Why the Keystone XL Pipeline was Unethical


This article draws upon environmental, utilitarian, rights and justice ethics in order to explain why the Keystone XL Pipeline extension was unethical and why its permit was revoked by the Biden Administration in 2021. It debunks the common claims that the pipeline would increase jobs and encourage economic growth, as well as sheds light upon the negative environmental effects and risks to indigenous populations, offering ethical guidelines for the future, such as consulting with indigenous communities before embarking on construction projects. 


In January 2021, President Joe Biden canceled the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline: a structure proposed to connect the existing Keystone Pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska. The pipeline would have run through Montana where crude oil from American reserves would have been added, transporting an estimated 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day [1]. This extension was wildly controversial and opposed by many environmentalists and indigenous rights activists; however, Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada, argued that the Keystone XL Pipeline would have put “20,000 US workers to work and [invested] $7 billion stimulating the US economy.” Given the controversy surrounding the pipeline, why were four previous phases approved and why are they currently operational today?

To understand why the Keystone XL pipeline was unethical within an engineering context, we must discuss the pipeline’s construction, as well as the economic, environmental, and sociopolitical factors that ultimately led to its cancellation, with the aid of ethical frameworks such as the utilitarian, environmental, and rights approaches.


The goal of the pipeline was to extract tar sands oil (a sludge of sand, clay, water and bitumen used in gasoline and petroleum products [2]) from beneath Canada’s boreal forest and deliver it to refineries on the Gulf Coast – a process which is highly controversial due to its cost, lack of sustainability, and effect on neighboring habitats and populations. The pipeline, which was proposed to have thicker walls and be buried deeper in areas of high population [1], would have traveled through several territories belonging to Native American tribes, including the Sac and Fox tribe in Cushing, Oklahoma, and the Lakota tribe in North and South Dakota. The construction of the pipeline was divided into several phases, all of which were completed with the exception of the final proposed phase, which was canceled by President Joe Biden. 

Beginning with Phase 1, engineers constructed a 2,456 km long pipeline running from Hardisty, Alberta, to a junction in Steele City, Nebraska, to the Wood Hill Refinery and Patoka Oil Terminal in Illinois. Phases 2-3b consisted of connecting the existing pipeline to oil terminals in Oklahoma and Texas. This section, also known as the Gulf Coast Pipeline, attracted some attention by opponents who claimed, “TC Energy took advantage of legal loopholes to push the pipeline through, obtaining authorization under a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nationwide permit and dodging the more rigorous vetting process for individual permits, which requires public input” [3]. This evidence has been used by environmentalists and tribe leaders who have been affected by the pipeline’s construction to suggest that TC Energy was already engaging in unethical behavior in order to get the pipeline constructed. However, none of these phases was met with as much criticism as the final phase. 

Essentially a replica of the first phase, the Phase 4 extension would have provided a shorter route for transporting the oil from Alberta, running through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska to form a hypotenuse. The source of controversy may be attributed to new attention attracted from a back-and-forth dispute about the permit between presidential administrations. President Barack Obama initially denied the extension’s permit in 2015, citing threats to public health and the environment, but this decision was later overturned by President Donald Trump in 2017. When it was overturned again by President Biden in 2021, similar reasons were cited: The potential economic benefits of the project were not worth the environmental and public health risks.

Unsupported Economic Claims

Many proponents of the pipeline stated that the pipeline would be a positive stimulus to the economy, reiterating the U.S. State Department’s estimation that Keystone XL would “contribute $3.4 billion to US GDP, 28,000 construction jobs and generate over $100 million in tax revenue over its lifetime” [4]. This logic follows the utilitarian approach, which says that decisions should be made by weighing the benefits and consequences and taking action if the result is the greatest good for the greatest number. Supporters of the pipeline essentially argued that there would be more people to receive a job through the pipeline’s construction and thereby benefit than there would be people who were negatively affected. While the oil industry claimed that the pipeline would have created “thousands of union jobs,” most of these jobs would be temporary positions – the real number of permanent jobs being closer to 50 [5].  This number is pitiful in comparison to the number of indigenous people who would be negatively affected by the construction of the pipeline, not to mention the entire population of the world in terms of climate change. Furthermore, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the 285 climate disasters that have occurred in the United States since 1980 have cost $1.875 trillion in damages [6].

Considering the fact that the Keystone XL would have increased greenhouse gas emissions, there is no doubt that this pipeline would have ended up costing taxpayers more in the long term, not even accounting for the slew of health and housing problems people would face as climate change continued to escalate. Even in the short term, the pipeline would not have benefitted Americans as much as TC Energy would have liked people to believe, with claims that the increase in oil production within the United States would help us rely less on the Middle East for fuel, causing gas prices to go down. However, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that the majority of the oil generated from the Keystone XL would have been sent to foreign markets anyway, which would have led to an increase in domestic gas prices [7]. This evidence suggests that the pipeline would only have benefitted the vested interests of a select few at the expense of many others [8].

