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.
But TransCanada's PR person, Shawn Howard, assures me that the aquifer, two-thirds of its water pooled below Nebraska, will be perfectly safe and that underground leaks aren't a problem. "If there was a leak underground," he explains, "it's so sandy in some of those areas that it's like if you go to the beach and pour water on sand. It just kind of sucks into one spot; and you've got this little drop left. Why would we go and invest $13 billion in a pipeline and put a product in it that was going to destroy it like these activists are trotting out? It makes absolutely no business sense."
True enough. On the other hand, "business sense" is a commodity more often wished for than possessed. For instance, it made no business sense for BP to invest $350 million building its Deepwater Horizon platform to extract a product so unsafely that the rig blew up.
Also confident that nothing bad can happen and whooping it up for the project are chamber-of-commerce types from the private sector and the state legislature. But they're in the minority.
In strong opposition is an unlikely alliance of liberals and conservatives, environmentalists and ranchers, sportsmen and property-rights advocates who complain that Keystone XL has been routed for straightness rather than safety. This alliance includes but is not limited to the entire environmental community, the Nebraska Cattlemen, the Nebraska Farmers Union, Bold Nebraska (an online news service that seeks to "restore political balance"), Nebraska's Republican senator Mike Johanns, Nebraska's Democrat senator Ben Nelson, 28 members of Congress, and landowners from Montana to Texas.
So TransCanada is feeling unloved and unappreciated. Howard is especially frustrated by America's media, which he describes as generally slovenly and which he alleges have warped the thinking of Americans so that they have come to distrust TransCanada and its supposedly fail-safe technology. As one of the more egregious offenders he cites The New York Times. On April 2, 2011, the Times called the XL pipeline "unnecessary," assessed its environmental risks as "enormous," and revealed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had "sharply criticized" the State Department's draft environmental impact statement.
Howard directed me to a TransCanada website stating that DilBit from the pipeline will "meet American demand for petroleum products." DilBit may not even ease that demand because the petroleum products rendered from it will be sold on the world market. And with tar sands oil bypassing Midwest refineries, the price of petroleum products in that region is likely to rise as the supply decreases. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has gone so far as to ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate TransCanada for what he identifies as "clear" evidence that it has colluded with tar sands strip miners to manipulate oil prices in the Midwest.
Another TransCanada link alleges that after excising Canada's boreal forests, tar sands strip miners are "restoring the delicate environment pleasingly to its natural state." The "restoration" is about as pleasing, natural, and genuine as the coal industry's perfunctory seeding of the stumps it leaves throughout Appalachia after it blows up mountains.
TransCanada contends that it's just in the delivery business and can't be blamed for all the carbon pollution and conversion of fish and wildlife habitat to pits and toxic waste. But the EPA doesn't agree. In the agency's pillorying of the State Department's environmental review is a warning, cited by The New York Times, that the pipeline will increase the extraction of Canadian tar sands and therefore greenhouse-gas pollution while simultaneously removing the carbon-sequestering boreal forest. The EPA calculates that the "annual well-to-tank emissions from the project will be 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide . . . roughly equivalent to annual CO2 emissions of seven coal-fired power plants."
In addition to its role as an important carbon sink, North America's boreal forest sustains some of our rarest mammals such as wolverines and woodland caribou while providing habitat for 30 percent of the continent's land birds--at least 215 species. Northbound birds from all four flyways converge in the boreal forest to feed, rest, or nest. But, as the EPA notes, boreal forest wildlife is being threatened by tar sands strip mining and the toxic waste it produces, about three million gallons of which leaks daily into the environment.
In the United States the pipeline will chew up important wildlife habitat with roads and powerlines to pumping stations and with the excavation itself. But a much bigger threat is leaking DilBit, which could pollute the aquifer for great distances, rendering water unfit for use by wildlife and humans. The state of Nebraska can require that Keystone XL be moved east or west, safely away from its Sandhills. Maintaining the current route simply so TransCanada can save money is, as the Times reported, unnecessary and risky.
The world is fast running out of places like the Sandhills. They seem to roll on forever--20,000 square miles of dunes, some that migrate in the wind, others 330 feet high, and all composed of tiny pieces of the Rocky Mountains ground off and dumped by Pleistocene glaciers as recently as 10,000 years ago, when people were watching it happen.