Keystone XL: An environmental threat or an oil security blanket?

From the boreal forest, to the gulfstream waters. This pipeline was made for you and me

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

It's time to turn our attention to the Keystone XL pipeline, targeted for possible approval by the US this fall and the subject of imminent protests planned for Washington D.C. over the next two weeks.

To the oil industry, this proposed 1,700-mile transcontinental pipeline, teed up to carry crude oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries in Texas, would bring a gusher of profits, creating jobs, filling gas tanks and boosting America's energy security.

Environmentalists hold a much darker view of the thick tar sands project, citing its destruction of Canadian forests, threat to the vital Ogallala Aquifer in the U.S. and extension of our reliance on the dirty fossil fuels that are overheating the planet. Tar sands oil extraction has been estimated to produce, barrel for barrel, three times the carbon pollution as conventional oil operations.

Climate change activist James Hanson has been quoted widely as saying that this new lease on life for oil would mean "game over" for the fight to save Earth from choking to death in greenhouse gases.

There are stakes upon stakes in the Keystone XL fight — for politicians, the oil industry, farmers and cities in the nation’s breadbasket, and arguably, the planet. Proponents of the pipeline see a grand plan to slash our dependence on foreign oil by turning to this North American source (though clearly oil refined in Houston doesn't necessarily stay in Houston but could be exported globally). They argue that if protesters were to block this transcontinental alliance Canada would be forced to ship its tar sands oil to China.

That line, designed to evoke gasps of fear, might move some Americans. But many appear to be more concerned about the immediate risks of the pipeline cutting across American prairies and forests. Veteran environmentalist organizations, as well as citizens’ groups, are lining up against Keystone XL. is hosting not one, but six petitions aimed at stopping the pipeline.

At the forefront of protesters’ concerns is the potential damage to land and water from frequent leaks. They note that the first Keystone pipeline has a terrible record on this count, spilling 11 times in the last year, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and aligned groups. The direct and collateral damage from tar sands operations can only be described as horrifying. Extracting oil from tar sands demands large quantities of water and lays waste to vast swaths of forests, releasing carbon into the air and destroying the nesting grounds for millions of songbirds. (See the NRDC’s ode to the birds below.)

The opposition has planned two weeks of protests in DC to illuminate the destructiveness of tar sands oil extraction and  dangers of the pipeline. This “wave of daily civil disobedience” is set to begin Aug. 20 (Saturday) and continue through Sept. 3, according to the organizers at

They hope thousands will turn out for sit ins at the White House, turning up the pressure on the Obama Administration to deny the request for the $7 billion pipeline, which they characterize as riskier because it will carry a heavy oil/gas mixture — diluted bitumen, said to be more volatile and corrosive than regular crude oil. Protesters say that will make Keystone and more prone to accidents, a charge the industry denies.

Noted activists planning to participate in the action include:  climate scientist and chief of NASA’s Goddard Center for Space Studies Dr. James Hansen; author and founder Bill McKibben; Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine,” and Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki.

But it won't be just the usual suspects. Groups and environmentalists from the states directly affected by the pipeline — Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas — have pledged participants.

Opponents from Nebraska, which relies on the Ogallala for irrigation and drinking water, are sending a delegation from Bold Nebraska, a grassroots group founded by Jane Kleeb, that’s pushing back hard against Keystone XL on behalf of people from all walks. "We are progressive, independent, moderate, populist and everything in between," their website asserts.

“Ranchers, environmentalists, urbanites, immigrants, grandparents and college students are all standing together to oppose the pipeline,” explains Bold Nebraska’s Malinda Frevert.

“I believe at the heart of it is a deep bond with our state’s land and water. Anyone who has driven to or through the Sandhills (a region the pipeline would traverse) knows what an incredibly beautiful and sensitive place it is. If TransCanada rips up the grass to bury their pipeline in the sand, that land will never be fully healed,” Ms. Frevert said.
“There’s also the threat to our water. The Keystone XL would run right through the middle of the Ogallala (or High Plains) Aquifer which provides 85% of Nebraskans with clean drinking water. It’s also crucial to irrigating crops and watering livestock–two crucial parts of our state’s ag industry. So when there’s a leak, our state’s water and economic livelihood will be permanently damaged,” she said.
Finally, many Nebraskans are frustrated that the state has no regulations for pipelines on the books, leaving it vulnerable to oil company plans.

“We regulate barber shops and political marches, but TransCanada’s been given free reign. That’s morally wrong, and Nebraskans are outraged by it,” Frevert said.

President Obama could turn down the request by pipeline operator TransCanada, as could Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose approval is needed because the project involves an international border. The intense political jockeying over this critical decision has been evident for some time, with  TransCanada hiring a  former campaign manager of Clinton's, Paul Elliot, to lobby the State Department on behalf of the project.

The billionaire Koch brothers, whose influence has been felt in many recent campaigns across the country, also are apparent stakeholders.  Their conglomerate of oil, gas and other industries remains privately held, but the news service Reuters uncovered public documents showing they will be big beneficiaries of the pipeline. That news prompted Democrats in Congress to ask for more information about how the Kochs, known for their support of the Tea Party Republicans, stand to profit.

Meanwhile, the EPA is awaiting more research by the State Department on the risks and safety requirements for the project, a response to voices inside and outside the Administration asking for assurances that Keystone XL will not be a big polluter.

The answers may not matter.

With Obama in campaign mode,  needing a jobs program and inclined to listen to demands from the anti-regulatory far right,  it may just be “game over.”

The economic boost, and the oil industry support, promised by the pipeline may be too tantalizing to turn down.

TransCanada estimates that pipeline’s construction would create 13,000 immediate jobs in America and, over the 50-year life of the pipeline, contribute more than $500 million in taxes to states and cities.

Opponents accuse the company of trumping up the job and tax revenue numbers, just as they’ve glossed over, according to critics, how difficult it is to reclaim the forests cleared for tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada.

Still the Canadian company has already been negotiating deals with American labor groups, assuming the pipeline will be moving ahead. National politicians might find it difficult to turn down a labor-generating project, especially when it comes with the tacit promise of oil-funded campaign money.

The problem for those fighting the pipeline in a unique position of having to connect a lot of dots for the public.

They must point to the blighted landscape in Canada to show how devastating tar sands operations are to the environment. The pictures of the plundered oil fields look like inky moonscapes, but they’re images from across the Canadian border. It could be hard for Americans to grasp the inter-connectivity. The full extent of the damage will unfold over many years and aspects of it, the loss of wildlife and emissions that ratchet up the atmosphere’s carbon content, are invisible.

The nightmare scenario for the US, an oil spill contaminating the Ogallala, is horrifying, but hypothetical.  Jobs and taxes, even if they come in under projections, are a more tangible campaign story. It’s always been that way — the environmental costs come later.

And there’s that rather powerful lobby, the American Petroleum Institute. It would take a steely leader to face the wrath of the API. Obama has stood up to this lobby in calling for the abolition of oil subsidies. But without support or success.

At its core the debate over Keystone XL is merely an extension of the ongoing debate over all our energy sources. We tolerate a little bit of degradation to the environment with every oil and gas well because we we are dependent upon these fossil fuels. When is the damage too great to bear? When does it force us to just say no more, as Germany did recently when it renounced nuclear power as too dangerous in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown?

Can we draw the line – in the tar sands?


The NRDC takes a poignant jab at the tar sands plan in this video message.

See more at:

Dirty Oil Sands

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

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