The fate of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, a $7 billion project to bring oil from Canada's tar sands all the way to refineries in the US state of Texas, will be debated at a public hearing in Nebraska Thursday.
Here's some key facts about what's at stake.
WHAT IS IT?
Keystone XL is an expansion of TransCanada's existing system to funnel oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in the United States. The initial $7 billion proposal in 2008 was to build a second pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta that would cut through Montana to meet up with TransCanada' existing line in Steele City, Nebraska and then add on a new southern leg to bring the oil to refineries in Texas. But after years of delays, TransCanada separated the southern portion of the pipeline into a new project that did not require presidential approval and is currently under construction. What remains is a $5.3 billion proposal to build a 1,179-mile (1,897 kilometer) pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska.
WHY IS IT SO CONTROVERSIAL?
Alberta's tar sands are considered to have the 'dirtiest' oil on the planet. Unlike traditional crude which gushes out of a well, tar sand oil needs to be dug up and essentially melted with steaming hot water before it can be refined into useable petroleum products. This means a lot more fossil fuels need to be burned as part of the extraction process, which further contributes to climate change. It also results in huge lakes of polluted water and the strip mining of millions of acres of once-pristine boreal forests. Environmentalists also argue that it contains a harmful and corrosive component -- bitumen -- which makes pipeline ruptures or leaks more likely and carries a greater health and safety risk. Since it is heavier than traditional crude, tar sand oil is also harder to clean up because it sinks rather than floats in water. There was also significant opposition to the initial route because it passed through Nebraska's environmentally sensitive Sand Hills wetlands and over a huge and critical aquifer which serves eight US states.
The $7 billion proposal was welcome news to a nation suffering from the 2008 financial crisis and the worst economic downturn in decades. The State Department estimates the current $5.3 billion project will create 42,000 temporary jobs over the one to two year construction period, of which 3,900 will be direct construction jobs. Opponents note that just 35 permanent jobs would be created for pipeline maintenance and argue that the project will kill more jobs than it creates by diverting investment away from more labor-intensive green energy alternatives like wind and solar power.
"Drill baby, drill" was a common chant at Republican political rallies ahead of the 2008 election and many Americans still believe climate change is a farce. TransCanada argues that bringing another 830,000 barrels of oil per day from friendly, neighboring Canada would reduce US dependence on the Middle East and Venezuela by as much as 40 percent. Opponents argue that Keystone XL will have no impact on energy security because much of the oil will be shipped to refineries that produce diesel in tax-free foreign trade zones and end up being exported to Europe and Latin America.
TransCanada argues that buried pipelines are a far safer alternative to transporting oil than ships or trains and claims to have "one of the best safety records in the industry." It also notes that there are more than 2.6 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines in the United States "that deliver 99.9998 percent of their products safely and reliably every day." The pipeline will also be equipped with 21,000 sensors that provide updates every five seconds via satellite and the ability to isolate a problem within minutes through remote-controlled valves. Critics note the existing Keystone pipeline developed a dozen leaks in its first year of operation, including a 21,000 gallon spill in North Dakota.