Monitoring Needed as “Science” Endorses the Keystone XL Pipeline

Water monitoring, Hydrology, Water data management software, Rating curve, Stage discharge curve

In a bold move, Marcia McNutt, the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine, one of the world’s top scientific journals, endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline late February1. The controversial pipeline, designed to transport heavy crude from Canada’s oil sands to US Gulf coast refiners, has been mired in controversy over its potential ecological and climate impacts. McNutt, who headed a US federal agency until 2013 and was a science advisor to the Obama administration, has taken a surprising position on the controversial project.

“The absence of Keystone XL has not stopped the development of the Canadian oil sands.”

Acknowledging that her position may appear to be inconsistent with her “personal crusade to minimize fossil fuel use”, she argues that “the absence of Keystone XL has not stopped the development of the Canadian oil sands.” She notes that “truck and rail are viable alternatives to a pipeline,” but is quick to emphasize that these modes of transportation are more costly and greenhouse gas emission intensive, and have a greater risk of spills. However, it wasn’t until TransCanada rerouted the pipeline around sensitive areas in the Sandhills of Nebraska, a natural wetland, and the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest groundwater resources, and promised a state-of-the-art monitoring system, that McNutt says she changed her position.

The development of energy infrastructure is placing increasing pressure on our fresh water resources.

While much of the controversy surrounding Keystone XL has now shifted to its indirect impacts on the climate, the project highlights the increasing pressure the development of energy infrastructure is placing on our fresh water resources2. McNutt is one of several former Obama officials who have given Keystone XL their blessing, signalling growing support for these projects. As we continue to expand our energy infrastructure, monitoring of both the infrastructure and the environment will be critical to risk mitigation. The extraction and transportation of crude from Canada’s oil sands consumes vast quantities of water and has adversely impacted both ground and surface water3.

If we are serious about realizing the benefits of this infrastructure, we’ll need to keep a watchful eye on it.

Photo Credit: theseoduke, (November 2, 2011), CC:BY 2.0,

1 McNutt, Marcia. “Keystone XL.” Science 343, no. 6173 (February 21, 2014): 815-815. doi:10.1126/science.1251932.

2 Stuart Hamilton. “The Fracking Truth About Hydraulic Fracturing.” Hydrology Corner, January 7, 2014.

3 Frank, Richard A., James W. Roy, Greg Bickerton, Steve J. Rowland, John V. Headley, Alan G. Scarlett, Charles E. West, et al. “Profiling Oil Sands Mixtures from Industrial Developments and Natural Groundwaters for Source Identification.” Environmental Science & Technology 48, no. 5 (March 4, 2014): 2660–2670. doi:10.1021/es500131k.

2 responses to “Monitoring Needed as “Science” Endorses the Keystone XL Pipeline”

  1. Sorry to disagree with Marcia McNutt. The Keystone XL makes no contribution to National Interest. I dissected the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in a number of letters, each on a different aspect of its many failings. (posted here and here Essentially, the basic assumptions of the Market Analysis are significantly in error. When those errors are understood and corrected, the conclusions that the FSEIS authors and Ms. McNutt have made fall apart. The Keystone XL has no redeeming value.

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