• 24Sep

    I don’t often blog about political issues, but the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is just too despicable and infuriating for me to stay silent.

    The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed 1700-mile long pipeline that would carry diluted tar sands from Alberta, Canada to Texas. Tar sands (also called oil sands) are a mixture of sand and bitumen, a type of gooey petroleum that resembles tar. Tar sands can be processed into crude oil, and then refined into petroleum products like gasoline (aka. petrol), propane, and motor oil. TransCanada, the oil company who wants to build the pipeline, plans to process the tar sand in Houson, Texas, and from there will likely ship the product overseas. This plan would be extremely lucrative for TransCanada, but devastating to the US and global environments.

    As we all know, gasoline and other fossil fuels release greenhouse gasses and pollution when they are burned. But the process of converting tar sands to crude oil also releases a lot of greenhouse gasses and pollution into the atmosphere. So, the whole process considered, gasoline derived from tar sands produces even more pollution than gasoline derived from crude oil. Even if the pipeline works flawlessly, and never ever leaks, the environmental impact of the pollution from tar sands would be immense.

    But tar sands pipelines are estimated to be 16 times more likely to leak than a conventional crude oil pipeline. This is due to all that sand scraping against the inside of the pipeline, combined with the already corrosive nature of the bitumen. And TransCanada already has a crude oil pipeline: the original Keystone pipeline, which became operational in June 2010. Less than a year later, it experienced a massive leak from one of the pumping stations. And before that, even before the pipeline became operational, TransCanada was forced by government order to inspect and replace defective steel pipe purchased from an Indian manufacturer named Welspun Power and Steel. It seems that Welspun forewent certain safety checks in its rush to meet demand, and some pipe they had sold to other companies had already proved defective.

    So, you may be wondering who TransCanada chose to provide steel pipes for the new Keystone XL pipeline? Naturally, it is the very same Welspun Power and Steel that provided defective steel for the last pipeline! What’s more, TransCanada has requested a permit for the Keystone XL to use thinner steel pipes than is standard, to save themselves $1 billion on construction. They’ve also requested to pump at higher pressure than is normal, I guess because they enjoy the thrill of danger and the smell of money.

    It seems like the proposed pipeline is pretty much destined to leak. And when it does, it will be a disaster. The proposed pipeline would run directly over the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge natural underground water reserve that spans most of Nebraska, and parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. That aquifer provides 30% of the US’s ground water used for irrigation, as well as drinking water for 2 million people. The pipeline also runs through the Sand Hills of Nebraska, which contain 1.3 million acres of wetlands, one of the largest wetlands environments in the US; several hundred acres would be directly at risk if the pipeline leaked. And to top it off, Nebraska has a long history of seismic activity, making it rather shakey ground for a high-pressure pipeline built from cheap steel.

    If a leak occurs in that area, the bitumen mixture could pollute the wetlands and leech down into the aquifer, contaminating the water with benzene, mercury, arsenic, and many other toxic chemicals. If an earthquake caused widespread damage to the pipeline, the impact would be especially dire. I can’t even imagine the possible impact if the pipeline were deliberately sabotaged. How do you secure a 1700-mile long high-pressure pipeline built with substandard steel? A few small explosives placed at strategic points along the pipeline could be catastrophic.

    Obviously, people don’t want toxins in the food they eat or the water they drink. So, Nebraska, western Kansas, etc. would either need to find a new water supply (maybe build a pipeline from somewhere with uncontaminated water?), or spend a lot of time and money carefully purifying the ground water before it could be used even for irrigation, let alone human consumption. Either way, water would be more expensive, so food produced in that region would be more expensive. Plus, production would likely go down, thereby driving national food prices up even more due to scarcity.

    So with a leak being pretty much inevitable, and the potential consequences of a leak being so dire, how could this pipeline plan have survived? Surely in the 2 years since it was proposed, the government agency responsible for studying its possible impacts would have realized what a bad idea it is, right?

    Well, due to the multinational nature of the pipeline, the agency responsible is the State Department. And the State Department did release an analysis of the possible impact — but the Environmental Protection Agency has strongly criticized that report, saying that the analysis does not adequately address issues like the potential groundwater contamination or damage to the wetlands. The EPA said the same thing about the State Department’s analysis last year, but the State Department still hasn’t performed a thorough analysis.

    Why is the State Department being so lackadaisical about such an important matter? That may be the influence of Paul Elliot, a former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run.

    Today, Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State (i.e. head of the State Department), several former Clinton campaign staffers are State Department officials… and Paul Elliot is now working for TransCanada, as a lobbyist to the State Department. A Freedom of Information Act request recently brought to light emails that indicate Elliot has been liaising with State Department chief of staff Cheryl Mills, one of Elliot’s buddies from the Clinton campaign, to influence the State Department and ease the proposed pipeline deal through the system.

    It’s easy to guess why the State Department didn’t conduct a thorough analysis, when they had an old pal whispering in their ear, assuring them that the pipeline would be safe, would create jobs and help the US economy, would reduce US dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and so on. To put it mildly, the State Department’s objectivity in this matter is rather suspect.

    In the end, the fate of the pipeline comes down to President Obama, who has the authority to deny TransCanada the permit to build the pipeline. But, his stance on this matter isn’t clear. I’d wager that the State Department is advising him to approve it, but the opposition to the pipeline has been quite vocal. Scores of politicians, celebrities, scientists, Nebraska farmers, and others have urged Obama to reject the proposal. In August, activists staged a sit-in in front of the White House. Over 1200 activists were arrested and hauled off by police during the two-weeks of peaceful protesting. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions and wrote concerned letters to the EPA, the State Department, and the President.

    The optimist in me hopes that Obama’s rhetoric about supporting a “green energy future” means he will reject the proposal. The cynic in me thinks that Obama, as a politician facing re-election, wouldn’t dare go against his base on such a major issue. But the pessimist in me fears that the US government is too corrupt, too influenced by corporate lobbying, to place the wellbeing of the populace and the environment before the financial interests of corporations.

    So, it’s not clear to me which way this will go. But it is clear that if the pipeline is approved, the consequences will be profound, even beyond the environmental impact. The hypocrisy and corruption of government is becoming increasingly intolerable. To approve this pipeline would be to pour gasoline on the fires of revolution.

    Posted by Jacek Antonelli @ 11:30 pm

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