Keystone XL Pipeline Project Should Not Go Forward
The Canadian gas and oil corporation known as TransCanada would like to build a new pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas; the pipeline, 2,000 miles of it, would carry some of the dirtiest crude oil (tar sands oil) known in the world into the United States to be refined and used domestically as fuel for transportation and other uses. The problem with this project -- besides the fact that tar sands oil is extremely foul and causes the release of a horrendous amount of greenhouse gases when burned -- is that a break or even small leak in the pipeline could devastate ecosystems, ruin existing water systems, and in the process jeopardize the health of Americans. This paper is vigorously opposed to the development of this controversial pipeline for a number of reasons that will be spelled out in the narrative.
What's Wrong With the Keystone Project?
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), among the most respected and powerful conservation advocacy organizations, teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Pipeline Safety Trust to produce a factual document ("Tar Sands Safety Risks"). In the document the NRDC presents logical, verifiable data that all points in the same direction -- the Keystone project should never be allowed to proceed.
The pipeline that TransCanada proposes to use is conventional pipeline, which will not be adequate because moving thick, volatile tar sands crude oil requires "higher operating temperatures and pressures to move the thick material through a pipe" (NRDC, 2011, p. 3). Also, the tar sands oil (known as "DilBit") is known to be "more corrosive" to pipelines than conventional crude oil. Just building the pipeline and pushing DilBit through it without additional safety measures and regulations is taking extreme risks, the NRDC explains (3).
The tar sands oil comes from under the Boreal forest in Alberta, and in the first place extracting the tar sands from beneath the Boreal requires strip mining and disrupting "millions of acres of sensitive wildlife habitat" -- not to mention the disruption of "critical terrestrial carbon reservoirs in peatlands" (NRDC, 5). In the process of extracting the dirty tar sands oil the developers need to use a "large" amount of energy; to wit, getting synthetic crude from the Boreal will release an estimated "three times the greenhouse gas emissions per barrel as compared to that of conventional crude oil" (NRDC, 5).
The extraction process requires two to five barrels of water for every barrel of DilBit that is extracted, and this process has already created "…over 65 square miles of toxic waste ponds" in the otherwise pristine Boreal Forest. Moreover, there is the potential that continuing to extract tar sands oil -- to supply refineries in Texas as the southern end of the proposed pipeline -- could cause the loss of "millions of migratory birds" that use the Boreal and its wetlands as habitat for nesting (NRDC, 5).
The Ogallala Aquifer
Once extracted and sent into the United States via pipeline, the tar sands oil will pass over "…some of America's most sensitive lands and aquifers on the way to the Gulf Coast," the NRDC explains (5). One of the more sensitive places that the pipeline will pass through / over is the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground water source in the United States, according to Anthony Swift with NRDC's Switchboard. The concern that Swift expresses is due to the fact that Keystone's real time leak detection system "will not detect pinhole leaks and can't be relied on to detect leaks smaller than about 700,000 gallons a day" (Swift, 2011, p. 1).
The recent leak in Canada -- on the Norman Wells pipeline in Enbridge, Canada -- that dumped 63,000 gallons of tar sands crude into the environment "provides an indication of the types of leaks that can go undetected for weeks," Swift explains (1). Those 63,000 gallons leaked out from a hole that Swift asserts was "about the size of a pinhole"; but a spill in the Ogallala Aquifer would be "far worse," Swift goes on. The Keystone pipeline would actually go underground through Ogallala Aquifer in many places, and the supplemental draft environmental impact statement (SDEIS) points out that "the water conductivity -- or the rate that water moves through the soil -- in the Ogallala Aquifer can be as high as one hundred feet per day" (Swift, 1).
This impact statement proves a point, Swift insists: the SDEIS concedes that Keystone "does not have the technology to detect a single leak that is less than 1.5 -- 2% of the pipeline's flow-rate in real time." Indeed, the SDEIS points out that a pinhole leak could go undetected for weeks before anyone notices. As to the contamination that the Ogallala Aquifer would be subjected to -- as responders won't be able to simply remove contaminated soil -- the responders will have to "pump contaminated water out, which will draw more water into the area of the contamination" (Swift, 1).
The truth is, according to Swift's research, a tiny leak that occurred in the pipeline underground through the Ogallala Aquifer could leak as much as "five percent of its capacity, or 1.7 million gallons a day, without triggering its leak detection system" (1).
Other Potential Disastrous Results from Keystone
The NRDC's research reflects the fact that once a leak occurs on the pipeline -- and the history of pipelines and oil is a dirty, messy, environmentally tragic story -- there is the potential of an explosion or a fire due to the "low flash point and high vapor pressure of the natural gas liquid condensate used to dilute the DilBit" (7). The explosive mixture that can be formed with temperatures above 0 degrees Fahrenheit should cause great concern in the areas of the United States that the pipeline is proposed to pass through. This mixture -- which contains hydrogen sulfide, a gas that can cause suffocation in concentrations over 100 parts per million -- can ignite with "…heat, a spark, static charge, or flame" (7). DilBit contains benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and n-hexane, all toxins that can affect the human central nervous systems.
Cleaning up a spill from DilBit is far more complicated and problematic than conventional crude oil spills, the NRDC points out on page 7. DilBit is composed of raw bitumen and is heavier than water; hence, it will sink into water and wetland sediments and require "significantly more dredging than a conventional oil spill"; moreover when exposed to sunlight, heavy oil like the tar sands oil forms a "dense, sticky substance that is difficult to remove from rock and sediments," and the cleanup costs soar when compared to the conventional cleanup strategies (7-8).
Because the proposed pipeline will pass through "…the entire area of Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota," there is a great concern about pollution that would result from a leak. How long would it take for TransCanada to move it's 8,000 feet of boom, eight spill response trailers, seven skimmers, and four boats to one of those states' vast open areas from Canada in the event of a serious spill? No one has an answer to that question.
But there are answers to questions about the history of moving DilBit through pipelines. NRDC points to the fact that by 2009, more than two-thirds of all crude produced in Alberta was transported as DilBit through pipelines. The record is not favorable to the environment. To wit, Alberta's hazardous liquid system had "…218 spills greater than 26 gallons per 10,000 miles of pipeline caused by internal corrosion from 2002 to 2010," NRDC reports (9). Compared to the 13.6 spills greater than 26 gallons per 10,000 miles of pipeline "…from internal corrosion reported in the United States…during that time period"; doing the math shows that the rate of spills of DilBit "due to internal corrosion" is "sixteen times higher in Alberta than in the United States" (9).
The Political Battle is Shaping Up For/Against Keystone XL
As with nearly all energy-related issues in the United States, the Keystone XL pipeline has become the subject of a bitter fight between progressives and other concerned citizens pushing for renewable, clean energies; and those who have adopted the "drill baby drill" mentality -- notably Republicans, conservatives, Tea Party types and others. To ask the public to trust that "Big Oil" will preserve the environment in this risky endeavor -- notwithstanding the number of environmentally catastrophic disasters in the history of oil development (think the "Deep Water Horizon" disaster, Exxon Valdez spill; Trans-Alaska Pipeline spill; The Yellowstone River Pipeline spill; the Kalamazoo River spill; among numerous others) -- is stretching credulity, to say the very least.
In the second week of December Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives came up with a plan to try and force President Obama's hand on the Keystone XL pipeline; Obama, understanding and responding to the tsunami of opposition to the pipeline, postponed an executive decision…