Part Two on the Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline: Environmental Considerations

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By Marilyn Leger

After successful careers in such divergent fields as biochemistry & immunology (at UIUC and UT-Austin) and organizational development in corporate America, Marilyn Leger now travels the U.S., Caribbean and Europe by sailboat soaking up history, exploring cultures, sampling foods (and wines!) and, most importantly, getting to know people.  This has also given her the opportunity to study, research and write on environmental and political issues.

“The destiny of humans cannot be separated from the destiny of earth.” Thomas Berry

Environmental Risks

In 2010 oil spills and explosions cost 22 oil workers their lives, with many more injured, with over $1 billion in  damages. Despite this, the U.S. State Department issued a statement in August 2011 claiming that the proposed expansion poses “no significant threat to the environment.” Their evidence rested largely on “57 special conditions” TransCanada has agreed to follow. They address safety concerns such as puncture resistance, inspections, and welding and construction standards.  TransCanada claims that these standards bring Keystone XL “above and beyond the industry norm.” However, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) determined that only 12 of them differ in any way from the minimum standards required for any pipeline.

Threats to the environment from this project arise at three different points: extraction of the tar sands oil; in flow through the 1700 miles of pipeline; and, at consumption.

Oil Extraction

Habitat Loss

The initial pipeline work led to destruction in Canada’s pristine boreal forest of an area approximately the size of Chicago; this time we’re talking Florida! This would devastate  wildlife from Canada to the tip of South America. In particular, migratory animals would face critical habitat destruction.

Poisons in the Water

It takes approximately 12 barrels of water and caustic chemicals to produce one barrel of oil from tar sands. Of that, three barrels end up in tailing pools or sludge “ponds.” TransCanada already has a dozen of these ponds containing approximately 190 billion gallons of mining waste– phenols, arsenic, mercury, cancer-causing agents such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and fish-killing naphthenic acids. The ponds are up to 300 feet deep and cover some 80 square miles of boreal forest and wetlands. They are so dangerous to wildlife that scarecrows and propane cannons have been installed to try to scare it away. Even so, migratory fowl often mistake these ponds for safe havens. Each year, 7,000 ducks and geese die in them.

The ponds are vulnerable structures, subject to severe weather and earthquakes, not to mention potential purposeful sabotage. Although there has yet to be a catastrophic breach, nearly all are leaking. This endangers all the creatures in the Athabasca River downstream and  the Mackenzie River Basin, the third largest watershed in the world.

Poisons in the Air

Greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands extraction are two to three times higher than in conventional operations. Projected emissions from Keystone XL negate Canada’s Kyoto commitment to a 17% reduction by 2020. In fact they would increase the atmospheric carbon dioxide load. This would exacerbate climate problems, leading to threats to agriculture and continued extreme weather events.

Increases in greenhouse gases also decreases air quality. People develop or suffer increasingly from existing life-threatening respiratory ailments (asthma, emphysema, etc.); especially the very young and the very old. Beyond questions of quality of life, such conditions lower productivity and raise costs for healthcare and rehabilitation.


Again, Habitat Loss and Poisoned Water  

Construction will tear up more than 24,000 acres of land, only 15,000 of which will be restored. The rest, including 300 acres of wetlands, would become permanent pipeline right-of-way. The power lines necessary to supply the pumping stations become an obstruction to migrating birds. Outright habitat loss and the fragmentation of habitat threatens all wildlife including a surprisingly high number of endangered species, not limited to: whooping cranes, piping plovers, woodland caribou, interior least terns, black-footed ferrets, pallid sturgeon, Arkansas River shiners, American burying beetles and western prairie fringed orchids. Caribou are already suffering from habitat destruction. Rather than address this, the government has called for wolf hunting, endangering another threatened species. The situation of the whooping crane is especially dire.  The 74 known breeding pairs follow the general route of the proposed pipeline in spring and fall migrations. They rely on the waterways along the route.

Spills would increase the area of habitat destruction begun by the construction itself. Further, tar sands oil is much harder to clean off wildlife than the oils pumped out of the Gulf. Coated in the sticky oil, animals and birds are much more likely to die from toxicity or hypothermia.

There will be spills. Accidents dumped 42,000 gallons of oil in the Yellowstone River in the summer 2011. In 2010, 20 times that much tar sands oil spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River and has yet to be cleaned up. Many privately admit that much of it will never be removed.

TransCanada has assured the State Department and landowners along the route that there would be no more than one oil spill in 20 years. Hmmm, there were 14 spills from the existing Keystone pipeline in its first year. Much of this was attributed to substandard steel supplied by Wellspun. This company is the supplier for TransCanada’s Keystone project and is simultaneously being sued for sale of defective steel pipe. Because tar sands oil is more toxic, more corrosive and heavier than conventional oil forms, it requires thicker steel pipes, more frequently spaced pumping stations, additional and more stringent monitoring, and retrofitting of refineries. Given the lack of regulation and monitoring already in evidence, the outlook is grim.

The pipeline would cross 340 perennial bodies of water (some counts run even higher). Although the current plan involves rerouting the pipeline to avoid the majority of the Ogallala Aquifer, its safety is not assured. Bodies of water, as we know, are interconnected. The Ogallala Aquifer, is a main source of drinking water for millions of Americans and a source of water for irrigation of the more than 250,000 ranches and farms it crosses. Any contamination of the aquifer puts people and croplands at risk.

Spills would also endanger recreational activities such as hiking, hunting, water sports and fishing. These are not only a source of restoration and pleasure for the public, they are also a source of revenue for states.


Poisons in the Air

Carbon dioxide is currently at 387 parts per million (ppm).  It needs to be reduced to 350 ppm or less to stabilize and reverse global warming.  Valero, the Texas based company in line to purchase (and then export) at least 20% of the oil produced in this venture, is illustrative  of the importance (or lack thereof) placed on such issues. The University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute places it 28th among corporations emitting airborne pollutants in the U.S.  Rankings are based both on quantity (3.4 million pounds in 2005) and the toxicity of the emissions. Considering Adding tar sands oil to our consumption pool moves us in the wrong direction.

Conclusions: Parts I and II

So, what’s the overall picture?

*Domestic oil production increasing while domestic demand is decreasing.

*Minimal number of temporary jobs created in construction and in the polluting industry while delaying and preventing investment in creating green jobs for the future.

*Direct threats to jobs (nearly 1.5 million) in agriculture, ranching and tourism.

*Probability that the majority, if not all, of the materials for the project will be manufactured outside the U.S.

*Great threats to the environment with enormous ramifications—not to mention costs—for years to come, not limited to: increased threats to endangered species, human health implications, and reductions in water for agriculture and human consumption.

To me, the payout is far too little for the cost.

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