Keystone XL pipeline: A primer

The Keystone XL pipeline extension has been the subject of much political debate with environmentalists, union members and national security proponents weighing in on its costs and benefits. Here's a look at the proposed route and some of the facts and controversies surrounding Keystone XL.

Keystone XL extension
Keystone pipeline

Scroll down to travel the path of the pipeline.

Alberta, Canada

Oil sands region

The Keystone extension would transport crude from Alberta’s oil sands region to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Oil extraction from the tar sands is controversial because it requires vast amounts of energy and water and releases 14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional drilling.

Oil sand extraction process

oil sands graphic

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Video: Oil sands scene

The Washington Post tours a Shell oil sands mining operation and a former mining site that has undergone reclamation by Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Canada-U.S. border

Presidential permit needed

Because the route crosses international borders, TransCanada needs a presidential permit from the State Department to construct the pipeline. Canada is the largest source of crude oil imports to the United States and its biggest trading partner. Supporters of the pipeline tout the national security benefits of importing oil from a trusted ally.

Top U.S. sources of net crude and petroleum imports, 2011

Saudi Arabia




Sand Hills area and Ogallala Aquifer

The new route proposed by TransCanada largely bypasses the Nebraska Sand Hills, an ecologically sensitive area that sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer. Environmentalists worry that the remote location of the pipeline increases the risk that a leak in a sensitive area could go undetected and contamination of the aquifer could occur. A Lancaster County District Court Judge has set a trial date for arguments in a lawsuit that contends the state legislature unconstitutionally gave Gov. Dave Heineman (R) authority to approve the pipeline route.

Revised pipeline route around Nebraska Sand Hills

Steele City, Neb.

End of first segment of pipeline

The extension would reconnect with the Keystone pipeline in Steele City, Neb. TransCanada’s application to build the original Keystone pipeline was approved in 2008, and the pipeline began commercial operation in 2010.

Timeline for Keystone XL permit process


Sept. 19, 2008 TransCanada files application for Keystone XL extension with State Department.


Dec. 23, 2011 Temporary Payroll Tax Cut requires the State Department to approve or deny the extension within 60 days.


Jan. 18, 2012 State Department denies application citing insufficient time to assess the impact of the pipeline.

Feb. 27, 2012 TransCanada announces plans to proceed with second leg of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast.

May 4, 2012 TransCanada files new application with a modified route through Nebraska.


Jan. 31, 2014 The State Department concluded in its final environmental assessment issued that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would be unlikely to alter global greenhouse gas emissions.

Cushing, Okla.

Key crude oil hub

The second portion of the extension runs from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast. TransCanada is pursuing this project independently without a presidential permit because it does not cross an international border. Because of the glut of oil in Cushing, the American benchmark grade of crude, the WTI, is selling at a discount compared to the London benchmark.

Gulf Coast

Keystone XL final destination

Over half of the U.S.’s refining capacity is in the Gulf Coast, as are most of the modern refineries equipped to process lower quality heavy crude coming from Canada. The Gulf is also the exit point for petroleum, the U.S.’s largest export, on its way to other countries. Some members of Congress would like to prevent refined oil from the Keystone extension from leaving the U.S.

Imports vs. exports of crude oil and petroleum products

oil imports

SOURCE: Congressional Research Service, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Staff reports. GRAPHIC: Alberto Cuadra, Kathryn Faulkner, Laris Karklis - The Washington Post. Published July 1, 2012. Updated Nov. 13, 2014.