‘Dirty oil’ pipeline to cut into US heartland

Canada is now largest US oil supplier, but activists fear the heavy environmental costs of tar sands crude.

tar sands protest Washington DC [GALLO/GETTY]
In Washington, at least 275 protesters have been arrested oppossing a pipeline which they say will damage ecosystems, increase oil dependency and worsen global warming [GALLO/GETTY]

David Daniel had never been to an environmental protest before this week, but as hundreds converge in Washington for civil disobedience against a massive oil pipeline, the retired carpenter from Texas is spearheading opposition against what he calls “dirty Canadian tar sands oil”.

Some 275 environmentalists have been arrested since protests began August 20 against TransCanada’s proposed 2,700 km Keystone XL pipeline. Currently, TransCanada operates the Keystone line which can carry 591,000 barrels of tar sands oil to Oklahoma and Illinois.

The $7bn project aims to expand daily capacity to 1.1 million barrels of crude oil travelling from Alberta, Canada, through America’s heartland, to refineries on the Gulf coast.

“For me, from day one, it has always been about safety issues,” Daniel said, as he drove to Washington to rally opposition. “They are disrespecting the safety of our water supplies. They lied to me about permitting, payments and damage systems,” Daniel told Al Jazeera in reference to TransCanada. “I don’t want my family to be a lab rat for a foreign oil company.”

The Calgary-based multinational did not respond to Al Jazeera’s interview request.

Leaky lines

Although only operational for a year, the Keystone pipeline has already had 11 leaks in the US – including one that sent a geyser of oil shooting 20 meters into the air in South Dakota, spilling 79,000 liters.

“Obviously, we don’t want any spills and what happened [during the BP disaster] in the Gulf [of Mexico] last year was a horrible accident and we have learned a lot from that,” said Sabrina Fang, spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby group.

“This pipeline will have thousands of censors. If a spill was to happen it would be detected quickly,” Fang told Al Jazeera. “TransCanada is making every effort to make this the safest pipeline out there.”

The proposed pipeline will cross the Ogallala Aquifer which provides crucial water for crops and drinking [Credit: National Resources Defense Council]

Barack Obama, the US president, must decide if the pipeline can proceed by November 1, a ruling that may pit jobs against the environment. On Friday, the state department gave the project a positive review, meaning it is likely to proceed.

Supporters say the pipeline will create 20,000 jobs, while opponents fear it will will leak and expand production from the Canadian tar sands, some of the world’s most environmentally destructive oil.

“With an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent, the president has the opportunity to sign off on this shovel ready project,” Fang said. “While we welcome the views of everyone, we think the rallies going on right now are rallies against jobs,” she said of the ongoing protests in Washington.

Opposition to the mega-project does not cut evenly across party lines. Unions representing pipefitters and tradespeople – usually backers of Obama’s Democrats support the pipeline as a “shovel ready” job creation programme. Some back-to-the land rural Republicans – including Nebraska senator Mike Johanns, have voiced concerns about the pipeline’s route and possible environmental damage.

TransCanada’s assessment of the project estimates less than 11 spills discharging more than 50 barrels over the pipeline’s 50 year lifespan. But a recent study from John Stainsbury, professor of water resources and engineering at the University of Nebraska, finds the company underestimates possible dangers.

His independent analysis, the first on the proposed pipeline, finds that Keystone XL could spill as much as 29.9 million liters of oil above the Ogallala Aquifer and more than 26 million liters of raw tar sands crude at the Yellowstone River crossing.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which warned of possible risks from the project, had its budget slashed by 16 per cent or $1.6bn in April as part of a budget deal between Democrats and Republicans. The move deliberately weakens enforcement of clean air and water legislation in favour of big business, environmentalists say.

‘Nasty crude’

Tar sands oil – or bitumen – is a thick, goopy substance which is often mined, rather than pumped like traditional crude. To force sludgy bitumen through a pipeline, operators mix it with other chemicals.

Given leaks from the first TransCanada pipeline, Daniel asked representatives of the company if bitumen would lead to faster pipe corrosion and thus more spills. The company told him the issue had not been studied.

Canada is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the US, sending 2.4 million barrels – more than 20 per cent of imports – to its southern neighbor every day. Because of the tar sands, Canada has the world’s second largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, according to 2010 figures from the CIA.

Extracting one barrel of oil from the tar sands requires three barrels of water and produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude, environmentalists say. Industry contends that most emissions are created when oil is burned in a car or power plant and the extra emissions from tar sands, given the full lifecycle of oil, are comparatively small, only about 15 per cent above conventional oil. 

Lakes full of toxic water, polluted during the extraction process, cover 170 square kilometers in Alberta and they are growing with increased demand.

“Oil sands crude is nasty, and the sooner the world stops burning it, the better,” The Washington Post wrote in an editorial. “But that’s actually not much of a reason to kill the pipeline.”

The Keystone XL is crucial for broader tar sands expansion. Stephen Harper, Canada’s conservative prime minister who hails from the oil patch, wants to create an “energy super power”. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an industry lobby group, hopes production from the tar sands will rise from 1.5 million barrels per day to 3.5 million by 2025. 

Eastern passages

But hundreds of environmentalists are willing to risk arrest to stop this from happening. “The Keystone XL is one of the keys to opening the Alberta tar sands,” Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, told Al Jazeera. “That is why the Canadian government is pushing it so vigorously.”

If the US pipeline is not built, Canadian officials might aim for a Pacific route to accommodate expanded production. Enbridge, TransCanada’s rival pipeline builder, dreams of a Pacific gateway line, allowing heavy oil to be marketed to energy hungry China.

“China is a big player in the world market and is definitely looking at investing in Canadian oil,” Fang said. “Canada is going to produce this resource no matter what we do.”

But the proposed Enbridge line must cross the traditional territory of dozens of indigenous groups, many of which oppose the plan on environmental grounds.

“The opposition is not going away,” Brant Olson, oil campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network, told Al Jazeera. He thinks the threat of China usurping Canadian oil is just a “politically expedient argument to try and evoke nationalist concerns in the US,” as the nominally communist giant does “not have heavy oil refining capacity”.

Governments and oil barons have eyed the Alberta’s tar sands sludge for decades, but only in the last 15 years have high prices and new technologies made it cost-effective to extract. A barrel of oil must cost around $50 for new developments to be viable, according to figures from Shell. 
“The sands rank with the US shale deposits as the world’s most extensive known, largely untapped oil source,” said a 1972 declassified memo from the CIA, which forecasted the environmental damage of the project.

“The pollution issue and opposition to defacing Alberta’s landscape may arise but has not as yet,” the CIA wrote.

Some American politicians consider the new pipeline a matter of energy security – a way to reduce dependency on “unstable, undemocratic countries” including Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. But military planners are increasingly viewing global warming as a security threat.

The US Army War College has hosted conferences with names like “The National Security Implications of Global Climate Change” where global warming is considered a “threat multiplier for instability”.

Worrying about the safety of his land, David Daniel has a different take on national security. “The regulatory authorities are looking at the short term interests of the oil industry, not our long term interests,” he said. “We need to be considering our air and water as national interests.”

Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris

Source: Al Jazeera