Tarred and Feathered
A Canadian-based company is bluffing and bullying its way through six states so it can pump the world’s dirtiest oil through a 1,661-mile-long pipeline that crosses some of our most fragile wildlife habitats and lies inside earth’s largest underground reservoir.
On the afternoon of April 7, 2011, Marian Langan, Audubon Nebraska’s executive director, picked me up at the state’s capital of Lincoln. We struck out for Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River—a waypoint along the five-hour drive northwest to where we’d be meeting with ranchers desperately trying to defend their property from fragmentation, pollution, and eminent-domain condemnation by a Calgary-based company called TransCanada.
The U.S. Department of State—the agency that okays cross-border pipelines—appears willing to give TransCanada a “presidential permit” to lay a tar sands oil pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, under the remote, water-rich Sandhills of Nebraska, then on to refineries on the Texas coast.
We arrived at Rowe just as the sandhill cranes, which derive their name from sandhills in Canada not Nebraska, were settling onto the river’s banks and shallows for the night. This is one of the planet’s great migrations, and people come to the sanctuary from around the world to watch it.
Fueled with waste corn for their trek to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, the cranes poured in by the thousands, descending in near-solid curtains gray as the sky, landing gear extended, and filling the chill night for 30 miles with clacking and clattering that fell and rose from mere roar to implausible crescendo. In the last smudge of twilight they lined the far bank like riprap—upstream and downstream as far as I could see. I dug out my cell phone, dialed my wife in Massachusetts, and let her listen to the Sandhills’ wild, discordant music.
Apart from being one of the more eloquent expressions of the region’s beauty and wildness, I’d assumed that the crane migration wasn’t part of my story because virtually all their Platte River habitat is safely upstream from the pipeline’s proposed route. But with the sandhill cranes come whooping cranes, among the most endangered of all species, with a total population of about 400. One, in fact, was seen that night from a different blind. The whoopers breed in northern Alberta close to tar sands strip mines and tailing ponds, and lately they’ve been showing up with their white feathers fouled by black material. While the contaminant has yet to be positively identified, tar sands waste is the prime suspect.
As ravenous as we are for oil these days, we’ll take it any way we can get it from any place we can get it. Having drained most of the easy reserves, we’re tapping the difficult ones—three and a half miles under the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, and “tar sands” several hundred feet below northern Alberta’s boreal forests.
It’s expensive in all sorts of ways. In Alberta, for example, the entire native ecosystem has to be bulldozed away, the tar sands below strip-mined, and the oil-laced product, “bitumen,” steamed out by vast amounts of gas-heated water in a process that spikes the planet’s carbon load even as it destroys its carbon-sequestering potential. Waste products include hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic goop, plants, wildlife, fish, rivers, and people (see “,” March-April 2010).
Keystone XL, as TransCanada calls its proposed pipeline, will be 36 inches in diameter and two times longer than the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. In Nebraska’s Sandhills it will be buried inside the largest underground reservoir on the planet—the Ogallala Aquifer, which charges rivers, lakes, and marshes and supplies drinking and irrigation water to eight states.
Bitumen is too viscous to be piped, so it is spiked with volatile liquid condensate from natural gas and thus converted to a thinner cocktail called DilBit (short for diluted bitumen) that contains all the toxic and carcinogenic fractions found in regular crude oil. And tar sands oil makes pipeline leaks more likely. DilBit has high concentrations of chloride salts, sulfur, abrasive minerals, and acids, and it needs to be pumped under high pressure. So it is rough on pipes.
TransCanada and another company—Enbridge, also based in Calgary—already pipe DilBit to U.S. refineries. In July 2010 Enbridge’s Lakehead Pipeline ruptured, causing the biggest oil spill in Midwest history and sending about a million gallons of DilBit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River system. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, whose regulations don’t differentiate between DilBit and regular crude oil, reported many uncorrected erosion problems in the Enbridge line.
TransCanada, which only ventured into the DilBit business in 2006 but has considerable experience transporting natural gas, operates a DilBit pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, through Manitoba, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri to delivery points in Wood River and Patoka, Illinois, and Cushing, Oklahoma. The spills it has reported so far have been less severe than Enbridge’s. There have been 10, but they’ve occurred above ground at pumping stations.
Underground leaks are more dangerous. “The environmental impact statement says that some slow leaks will not be detected for long periods,” comments photographer and Nebraska Sierra Club board member Mitch Paine.