Feud Over TransCanada Tar Sands Pipeline Burns White Hot

WASHINGTON, DC, October 10, 2011 (ENS) – Public comment on the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast closed at midnight Sunday, with the battle still raging over environmental impacts vs energy security and jobs. Accusations of an environment impact study tainted by croneyism and a lawsuit over construction commencement before approval are the latest developments in this ongoing fight.

TransCanada Keystone Pipeline was equally owned by TransCanada Corporation, a Canadian public company, and U.S. oil giant ConocoPhillips in 2008, when the company applied to the U.S. State Department for a Presidential Permit for the construction, connection, operation, and maintenance of the US$7 billion, 1,700 mile pipeline that would cross six states. In 2009, TransCanada assumed sole ownership.

Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones (Photo courtesy State Dept.)

Because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border, President Barack Obama is required to determine whether or not the pipeline is in the national interest.

President Obama has delegated this decision to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “It’s her choice to delegate it to a couple of other people within the [State] Department,” said the top State Department official to deal with the issue, Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Secretary Clinton “has not made that decision yet as to if she would delegate it or make the decision herself,” Jones said at a press briefing Friday.

On Friday, the State Department held its final public hearing on the pipeline, which drew crowds of people inside and outside the State Department.

More than 70 people spoke at the hearing. A speaker in support of the pipeline said those testifying were evenly split between supporters and opponents. Supporters want the jobs and energy supplies the pipeline would bring and worry that Canada will sell the crude oil elsewhere if the pipeline is not built.

Keystone I pipeline laid across South Dakota, July 2009 (Photo by Dirty Oil Sands)

Opponents maintain that the Keystone XL pipeline would drive a polluting industry that is spreading environmental degradation across northern Alberta, using vast amounts of water and natural gas to extract heavy crude oil from the tar sands. They say extracting and consuming tar sands crude will worsen climate change and add to air pollution.

They are concerned that spills along the pipeline route could damage the environment, including the Oglalla Aquifer, a vast, shallow underground water table that lies beneath parts of eight Great Plains states. The aquifer provides drinking water to almost two million people and irrigation water to about 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States.

Their concern is shared by Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, who wrote a letter to Jones last week requesting that if the pipeline is approved it would be routed around the Nebraska sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer.

“Rerouting the pipeline around the Ogallala Aquifer is in the national interest; therefore, I request that Secretary Clinton use her permitting authority to change the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline,” wrote Governor Heineman. “I am opposed to the proposed route of the pipeline, not the pipeline itself.”

In August 2011, an environmental impact report issued by the U.S. State Department found the Sandhills route would be the most economically feasible, and would be unlikely to have significant environmental impacts.

Pipe sections ready to be laid near Pilsen, Kansas for the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, June 2010 (Photo by David Penner)

The concerns of pipeline opponents were fueled this week by a report in the “New York Times” that at TransCanada’s recommendation, the State Department hired Houston-based environmental consulting company Cardno Entrix to write the environmental impact study for the pipeline, although it had worked on projects with TransCanada in the past and describes the pipeline company as a “major client” in its marketing materials.

During Friday’s news conference, Jones emphasized the impartiality of the State Department’s process. “First of all, I want to let you know that the Department of State is committed to an impartial, rigorous, transparent, and thorough process for the National Interest Determination to determine whether or not this pipeline proposed by Keystone XL is in the national interest. This process, the National Interest Determination, is defined in law an executive order. It requires us to consult with about eight other public agencies.”

“We’ve heard views from all different sides of this story, and what we want to make sure you understand is that we have not made any decision,” said Jones.

“No decision has been made, and we are in the process of listening and gathering more information. Part of this is the environmental impact statement, but environment is only a part of it. We also have in this national interest review issues related to energy security and economic development and growth. So we’re in the process, have not made a decision, and we’re doing a very transparent and thorough process.”

Russ Girling (Photo courtesy TransCanada)

Russ Girling, TransCanada’s president and chief executive, said in Washington Friday that the pipeline would help Americans achieve two primary goals – increasing energy security and creating thousands of jobs.

