Initial Publication Date: August 23, 2021 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022

Geoethics Case Study: The Keystone Pipeline--Energy, Jobs or Environment?

David Mogk and Andrew Thorson, Montana State University-Bozeman


The Keystone Pipeline is a complex project that raises important environmental, economic, and international policy issues. Tar sands from Alberta Canada will be mined and processed and transported on a ~1700 mile pipeline to refineries in the United States. How should decisions be made responsibly and ethically to balance societal energy needs with anticipated environmental impacts related to mining and processing the tar sands and the ultimate impacts on climate change.


This case study can be used in a range of Earth Science classes including Introductory Physical or Environmental Geology courses to upper division courses.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students should be familiar with the 7 Step Ethical Decision Making Model.

How the activity is situated in the course
We advocate using these Case Studies as a "5 minute challenge" inserted into any Earth Science course to support Teaching Geoethics Across the Curriculum. Regular exercises focused on considerations of Geoethics can be integrated to reinforce ethical principles in the training of future geoscientists and for the general public. Group discussions, role playing, and short reflective writing exercises may be used to engage these issues. Deeper exploration of this topic could be done through more extensive class discussion, debate, role-playing or writing assignments.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
The primary goal of this activity is to provide the opportunity for students to practice ethical decision-making using a real-life scenario. This includes a careful assessment of the facts of the situation, formulating a course of action, and considering the consequences of these actions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Ethical decision-making is closely aligned with critical thinking skills. Resolution of ethical dilemmas requires both synthetic and analytical reasoning.

Other skills goals for this activity
Communication skills are required to present analysis of the case study and to defend a recommended course of action.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Competing values are addressed regarding need to supply critical energy resources for society and economic development vs. environmental protection. What personal and professional responsibility do we have in supporting or opposing this type of large-scale, fossil-fuel energy project? What responsibility do we have to society, and particularly to indigenous people who may be impacted? What is our responsibility as Earth scientists for stewardship of the planet?

Description and Teaching Materials

This case study provides background information on the geologic setting and development plans for the Keystone Pipeline, Canada and the United States. It also examines the potential environmental impacts of tar sand development, and the potential environmental impacts of building a ~1700 mile pipeline.

Case Study Scenario

With growing concerns regarding energy availability and the need to supply the energy needs of a constantly increasing population and economy, society is confronted with the challenges of meeting these energy needs while preserving environmental integrity. A complex project such as the Keystone Pipeline presents many potential environmental problems from the initial mining and processing of tar sands through development and operation of the pipeline itself, to end-product consequences of prolonging use of fossil fuels that ultimately contribute to climate change. In an attempt to address our energy needs, The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs stated on May 4, 2012, "...the Department of State received an application from TransCanada Corp for a proposed pipeline that would run from the Canadian border to connect to a pipeline in Steele City, Nebraska." The proposed pipeline would transport bitumen-based oil, providing jobs and increased energy security for the United States. However, this proposal has received much controversy over the potential environmental impacts, motives behind the construction, and objections to continuing to build on the carbon economy. This case study examines many dimensions of the Keystone Pipeline that have geoethical applications. For example, it is the responsibility of geoscientists involved in the planning of the pipeline to effectively communicate the potential hazards and environmental impacts of the proposed pipeline to society. Also, geoscientists have a responsibility to address the impacts of tar sand mining on the health and economic security of humanity, and the overall impact on planetary systems.  

As noted in the table, there are many concerns with the extraction of tar sands. Tar sands are composed of clay, sand, water, and bitumen. They are extracted through open pit mining, and through steam-injection methods. The oil rich bitumen is further separated from the other components with hot water and agitation. The addition of hot water and agitation bring about tiny air bubbles, which attach to the bitumen, allowing the bitumen to be skimmed off for further refining. According to the Oil Shales and Tar Sands Programmatic (OSTSP), a division of the U.S. Department of Interior "Both mining and processing of tar sands involve a variety of environmental impacts, such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, disturbance of mined land; impacts on wildlife and air and water quality." The processes involved to obtain pipeline ready bitumen requires an extensive amount of water to supply the separation process, as well as the steam injected extraction method. The OSTSP goes on to say, "About two tons of tar sands are required to produce one barrel of oil." The viscosity and density of Bitumen is also a concern if spill does occur along the pipeline route. Spills in water can result in irreversible disaster. The density of Bitumen allows it to sink in water, e.g. rivers, mixing in with the vegetation and sediment of the most important resource on Earth, making skimming and overall cleanup very difficult.

The proposed route for the pipeline in through the plains, and farmland of many states, including Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. This area would provide suitable soil for construction as well as few landscape obstructions as the elevation gradient through the route is relatively low. However, the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline would cross the Yellowstone River, and the Missouri River in Montana, the Red River in Oklahama, and the Niche River in Texas. The location of the route needs to be properly understood, as a remarkable amount of oil would be transported via the pipeline daily. According to TransCanada's official website for the Keystone XL Pipeline, "The pipeline will have capacity to transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day to Gulf Coast and Midwest refineries, reducing American dependence on oil from Venezuela and the Middle East by up to 40 per cent." At this capacity, this would be very beneficial in terms of our need for energy; however, to transport this large of quantity over 1700 miles will require a structurally sound pipeline with proper maintenance and monitoring. The environmental and geological science behind the construction, as well as the practices involved in acquiring the oil need to be further studied and disclosed in order to make a prepared, and ethical approach to the construction of an extensive pipeline such as Keystone XL.

