Across North America, the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline continues to heat up. Several years after the tar sands line was due to be completed, owners are still awaiting word on whether the White House and U.S. State Department will sign off on the project.
And that’s almost two months after release of what is supposed to be the final environmental study on the last leg of the massive project to bring the sludgy, toxin-heavy product called tar sands bitumen from Alberta to refineries on the Texas coast. Rather than settling questions about environmental impact and jobs creation, the study seems only to have solidified supporters and opponents in their arguments.
“Anyone who could look at the summary report and not see it as a clear justification for denying the permit just isn’t looking at the report,” said Rita Beving, a long time anti-pipeline activist.
“Time to build the pipeline,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said repeatedly in a series of speeches around the country shortly after the report’s release.
The Keystone XL would bring Trans-Canada’s pipeline across the U.S.-Canadian border and south to Nebraska, where it would connect to an existing pipeline and then to the project’s southern leg, which runs from Oklahoma down the length of East Texas to Houston-area refineries. The refined products would then be delivered by pipeline to Port Arthur for overseas export.
Opposition to the pipeline has been growing. More than 400 protesters were arrested after chaining themselves to the White House fence on March 3. Native American tribes in Nebraska and South Dakota have blocked roads through their lands to keep tar sands machinery from crossing their territory, and new protests are planned for April and beyond.
In Texas, protest groups of environmentalists and landowners fought the southern section of the pipeline in the courts and in front of state agencies, building tree-house encampments across the line’s expected route and locking themselves to pipe sections and construction equipment. Despite their efforts, the pipeline went into operation in December.
The report released Jan. 31 was two years in the making, ordered by President Barack Obama, who asked for a study of the pipeline’s effects on climate change, jobs to be created, and national security issues.
When the report went up for public comment, opponents sent more than two million objections to the State Department. And proponents launched a multimillion-dollar campaign of TV commercials touting the importance of the line to this country’s energy independence and claiming that a quarter of a million jobs were at stake.
The 11-volume report has done little to clarify the major issues surrounding the pipeline — perhaps not surprising, given how the report was prepared. Most of it was written by ICF International, a consulting firm with close ties to Trans-Canada. The pipeline company paid for the study, though it was overseen by an agency within the State Department — a common practice that nonetheless raised some hackles. That, in turn may explain some of the logic of the report’s findings.
The most critical conclusion may be that the Keystone wouldn’t be a major contributor to climate change. On similar sections of the line — operated by different companies but carrying the same tar sands bitumen — pipe breaks and leaks have already caused massive environmental damage.
The report acknowledges that development of the Canadian tar sands will have a huge effect on climate change. But the report’s authors concluded that such development will happen regardless of whether the pipeline is built and that any method of shipping will have some environmental impact. Therefore, they wrote, the pipeline itself won’t make much difference to the climate picture — adding only about as much as the annual exhaust from 300,000 vehicles.
Danielle Droitch, Canadian project director of the National Resources Defense Council, disagreed with those findings.
“The only other way to move the tar sands bitumen would be by rail, and rail is … significantly more expensive,” she said. Without the pipeline, tar sands development won’t draw investors nearly as fast. “It wouldn’t make financial sense.”
She also said that if the pipeline is built, its sensors will only be able to detect leaks of about half a million gallons or more.
“That is an enormous amount of tar sands to go undetected,” Droitch said.
The report predicted that even a huge spill would spread no farther than about half a mile, yet the Enbridge spill in Michigan in 2010 poisoned 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River and is still not cleaned up.
“And remember, this pipeline is set to cross more than 1,000 waterways, miles of floodplains, and two major aquifers, including the Ogallala,” Beving said. “No one, no matter how they try to downplay it, can deny that this is a danger to those vital water sources.”
TransCanada did not respond to phone calls or e-mails for this story. But the American Petroleum Institute, a nonprofit that lobbies the government on all aspects of oil and natural gas production, has issued statements on the report.
“During more than five years of review, five exhaustive environmental assessments have concluded that the Keystone XL pipeline is safe for the environment,” institute president and CEO Jack Gerard said in a recent e-mail that was widely circulated. “It’s time to focus on the benefits the Keystone XL will bring.”
On the jobs front, the report suggests that, if the project goes forward, about 2,000 jobs will be created during two years’ worth of construction. The total number of permanent new jobs anticipated by TransCanada: 35.
But the report’s authors also estimated that another 41,000 temporary jobs would be created in industries that would provide support to the pipeline crews — people to build camps in remote areas, jobs on ranches that will be raising extra beef, gas stations pumping more gas That number is never further explained, however.
Opponents of the line point out that construction of the southern leg, from Cushing, Okla., to Houston, produced almost none of the 100,000 such support jobs that had been predicted in this part of the country.
“The report completely dismantles the jobs argument,” said Anthony Swift, a lawyer specializing in oil and gas issues with the National Resources Defense Council. “The number of jobs in the construction of the line is about the same as you would have in building a medium-size mall.”
Beving said she’s looked for Keystone’s supposed benefits and can’t find them. “The pipeline is affecting Americans and American property — farms and timberland and other private property — for a Canadian company that’s going to export their product with no benefit to the U.S. Why on earth would we want to do that?”
There’s about a month left of a 90-day review period that began when the report was released, during which time Obama and the State Department are supposed to decide whether the pipeline is in the national interest. However, the State Department has given no timeline for a decision.
Throwing an extra kink in the proceedings is a recent Nebraska appellate court ruling that the governor of that state does not have power to approve the line. The state has appealed that decision to the Nebraska Supreme Court, and no actual route through Nebraska exists until the state court decides the issue. That could potentially slow the approval process considerably. In other words, it might be several months before a final decision is made on the Keystone XL.