The U.S. State Department recently released an environmental assessment that concluded the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska, would not substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions. The reason for this, the report claimed, was that a pipeline would cause less greenhouse gas emissions than moving the oil by train or truck, and it would be a safer method of moving it too. Their conclusions have encouraged many people to demand that President Obama approve the pipeline’s construction as soon as possible.
Sending oil through a pipeline might be the safest method of transporting it, but things can still go wrong. In 2010, for instance, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy leaked oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was a heavy crude oil, called bitumen, from the Canadian tar sands where the oil for the Keystone XL pipeline would come from. It sank to the bottom of the river and the cleanup closed 35 miles of the river for a year and cost more than $750 million. Questions about the efficacy of the cleanup and the safety of the chemicals that were used remain unanswered.
But pipeline safety isn’t the only issue to consider. Extracting oil from tar sands is a very nasty business. For example, its extraction can require strip mines, create dangerous concentrations of heavy metals, and release poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas. The in-situ method of extracting the oil, wherein steam, solvents, and/or hot air are injected into the sands, results in large tailings ponds of toxic water. In 2007 these tailings ponds covered an area of approximately 19 square miles in Canada. A recent National Wildlife Federation report found that exposure to the ponds has killed at least 43 different species of birds, including more than 2,000 ducks.
The State Department’s report also admitted that extracting oil from tar sands creates about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional oil production methods because it can require more water and energy. But the construction of the pipeline wouldn’t have any effect on those emissions, the report found, because they would still occur without the pipeline. But the report’s analysis that the tar sands oil industry would continue to grow assumed there would be higher oil prices in the future. This is questionable considering the increases in oil production elsewhere, the growing number of fuel efficient vehicles, and the fewer number of young people choosing to own a car. The report’s conclusions are further clouded by the ongoing State Department Inspector General’s investigation to see if the contractors hired to assess the project for the federal government had financial ties to TransCanada – the company that wants to build the pipeline.
The U.S. cannot control the Canadian tar sands oil industry, but we shouldn’t be encouraging it. Claims by pipeline proponents that the industry will continue to develop with or without the pipeline don’t make any sense. If that were the case, then why are the Canadians so keen on getting the pipeline approved? Moving the oil by train or truck would obviously be more expensive, making tar sands oil less profitable.
I bet that many of the conservatives who support the pipeline’s construction also like to preach that the government “shouldn’t pick economic winners and losers”. But apparently that doesn’t apply to the oil industry. If granting hundreds of miles of pipeline right-of-way across three U.S. states isn’t giving preferential treatment to a business, then I don’t know what is.
On February 19, 2014, a county judge in Nebraska judge has rejected a state law that would have granted oil pipeline developer TransCanada eminent domain powers to acquire private property in that state to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
On November 6, 2016, President Barak Obama announced that TransCanada’s application for a permit to complete the Keystone XL pipeline had been rejected because it, “would not serve the national interests of the United States.”
On March 17, 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump forced the U.S. State Department to give its stamp of approval to the Keystone XL pipeline, claiming that it wouldn’t contribute to climate change since so many other countries were already reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
On September 10, 2018, the Fort Belknap Indian Community of Montana and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota announced they were suing the Trump administration for failing to adhere to treaties and and conduct adequate environmental analyses of the pipeline. They asked a federal judge in Montana to rescind the pipeline’s 2017 permit and block any further construction.
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