In Harm's Way: How Keystone XL Threatens Endangered Animals, Plants

No matter how you look at it, Keystone XL would be bad for wildlife, especially for endangered species.

Many imperiled species live along the proposed pipeline's path and in areas where tar sands oil is produced. If the pipeline is built, most will have nowhere else to go.

The Center for Biological Diversity released a report called In Harm's Way: How the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Have Ignored the Dangers of the Keystone XL Pipeline to Endangered Species.

Our analysis found that at least 12 threatened and endangered species in four states would be put in harm's way by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, including whooping cranes, interior least terns, American burying beetles, northern swift foxes, greater sage grouse, piping plovers, pallid sturgeons and black-footed ferrets.

Threats from this project include habitat destruction from the massive ground disturbance this pipeline would've caused, bird deaths from power line collisions, and the potentially catastrophic impacts of pipeline spills.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are required to analyze the potential impacts of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline on threatened and endangered species.

In analyzing the proposed pipeline's impacts, the State Department and Fish and Wildlife Service summarily dismissed or ignored some of the most significant harms that these species would face if this pipeline is approved and built, failing to fulfill their duties under the Act and to the American public, which overwhelmingly supports the protection of wildlife.

We found that both agencies excluded consideration of the impact of pipeline spills on endangered species, despite otherwise acknowledging that spills are all but certain to occur. They also failed to consider the impacts of related infrastructure like power lines and roads, improperly downplayed the impacts of ground disturbance, and ignored the impacts of increased tar sands production on endangered species in Canada.

In November 2015 Obama finally rejected the proposed KXL pipeline — but right after coming into office, President Trump put it back on the table.

Among the wildlife impacts of Keystone XL:

Whooping cranes: Toxic tailing ponds in Canada, power line collisions, oil spills.
Black-footed ferret: Habitat impacts in recovery habitat.
Interior least tern: Disturbance of breeding habitat, power line collisions, oil spills.
Piping plover: Power line collisions, increased exposure to predators, oil spills.
American burying beetle: Loss of vital grass habitat, smashing during construction, oil spills.

Details on Impacts

Pipeline Spills

  • The agencies in charge of evaluating spill risks minimized the risk and consequences of KXL spilling.
  • KXL would stretch across hundreds of miles and carry up to 35 million gallons of oil every day; the State Department predicts it could spill oil up to 100 times during its lifetime. Past tar sands oil spills have devastated local wildlife, but the State Department completely failed to consider the cumulative effects of spills on terrestrial wildlife and migratory birds in important habitat areas.
  • Even though the agencies admitted that the toxic effects of tar sands spills can reduce entire populations or biological communities of sensitive species, they came to the unsupported conclusion that endangered species such as the pallid sturgeon and American burying beetle would not be adversely affected by pipeline spills.

Power Lines

  • KXL would require the construction of 378 miles of new power lines, creating significant collision threats for imperiled birds and bats.
  • Only about 300 endangered whooping cranes remain in the wild. Nearly the pipeline's entire proposed route through Nebraska is within the central migratory corridor used by the last remaining wild population of whooping cranes, and cranes are particularly susceptible to collisions because they are so lanky, and powerlines are hard for them to see. The agencies wrongly concluded that by utilizing bird flight diverters — devices scientists deem only marginally effective — power line collisions would not adversely affect whooping cranes or other avian species.

Ground Disturbance

  • Construction on just the northern U.S. segment of the proposed KXL pipeline would directly disturb about 15,500 acres and would require the construction of hundreds of new roads.
  • While the State Department admitted that building KXL could result in the crushing of endangered northern swift foxes with young in dens, the State Department and Fish and Wildlife ignored their legal duty to consider impacts to these tiny imperiled foxes under the Endangered Species Act.

International Wildlife Impacts

  • By creating new infrastructure to move dirty tar sands oil, building KXL would allow for more tar sands extraction in Canada's rich boreal forest. Threatened woodland caribou are experiencing a rapidly declining due to loss of habitat in the tar sands region, with the once-vast herd tragically expected to soon fall below 10 individuals.
  • Increasing tar sands extraction would have devastating climate impacts. Species such as Arctic polar bears and emperor penguins are already in rapid decline due to climate change, and building KXL would exacerbate this problem. The agencies refused to consider KXL's international repercussions.


Whooping crane photo by Anthony Rue/Flickr