Environmental Drawbacks

The anthropocentric ethic of the Keystone XL pipeline extension would have been a threat to local ecosystems and the planet as a whole. Firstly, the Keystone Pipeline’s terminal in Alberta extracts not just ordinary crude oil, but tar sands oil, which is thicker, more acidic, more corrosive, and more likely to cause a leak [3]. Since the beginning of the original pipeline’s operation in 2010, the Keystone has leaked at least a dozen times [3]. Furthermore, tar sands spills are much harder to clean up – they sink to the bottom of waterways and pollute rivers and streams, cause erosion, ruin nearby farms and ranches, threaten the lives of migrating birds and even cause health problems, including cancers, in nearby indigenous communities [3] [9]. Also, tar sands extraction is an exercise just as costly monetarily as it is environmentally. In order to make tar sands oil marketable, it must be heated to 500 degrees and be transported with the help of large processing facilities [9], both tasks requiring an immense amount of energy; in fact, oil sands mining uses up almost the same amount of energy that it produces [10]. This energy comes at a high price, both in terms of production costs as well as in terms of conserving emissions. The benefits of extracting tar sands oil pale in comparison to the cost of doing so, financially and environmentally.

The global impact of using tar sands oil as fuel would be devastating. It was estimated that burning the full amount of oil able to be extracted by the pipeline would contribute 22 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere [11] – 1.3 billion more tons of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime than if it were carrying conventional crude oil [12]. Additionally, extracting Alberta’s tar sands via the Keystone XL had the potential to raise global temperatures by 0.4 degrees Celsius [11], another reason why top climate scientists opposed the pipeline. If the international goal is to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius [12], this would have been a crushing blow to climate optimism. 

On a smaller but still notable scale, the extension would have threatened local biodiversity. If completed, any spill on its path from Alberta to Texas could have endangered native flora and fauna, including “the whooping crane, piping plover, woodland caribou, interior least tern, black-footed ferret, pallid sturgeon, Arkansas River shiner, American burying beetle and western prairie fringed orchid” [13], according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Biocentric, or “life-centered” approaches to ethics dictate that these species have just as much of a right to life as humans do.

Violation of Native Treaties

In the aftermath of the Civil War, approximately 368 treaties were established between the United States government and Native American tribes [14]. As author and historian Sarah Pruitt states, “The treaties were based on the fundamental idea that each tribe was an independent nation, with their own right to self-determination and self-rule” [14]. However, these treaties have been repeatedly violated throughout the course of history, and the actions of those who initially approved and constructed the Keystone XL Pipeline are no exception. 

The violation of treaties by the federal government in order to approve the pipeline is not only unethical by reason of harming the environment but also illegal – bringing us to the rights approach. The rights approach states that rights, or justified claims on others, cannot be violated. For example, indigenous people were given the right to be recognized as tribes and allotted land which the government could not infringe upon.  The purpose was to protect these communities from exploitation and harm. This includes reappropriating land to be used for construction projects such as the Keystone XL, which could have exposed Native women to an increase in sexual violence by the settling of man-camps needed to complete the pipeline [15]. The proposed Keystone XL violated multiple treaties including the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the 1855 Lame Bull Treaty, and the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie [16], all of which resulted in lawsuits against TransCanada and the United States government. On September 10, 2018, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Fort Belknap Indian Tribe, and Gros Ventre Tribe all sued the Trump Administration for treaty violations [17]. 

Infringement on indigenous rights poses other ethical questions as well. According to distributive justice, benefits and consequences must be fairly distributed among members of society in ways which are fair and just. Native treaties not only exist as a form of protection, but also as an act of justice – a small reparation for the atrocities committed against indigenous peoples. Colonialism resulted in the mistreatment and genocide of Native Americans, leaving behind a legacy of systemic oppression in which these communities suffer from higher rates of poverty, health problems, lack of access to resources like education and land property, and an overall poorer quality of life [18]. Engineering projects such as the Keystone XL Pipeline which favor moneyed interests over the livelihoods of indigenous people end up distributing benefits in a way that is unjust. It is unjust for wealthy oil tycoons to benefit from the exploitation of native people and lands. Following the principles of distributive justice, ethically speaking, the decision to cancel the construction of the pipeline was the bare minimum.

What Can Engineers Learn?

