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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Pressure Builds on Pipeline Decision

Air Date: Week of July 29, 2011

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Washington is debating whether a huge pipeline project to bring a dirty form of oil from Alberta's Tar Sands to the Gulf Coast of Mexico should be approved. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on what's at stake if the massive project goes forward.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. It’s going to cost 13 billion dollars to build a system of pipelines to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. The Canadian crude is thick and gooey but it could help reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil. Yet critics contend the cross-country pipeline could wreak environmental havoc. The White House will decide whether the project goes ahead but not without the rest of Washington weighing in first. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: The Obama administration says it will approve or deny the Keystone XL pipeline by the end of the year. But for some in Congress, that’s not fast enough. A bill to force a decision by November 1 just passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. It faces a likely dead end in the Senate, but offered oil-friendly lawmakers like Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana the opportunity to pressure the President.

SCALISE: If we don't agree to this, you know because radicals they don't like oil at all so I guess they're going to ride around on bicycles and that's going to get them where they need to be. We’ve got to live in reality, we’ve Canada saying 700 thousand barrels a day can come into America. That means we don’t have to buy 700 thousand barrels a day from Middle Eastern countries.

TAJ: 700 thousand barrels a day of oil so thick it doesn’t flow naturally. To move it through a pipeline across six U.S. states, it has to be cooked with a lot of water and natural gas. By the time it comes out of the tailpipe of a car, its greenhouse gas emissions will be double, or by some estimates as much as five times those of regular oil. Keystone XL could force the White House to pick between key priorities: cut imports of Middle Eastern oil, or wean the country off oil altogether to address the long-term threat of climate change. Climate activist Bill McKibben says it’s important to block the project, because not much else is being done to slow climate change.

MCKIBBEN: One of the things we've got to do is identify those huge deposits of carbon that have to be kept safely in the ground. These Canadian tar sands are the second biggest pool of carbon on Earth. If we start burning them it's essentially game over for the climate.

TAJ: McKibben is leading protests at the White House in coming weeks to send the message that tapping the dirty Canadian fuel is “immoral.” He says about a thousand people plan to risk arrest, in part because they fear the process has been hijacked by powerful interests. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the Department of State is charged with rendering the decision. Its initial favorable environmental impact statement was rejected by the EPA, and as it’s worked on a new report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said publicly she’s inclined to give the project a green light. McKibben notes that one of her chief campaign staffers was hired to lobby for Transcanada, the company that will build the pipeline.

  

MCKIBBEN: Not, would be my guess, because he knows an unbelievable amount about oil pipelines, but more because they hope he knows enough about Hillary Clinton to get his deal done.

TAJ: As Alberta ramps up its lobbying efforts in Washington, its backup plan is unclear. A proposal to pump the oil to Canada’s West Coast has met opposition at home and Energy Minister Ron Liepert said its oil sands would be "landlocked” without the Keystone pipeline. But Marty Durbin with the U.S. lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute says it’s only a matter of time before Canada finds a buyer.

DURBIN: I don’t think there’s any question that Canada is going to produce this energy resource. If they’re not able to provide this to the United States they’ll certainly be looking for markets elsewhere.

TAJ: Durbin says that means the global climate would suffer anyway, and American businesses would miss out. The pipeline would be a boon for oil refineries in the Gulf Coast and Durbin says that would ripple into jobs and investments throughout the economy.

DURBIN: Refining is just the start. By getting that feedstock, you use the natural gas and oil to create the chemicals, the fertilizers, the plastics, the medicines, you know, wind turbines! You’ve got to have natural gas and oil to create those materials.

TAJ: But green groups worry that approving the Keystone XL pipeline will only thwart efforts to get off oil, and that the project itself is a sign of desperation. To get to the deposits, Canada will have to strip mine millions of acres of its pristine Boreal forest. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz watches international oil markets for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CASEY-LEFKOWITZ: The fact that we’re going to more expense and being much more destructive in our search for oil should really sound a warning bell that it’s time to get off oil, now while we still have enough conventional resources that we can do a good transition to clean energy.

TAJ: Casey-Lefkowitz says the prospect of hundreds of thousands of barrels of toxic oil bursting underground near American aquifers should also raise flags. Tar sands oil is particularly hard on pipes, she says, and leaks are common. This summer the federal government shut down an existing TransCanada pipeline, saying its dozen leaks in just the past year harms “life, property, and the environment.” The House vote to push the White House on Keystone XL fell on the exact same day a year ago that the Enbridge pipeline broke. It poured tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, a disaster still being cleaned up today. And even though that spill was in his home state, Congressman Fred Upton, the Republican chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, urged the president to endorse the new pipeline. He said while safety can be improved, the U.S. economy is in dire straights.

UPTON: Most leaders in this situation would be searching for a project that would create jobs, help bring down gas prices, and yes provide a stable and secure source of oil to replace imports from dangerous parts of the world. Our president is being handed such a project on a silver platter.
TAJ: But lawmakers in Congress will mostly sit on the sidelines in this fight. Unlike other controversial energy policies, the executive branch alone has the authority to open or close the tap on Canadian tar sands oil. The State Department’s final environmental impact statement is expected in coming weeks. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.

 

 

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