Ethical Decision Making:

The route requires the involvement of many ranchers and farmers throughout the central United States as it will be their land housing the project. If a spill occurs, it is the health, and security of these citizens, their neighboring communities, and the land these people rely on that are at risk. However, TransCanada is confident they can provide proper restoration. In their official website for the Keystone XL Pipeline, TransCanada states, "Our ERP also includes plans for a worst-case leak. This approach calculates the largest possible spill volume, enabling us to plan accordingly." TransCanada has had success in polling the public opinion on the issue as well. According to the Huffington Post in an article on the support of the American public for the pipeline, "A 56 percent majority of Americans support building the pipeline to transport oil from Canada through the United States to oil refineries in Texas. Eighty-three percent of Republicans, 53 percent of independents and 40 percent of Democrats are in favor of it." There was no surprise that the Republicans are a majority of the approval as they are pursuing the pipeline pretty aggressively. According to the Wall Street Journal in a related article about the Americans approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, "More than a third of Americans surveyed say they don't know enough about the pipeline project to lean one way or the other, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.....Of those who do have an opinion, a greater number support the project than oppose it." This is a key issue in determining the ethical practice involved in the fight for the votes. With numerous uneducated voters, the ending decision could be the result of skewed opinions. TransCanada is also on the radar for bullying landowners into the use of their land for the pipeline. In a court case against Texas landowner Julia Crawford, it was ruled that TransCanada can be considered a common carrier and could use eminent domain. Mrs. Crawford's land was condemned to the pipeline, showing that disapproval from landowners cannot stop the progress of the pipeline. In a article by wordpress, they write, "Eminent Domain" is allowing the TransCanada pipeline to take people's land, such as Mrs. Crawford's, and use it to build a giant Canadian pipeline on it while America watches." The Native Americans do not seem to be keen on the construction of the pipeline as well, according to an article written by Joshua Edwards, editor of, "Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation made a man made road block to prevent two trucks which were carrying supplies to the Keystone XL Pipeline from driving through.... Many Native Americans are against the pipeline due to the belief that they will poison the Earth, knowing this; TransCanada got restraining orders on them, hoping that they would stay away from the pipeline and stop protests in the future." The opinion of these culturally significant citizens needs to be understood as well as respected for the ethical soundness of the project.  The concluding decision for the pipeline is in the hand of the United States government; however the opinions of the public need to be heard, understood, and fought for by our leaders in order to make the most sound, ethical decision for the country we live in.

Teaching Activity

Students are encouraged to explore some or many of the references below. These are just a sampler of the vast literature and commentary on this topic that can be found with a search of the WWW.

We encourage students to use the  7 Step Ethical Decision Making Model to analyze this case study.  Here are some "guided discovery" questions that can help with exploration, analysis and discussion.

  • What is the nature of the Tar Sand deposits, how big are the resources, what methods must be used to extract and process the hydrocarbons?
  • What engineering challenges are likely to be encountered in building the pipeline?  What social, economic, or political challenges have been ecountered?
  • What are the potential environmental impacts of a) mining and processing the hydrocarbon resource; b) the pipeline itself (potential to fail; impacts on agricultural lands, riverways, wetlands....); and c) contributions to CO2 emissions, greenhouse gases and climate change?
  • What is the position of Indigenous People whose lands will be traversed by the pipeline?  What will be the impacts on local communities?
  • Who has the power to make the decision to build the pipeline or not,  and what socio-economic-political forces will be involved?
  • What personal and professional responsibilities do geoscientists have a) working for, or in opposition to, this project; and b) as global citizens?

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students should be given time to read and reflect on the scenarios that are presented. Supporting articles from the popular press and scholarly journals are also provided for deeper exploration of these topics. Class discussion (or Case Study written review) can be guided following the 7 Step Ethical Decision-Making model. There are no absolute right or wrong answers here--but students should be encouraged to understand the full context of the situation and possible responses and their consequences. Recommended decisions should be based on the strength of evidence presented.

Students should be encouraged to do their own investigative work to explore these issues in more detail.

The background information provided in the scenario and supporting materials can be used as the foundation for classroom practice such as these strategies from Pedagogy in Action:


Personal Reflection:

1. Identify your own relevant personal values in relation to this ethical dilemma

2. Identify any societal values relevant to the ethical decision to be made

3. Identify the relevant professional values and ethics

Written or Oral Responses to this Ethical challenge:

1. Develop your own rubric for the 7 Step Decision-Making Model, to demonstrate the completeness or maturity of student thought for each step.

2. As an example, apply this rubric on [link  'Assessment: Measuring Students Moral Development'] from the Illinois Institute of Technology, :

"One tool for grading longer, more complex essays and case study responses is the Pittsburgh-Mines Engineering Ethics Assessment Rubric. This grading matrix was developed by a team of researchers from engineering, philosophy, and bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh and the Colorado School of Mines. (6) While made for analyzing students' analyses of engineering ethics cases, variations of this kind of rubric could be used for almost any assignment of this kind. The rubric measures the following five attributes: on a scale of "1 (lowest) through 5 (highest)"

Recognition of dilemmas

(1) students fail to see problem;

(5) student clearly identifies key ethical issues.


(1) students ignore important facts;

(5) students identify unknown facts and use their own expertise to add appropriate information


(1) students provide no analysis;

(5) students cite analogous cases, offer more then one alternative solution, and identify risks for each solution.


(1) students have wondering perspective;

(2) students have one perspective;

(5) students have global perspective.(6)


(1) No resolution, resolution lacks integrity;

(5) resolves case thoroughly through clear argumentation and understands consequences of various actions.

References and Resources

 Suggested Readings that inform this case study: