Page 2 of 2

Energy Is Ugly: Tar Sands Edition

Oil imported from Canada's tar sands has twice the environmental cost of normal crude. Did we mention that they're our biggest supplier?

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 1:56 PM EDT

At the time of the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge's CEO, Patrick Daniels, claimed that there had never been a leak "of this consequence" in the company's history. According to Enbridge's own reports, however, between 2000 and 2009 the company was responsible for 610 pipeline spills in Canada, totaling 5.5 million gallons. (Not all were DilBit, which makes the picture worse, not better, since ordinary crude is less corrosive and volatile than DilBit.) In Michigan, 12 spills from Enbridge's pipelines preceded the larger one in the Kalamazoo. Two months after that spill, another part of Enbridge's Lakehead pipeline leaked 256,000 gallons of DilBit into Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago.

Keystone's underground pipeline to the Gulf Coast, which opened only nine months ago, has already leaked seven times. They have been small leaks, but significant nonetheless as they point to larger, more distressing problems. "It seems odd to us that a brand-new pipeline would have these little spills throughout," says Casey-Lefkowitz. "It raises questions about the quality of construction."

"TransCanada is building its pipelines according to strength regulations designed for conventional pipelines decades ago," adds Anthony Swift, co-author of the NRDC report. Swift says the company "has not yet provided a meaningful strategy for dealing with some of the characteristics of diluted bitumen."

The proposed Keystone XL, also underground, would carry up to 900,000 barrels of DilBit (37,800,000 gallons) south every day, passing through some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the US, including rivers, wildlife preserves, and wide expanses of prairie. In addition, it would run through the Ogallala aquifer, a 174,000-square-mile expanse of water that lies under eight states from the Dakotas to Texas and provides 30% of the nation's irrigation for agriculture, as well as drinking water for 82% of the people within its vast boundaries.

The pipeline would pass through areas where landslides and earthquakes are known threats. Part of Keystone I already traverses an area of seismic activity in Nebraska, where a recent tremor—3.5 on the Richter scale—shook the ground throughout the southeast part of the state. It also runs through the easternmost part of the Ogallala. Before Keystone I was built, a National Wildlife Federation report warned, "Some portions of the aquifer are so close to the surface that any pipeline leak would almost immediately contaminate a large portion of the water."

TransCanada cannot begin constructing Keystone XL without both a presidential permission and a State Department environmental impact statement (EIS), made necessary because the project crosses international borders. The State Department issued that EIS in April, 2010 in the wake of public hearings in towns along the pipeline route. Environmental organizations, landowners, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were sharply critical of the EIS. Among other things, says the NRDC's Anthony Swift, the statement failed to demonstrate "the need for the pipeline, its safety, and its greenhouse gas impacts." Especially troubling, according to Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, was the failure to consider an alternate pipeline route that would not slash through the Ogallala aquifer.

Last month, under pressure from mounting opposition to the pipeline by a coalition of grassroots groups, the State Department held further meetings in Washington to hear their grievances. (The EPA also met with coalition leaders.) Ben Gotschall, a fifth generation Nebraska organic rancher, called the State Department's environmental statement "insulting." It suggested, he said, neither that stronger than normal pipeline materials should be used, nor that there might be alternative routes to the one currently proposed. TransCanada's only concern, he insisted, was cost, while at stake was the "life and livelihood of millions of people."

"My family has been producing grass-fed beef for five generations," said Gotschall. "We do this organically, without chemicals and with minimum fossil fuel inputs... Nebraska farmers and ranchers were producing food long before we had the benefit of fossil fuels and we can and will find a way to produce food long after fossil fuels are gone. But we will never be able to produce food without clean water. To me, this pipeline is an issue of national security that threatens our domestic food and water supply."

If the pipeline goes through, a handful of giant corporations will profit, among them Koch Industries which handles about 25% of tar sands imports to the US, and is among the biggest of US tar sands refiners. Meanwhile, the grassroots opposition uniting farmers and ranchers, environmentalists and scientists is growing in the heartland states.

Last month, the coalition demanded that the State Department issue a supplemental environmental impact statement. On March 16th, Ben Gotschall e-mailed: "If you haven't heard already, the State Department has called for a supplemental draft EIS... This is a victory for all of us who have been fighting this from the beginning." On March 24th, 25 mayors sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We are concerned," they wrote, "that expansion of high carbon projects such as the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will undermine the good work being done in local communities across the country to fight climate change and reduce our dependence on oil."

Yet in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, domestic fears over nuclear energy are spiking, while months of turmoil in the Muslim world have highlighted a growing US dependence on Middle Eastern oil. As a result, it will surely become harder to derail the efforts of TransCanada and Koch Industries to ram a pipeline filled with toxic tar sands oil right through David Daniel's property.

Will a pipeline leak one day kill off his old growth hardwood trees, foul his three natural springs, and poison the deer now roaming his land? If TransCanada's checkered history is any guide, it's a real possibility. Energy kills. In Japan. In the Gulf. In Appalachian mines. And in the Corn Flake capital of the world. If Winnsboro, East Texas, is added to the list, it won't be a surprise, not to David Daniel anyway. He knows what we all know now: in the hands of corporations whose only concern is profit, energy is ugly.

Ellen Cantarow is a journalist whose work on Israel/Palestine has been widely published for 30 years, including at TomDispatch. Her long-time concern about climate change, related to both political and environmental disaster in the Middle East, has recently led her to explore big oil territory.

[Note on sources: Thanks to both Michael Klare, who suggested the tar sands topic, and Andrew Nikiforuk, who shared information by e-mail. Nikiforuk's book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent should be required reading on this topic. Thanks also to Anthony Swift and Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of The National Resources Defense Council for supplying additional information about the differences between DilBit oil spills and ones. NRDC's crucial report, "Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks," can be read in .pdf format by clicking here.]

Page 2 of 2