Keystone XL Pipeline—Boom or Bust?


Image: Public Domain Vectors

I have to confess that the first time I heard about the Keystone XL pipeline I didn’t know a thing about it. All I heard was a quick blurb on the evening news mentioning that the president might not approve it. (However, I believe this was before the election and I think he conveniently changed his mind after he was re-elected.) All the newsperson reported was that the president might not approve it. I wondered why. Wouldn’t this mean jobs for us? I mean we’ve got thousands of miles of pipelines traversing our country. What’s the big deal with this one?

For those of you who are familiar with my work you’ll know that I just don’t accept something at face value, in this case the comment about the president not approving the pipeline. I traveled, via my computer, to the internet and researched the Keystone XL pipeline to learn as much as I could. So what is this ruckus about the pipeline?

For those that were as asleep as I was, the pipeline will transport tar sands oil from Canada to Texas. So what are tar sands?


Image by Suncor Energy

Tar sands (or oil sands, or, technically, bituminous sands) are an unconventional petroleum deposit containing naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, and water saturated with a dense and extremely viscous (thick) form of petroleum. The petroleum is technically bitumen and gets the “tar sands” name because of its similar appearance, odor and color.

Proponents argue that the pipeline would allow the U.S. to increase its energy security and reduce its dependence on foreign oil. However an independent study conducted by the Cornell ILR Global Labor Institute refers to some studies (e.g. a 2011 study by Danielle Droitsch of Pembina Institute) according to which “a good portion of the oil that will gush down the KXL pipeline will probably end up being finally consumed beyond the territorial United States.” The report also states that the project will increase the heavy crude oil price in the Midwestern United States by diverting oil sands oil from the Midwest refineries to the GulfCoast and export markets.

As to pipeline safety in general. Well, Amy Harder, an energy and environment reporter for the National Journal, states (April 8, 2013) that “The ExxonMobil-owned pipeline accident, which spilled at least a few thousand barrels of oil in a Little Rock suburb, is a stark reminder that energy production comes with unavoidable risks.” Or how about Bernard L. Weinstein, the Associate Director, Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University and George W. Bush Institute Fellow, in a comment (April 11, 2013) to Amy’s article, said “Decades of use have proved that pipelines overall are overwhelmingly safe and reliable. And when a spill occurs, repair and cleanup are relatively easy.”

In yet the same article, but another comment, Charles Drevna, President, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers said (April 11, 2013), “The response to the Pegasus leak shows just that. By afternoon of the same day, witnesses said they could no longer smell the oil or see it on the nearby lake. Hazmat teams were also quickly working to contain and repair contaminated areas. This immediate response shows just how seriously industry takes the environmental concerns associated with moving thousands of barrels of oil across the country each day. The speed employed to contain the mishap shows how effective and responsive the industry can be when accidents do occur.”

Let’s take a look at the Pegasus leak in Mayflower, AR on March 29, 2013. The Mayflower spill of tar sands oil from the pipeline occurred in a residential area and this prompted a clean-up operation that is still going on.

Remember what Charles said, “By afternoon of the same day, witnesses said they could no longer smell the oil or see it on the nearby lake. Hazmat teams were also quickly working to contain and repair contaminated areas.” Well, let’s see how well they’ve done. Charles believes the spill was cleaned up and that witnesses couldn’t smell the oil or see it on the nearby lake.

In a post on May 22, 2013 titled Exxon Knew of Dangerous Contamination from Arkansas Spill, Yet Claimed Area “Oil Free”, Jesse Coleman tell us that Exxon “was eventually forced to redact their claim that the cove specifically was “oil-free,” the oil and gas giant hassmall__8615390723 yet to publicly address the dangerous levels of Benzene and other contaminants their own tests have found in the body of Lake Conway. The Environmental Protection Agency and the American Petroleum Institute don’t agree on everything, but they do agree that the only safe level of Benzene, a cancer causing chemical found in oil, is zero.”

Whoa, Benzene. More Benzene? Yeah, more Benzene. You see, Benzene is added to tar sands oil to make it less viscous so it flows easier through pipelines. If it wasn’t for that added Benzene it would be like trying to plush the tar substance used to pave roads through a pipe…it ain’t gonna happen! Benezene is harder to deal with in a spill because you can’t see it, the odor can make you sick, but you can’t see it. Prior to Jesse’s post on May 22, local people were reporting fish kills, chemical smells, nausea and headaches. Remember what Charles said, no odor, no oil? Well, it doesn’t seem that is entirely true. To top that off, according to Exxon’s data, 126,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil from the pipeline spill is still unaccounted for. Wait a minute, Exxon can’t find 126,000 gallons of oil?

OK, now that we know all that, what about the Keystone XL pipeline? Recently the State Department released it’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) report on the pipeline and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), April 22, 2013, commented on the report.

The EPA’s letter urges the State Department to set special standards to prevent the Keystone pipeline from spilling, and to make sure any spills are rapidly contained. You see the EPA says it has learned about the additional risks of tar sands spills from a cleanup of a 2010 tar sands spill into Michigan’s KalamazooRiver. On the evening of July 25, 2010, alarms indicating a leak starting going off in Enbridge’s control room as soon as the pipeline burst open, but three shifts of pipeline operators misinterpreted those signals. People at the scene reported petroleum smells, but responders didn’t know about the pipeline. Well, 17 hours and 19 minutes later, or in gallon speak—800,000, a local gas utility worker found the spill and notified the Enbridge control center. Is this an example of what Charles Drevna refers to in telling us how “effective and responsive the industry can be when accidents do occur”?

This cleanup has gone on nearly three years at a cost of more than $1 billion. A lot of the heavy tar sands crude sank to the bottom of the river and needs dredging…more money. Another lesson from the 2010 Michigan spill is that tar sands spills can send harmful air pollution into nearby communities.


See, Hear, Speak No Evil image via RF

By the way, the owner of the Michigan pipeline, Enbridge, Inc, didn’t follow it’s own safety rules. In 2005, Enbridge learned, from it’s own contractor, that this section of the pipe was cracked and corroding with about 15,000 defects in the pipeline. But, Enbridge decided not to dig up the area and inspect the pipe. The corporate response is in the picture to the left. Five years after the report, we have the spill, and three years later, we still have an ongoing cleanup operation.

Will the State Department comply with the EPA’s requests? Will the EPA watch what the State Department is doing? We’ll have to see.

Will Sec. Kerry sign off on the project? Will the POTUS approve the project? My guess is “yes”, to both questions. We may not deal with a pipeline break in our lifetime, but our grandchildren might and it will be nasty, very nasty!

So, the question I started with: Keystone XL Pipeline—Boom or Bust? My opinion—“bust”. We’ll receive little, if any, oil from the pipeline, little in the way of permanent jobs, and the greatest majority of the catastrophic environmental risks. We don’t need it!

Question: In the Michigan spill—where did that $1 billion come from? Hmmm, another post maybe?


Tar sands photo credit: Suncor Energy via photopin cc


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