholiday

    Great post, Sean – you bring together a bunch of important points around this issue. The question of how the bitumen in tar sands comes to be produced as ‘oil’ is particularly interesting.