To avoid the problems of the Keystone Pipeline, engineers must take economic, environmental and human rights concerns into serious consideration before embarking on new projects and must weigh the benefits and consequences before beginning construction. The following questionnaire provides a blueprint for weighing these benefits and consequences:

What is the purpose of this project? What current need does this project address, and are there any other ways to achieve this goal besides utilizing this engineering approach?

Who will this project benefit economically or socially, aside from those profiting directly from construction?

What are the environmental risks associated with construction? Does it benefit or harm local ecosystems and/or contribute to climate change or other global phenomena?

Will this project burden local communities? Do I have the consent of these communities to begin construction on their land?

If the answer to any of these questions suggests a better approach, or that the project does not provide any immediate economic or social benefits to those outside of the engineers, or that an imminent environmental or legal threat would be imposed, then the project should not be pursued.


Although it is somewhat idealistic to assume that all engineers and all governments will follow ethical guidelines, it is in their best interests to do so. The Keystone XL was an expensive endeavor, and aside from the part of the pipeline that is currently in use, the result of the failed project has translated into millions of dollars lost. If corporations continue to put moneyed interests over ethics, the Keystone extension must continue to serve as a cautionary tale.

By January Billington, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, January Billington was a senior at the University of Southern California studying English with an emphasis in creative writing and music industry.


[1] “Application for Presidential Permit for Keystone XL Pipeline Project”, TransCanada, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://2017-2021.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Application-for-Presidential-Permit-for-Keystone-XL-Pipeline-Project.pdf.  

[2] K. Byng-Hall, “Keystone XL Pipeline Halted Over Environmental Backlash”, Tru, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.tru.org.uk/post/keystone-xl-pipeline-halted-after-major-environmental-backlash.  

[3] M. Denchak, “What is the keystone XL pipeline?,” NRDC, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-keystone-pipeline.  

[4] “Keystone XL: Do the Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few?,” Professional Responsibilities of the Engineer, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.ethicsforge.cc/keystone-xl-do-the-needs-of-the-many-outweigh-the-needs-of-the-few/

[5] J. Brady and N. Banerjee, “Developer abandons Keystone XL pipeline project, ending decade-long battle,” NPR, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.npr.org/2021/06/09/1004908006/developer-abandons-keystone-xl-pipeline-project-ending-decade-long-battle.  

[6] A. B. Smith, “2020 U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in historical context,” Climate.gov. [Online]. Available: https://www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/beyond-data.  

[7] M. Denchak, “The Dirty Fight Over Canadian Tar Sands Oil,” NRDC, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/dirty-fight-over-canadian-tar-sands-oil.  

[8] D. Sassoon, “Koch brothers positioned to be big winners if Keystone XL pipeline is approved,” Reuters, 2011. [Online]. Available: https://www.reuters.com/article/idUS292515702420110210.  

[9] B. Palmer, “The Tar Sands Bubble,” NRDC, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.nrdc.org/onearth/tar-sands-bubble.  

[10] R. Nuwer, “Oil Sands Mining uses up almost as much energy as it produces,” Inside Climate News, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19022013/oil-sands-mining-tar-sands-alberta-canada-energy-return-on-investment-eroi-natural-gas-in-situ-dilbit-bitumen/

[11] M. Rosenberg, “Keystone XL Pipeline: What You Need To Know,” EcoWatch, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.ecowatch.com/understanding-keystone-pipeline-2653219611.html.  

[12] B. Magill, “EPA: Keystone XL to emit 1 billion extra tons of ghgs,” Climate Central, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.climatecentral.org/news/epa-keystone-xl-to-emit-1-billion-extra-tons-of-ghgs-18631

[13] “Keystone XL Pipeline,” Center for Biological Diversity. [Online]. Available: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/keystone_xl_pipeline/.  

[14] S. Pruitt, “Broken Treaties with Native American Tribes: Timeline,” History, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.history.com/news/native-american-broken-treaties  

[15] A. Lucchesi, “Our Bodies Are the Front Lines: Responding to Land-Based Gender Violence,” Nonprofit Quarterly, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://nonprofitquarterly.org/our-bodies-are-the-front-lines-responding-to-land-based-gender-violence/.  

[16] “Keystone XL pipeline must comply with treaties and Tribal Law,” AP News, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://apnews.com/press-release/pr-businesswire/fc3069b41c234dd2abf5dc0ddc288093 

[17] “Rosebud Sioux and Fort Belknap file suit against Keystone XL,” Native American Rights Fund, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.narf.org/cases/keystone/.  

[18] “The Health of Indigenous Peoples,” UN, 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.un.org/en/ga/69/meetings/indigenous/pdf/IASG%20Thematic%20Paper%20-%20Health%20-%20rev1.pdf

 [19] “What is land back?,” David Suzuki Foundation, 2021. [Online]. Available:   https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/what-is-land-back/.