Will Keystone affect gas prices? No, not really
TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, a multibillion-dollar project designed to transport tar sands oil from western Canada to the American Midwest and Gulf Coast, has been confronted with a quagmire of controversy from its outset, with environmentalists and landowners battling oil giants and energy investors over the proposal.
But for many Americans, the issue closest at hand is how a finished Keystone XL pipeline would affect gasoline prices at the pump.
The answer, say industry experts, is minimally, if at all.
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"It has no material impact on gasoline and diesel at the end of the day," said David McColl, an equity analyst at Morningstar.
Curt Launer, a managing director at Deutsche Bank, agreed, saying that there's no real reason to suspect that direct economic benefits shared by Transcanada, Canadian oil producers and U.S. oil refiners would be passed on to individual gasoline consumers.
"The question is, what impact would this have on consumer prices?" said Launer. "The answer is none."
"Keystone wouldn't have a significant impact either way on overall North American energy prices," he said. "The real impact would be a higher price received by the producers of oil who would ship their oil through the Keystone pipeline. There would not be a change in any major way for the price of oil in the worldwide market."
Canadian produced tar sands oil, classified on commodities markets as "Western Canadian Select," or WCS, currently sells at a significant discount to the international market standards of West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, and Brent crude. That discount derives in part, say analysts, from a lack of easy pipeline access between Canadian crude and Gulf Coast refiners.
Experts say much of the heavy crude oil shipped south from Canada is held up at Cushing, Okla., a major U.S. oil hub. Because of a limited supply of pipeline capacity extending from Cushing to the Gulf Coast, Cushing has become the site of a bottleneck creating a local buildup of oil supply.
"Canada faces this glut of heavy crude in Cushing," said Morningstar's McColl. "It's been that bottleneck that's been pushing down on Canadian prices."
McColl said the section of Keystone XL extending from Cushing to the Gulf Coast, expected to be opened by the end of this year, would help to reduce the glut and increase Canadian crude prices.
"The price of Western Canadian would move up," said McColl. "It's very enticing for Canadian markets."
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Keystone XL is also an enticing prospect for American refiners, said Valero spokesman Bill Day, because even at an increase over its current market price, Canadian crude supplied via pipeline would still be significantly cheaper than WTI and Brent crude.
"The heavy Canadian oil right now is some of the lowest-priced oil on the planet," said Day. "Right now, Canadian crude oil is about $30 cheaper than WTI or Brent."
"The U.S. refiners are the greatest supporters of Keystone XL," said Andy Black, president of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. "Refiners on the Gulf Coast will have additional options for crude, and additional access to crude that is lower priced."
The most obvious economic beneficiary of the Keystone XL pipeline is its builder, Transcanada. The company says it has already secured revenue for Keystone through long-term commitments from oil companies.
"We underpin our projects with long-term binding contracts," said Transcanada spokesman Grady Semmens. "More or less, the pipeline is fully subscribed by companies that have committed to pay for transportation for an average of 18 years."
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On the question of whether Keystone would benefit U.S. consumers at the pump, Semmens was circumspect.
"More supply and existing demand should result in lower prices," said Semmens. "But markets don't always act in a perfect fashion."
—By CNBC's Adam Molon. Follow him on Twitter @CNBCMolon.