Energy & Environment

Does New Congress Mean Keystone Pipeline Crude Oil In Houston?

Congress may approve the controversial pipeline, forcing President Obama to act.


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UH symposium panel
The UH symposium panel from left: Charles Esser, Carl Weimer, and Steve Magness


In the next couple of months, you’re likely to be hearing more about the Keystone XL pipeline. It would bring heavy Canadian crude oil to refineries near Houston and Beaumont. The Obama Administration has yet to approve it, but a new Congress may step in and take action.

After the Republican Election Day sweep, GOP leader and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell said energy policy will be a priority.

“When you say energy these days, people think of the Keystone Pipeline, but that’s only part of it,” said McConnell, the presumptive Senate majority leader.

Why has the Keystone continued to be such a hot-button issue for years?

People opposed to it have said the pipeline poses a higher risk of leaking because of what’s been called the “corrosiveness” of Canadian crude that’s heavier than average. But among some people in the nation’s energy capitol, the proposal to pipe Canadian crude is met with a yawn.

“For people in the industry, it’s kind of a benign thing,” said Steve Magness, a partner with Cogent Energy Solutions, which markets crude oil shipped by pipeline. He was on a panel of three experts speaking at a University of Houston “Critical Issues in Energy” symposium about pipeline safety.

When asked about Keystone, the panel’s public safety advocate — Carl Weimer with the citizen’s group Pipeline Safety Trust — said the Keystone debate is now less focused on safety and more on climate change. He said other similar pipelines are creating little fanfare.

“And while they’ve all been arguing about Keystone, other pipelines have been developed delivering the same amount of crude into the US,” Weimer said. “Other pipelines are being proposed that would take it to the east and the west coasts.“

The panel agreed the Keystone controversy is now more about the way the oil is produced in Canada and how refining it will impact climate change. The crude is mined out of the Canadian oil sands formations, which opponents say damages forests and wastes water. Once in Texas, refining the heavy crude may result in higher amounts of air pollution than refining so-called lighter crudes.

What’s more, Keystone is different because it needs approval from the U.S. State Department since it would run across the US-Canadian border. The third panelist at the U of H event knew all about that.

 “I worked on the Keystone Pipeline when it was in the State Department. In fact, I was the bureaucrat who initiated the bureaucratic process of the Keystone Pipeline,” said Charles Esser, eliciting chuckles from the packed auditorium.

Esser pointed out that it’s not just environmental groups who pose a problem for oil sands crude: the European Union has proposed slapping an extra tax on it because it’s dirtier and could add more to climate change. And now with the price of oil dropping, there’s another concern: oil sands crude is more expensive to produce. So will those costs be justified if oil prices remain low? The market will eventually answer that question.

Meantime, the soon-to-be Republican-majority Congress may vote to approve Keystone, leaving it to President Obama let the vote stand. Or veto it.

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