Girling said, “Within days of receiving regulatory approval, Keystone XL would create 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs in the U.S during the construction phase. This includes welders, pipefitters, heavy equipment operators, engineers and many other trades.”

“Investing billions in the economy would also lead to the creation of 118,000 spin-off jobs as local businesses benefit from workers staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and TransCanada buying equipment and supplies,” he said.

“The Keystone XL project is expected to create $20 billion of economic stimulus to the U.S. during construction and contribute over $5 billion in property taxes to the communities it will pass through – money counties could use to build new roads, schools and hospitals,” Girling said.

Syncrude tar sands oil refinery at Fort McMurray, Alberta showing gas flare and tailings pond (Photo by Lucas Leung)

“The United States consumes 15 million barrels of crude oil per day and imports 11 million barrels per day,” said Girling. “Under any scenario, the need for crude oil as the primary transportation fuel will remain for decades. The United States has a choice of receiving more oil from its most secure, most stable and most reliable trade partner, Canada, or to continue to import from less stable locations that do not share the interest and values of Americans.”

“From pipe manufactured in Arkansas, pump motors made in Ohio and transformers built in Pennsylvania, workers in almost every state in the U.S. would benefit from the project and the ongoing development of Canada’s oil sands,” Girling said.

But the pipeline’s critics say their numbers include ranchers and farmers, environmentalists, scientists and many members of the public. “People from all across America came together to demand that the State Department represent the national interest of the 99 percent – all of us who will feel the impacts of climate change and a wrecked environment – rather than the one percent, the oil executives and financiers who stand to benefit the tar sands and Keystone XL,” says the nonprofit group Tar Sands Action of public participation in the nine public hearings that have been held across the country.

On Sunday, Tar Sands Action organizer Bill McKibben spoke at the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City and made the connection between the demonstrations there and the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Tar sands opponents display a 350.org sign at Occupy Wall Street, October 5, 2011. 350 stands for the parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide that would curb the worst of climate change. Current levels are about 390 ppm. (Photo by 350.org)

During two weeks of continuous demonstrations at the White House in August and September, 1,252 people were arrested and another demonstration is planned for November 6, one year from the next presidential election. Tar Sands Action demonstrators intend to encircle the White House to ask President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

Pipeline opponents warn that if Obama fails to recognize their concerns and block the pipeline, he could harm his chances for re-election in 2012.

Even without Presidential and State Department approval, preparations for construction have already begun, and that has sparked a lawsuit.

On October 5, three environmental groups sued the State Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stop illegal construction of the pipeline.

Visible from the air is a mowed strip across Nebraska that plaintiff groups allege is evidence of pipeline construction before approval is granted. (Photo by Bruce McIntosh courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)

The lawsuit brought by Center for Biological Diversity, Western Nebraska Resources Council and Friends of the Earth alleges that the federal agencies have allowed TransCanada to mow a pipeline corridor through about 100 miles of native prairie grasslands in Nebraska’s Sandhills and to remove endangered species living in the corridor.

“It’s outrageous that TransCanada is already clearing the way for the Keystone XL pipeline before the public has had a chance to have its say and, indeed, before federal agencies have even said it can be built,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It looks like the fix is in on this dangerous project, and the sham public process is nothing more than an afterthought.”

TransCanada’s existing Keystone I tar sands pipeline has reportedly leaked 14 times since it went into operation in June 2010, the plaintiff groups point out.

“The Keystone XL pipeline is a highly controversial project because of its tremendous impacts on our land, air, water and wildlife, and should not be approved,” said Bruce McIntosh, an ecologist with the Western Nebraska Resources Council. “At the very least, construction of the pipeline route through the most controversial section should not be proceeding until a final decision is made, following public hearings and a determination of whether this pipeline is really in the national interest.”

While the State Department has said that a decision would be forthcoming by the end of this year, Jones indicated on Friday that a decision might not be made until January.

“We have a 90-day period where we are expecting to hear views from the eight other agencies that are named in the executive order, and these include agencies that represent foreign policy and national security, like the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, environmental interests, EPA, Department of Interior, Commerce, Transportation, Justice – all of the different agencies that would have a perspective,” said Jones. “So we’ll be getting their input over the next 90 days.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.