With the Deepwater Horizon disaster still fresh in our minds and the Gulf and its ecosystem still feeling its impact, America is facing yet another threat from oil contamination: the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada wants to build to send toxic oil from the Alberta tar sands through the Midwest to refineries in the Gulf, seizing private ranch and farmland for the purpose of threatening the fertile Sand Hills and freshwater Ogallala Aquifer that covers most of Nebraska. "Pipe Dreams," a new documentary from Leslie Iwerks, the writer-director-producer of "Dirty Oil" and "Downstream," depicts the environmental threat, the potentially catastrophic detriment to the health of humans and livestock, and exposes the repeated failures of existing pipelines as a doomsday scenario waiting to happen.
While President Obama has delayed decision on the issue until 2013, "there's a lot to fight for on this issue," says Iwerks. Financing the film herself after funding fell through, she and her producer Jane Kelly Kosek roadtripped along the proposed pipeline route, interviewing people like rancher Susan Luebbe. All three women joined California director of the National Wildlife Foundation Beth Pratt and actor and activist Daryl Hannah, who narrates the movie, for a post-screening discussion in Los Angeles.
As the film shockingly points out, a private company can co-opt eminent domain laws — intended for public-benefiting things like utilities, roads and railroads — for their own convenience and profit. "TransCanada started an LLC in America so suddenly they're an American company and the U.S. and state governments are allowing them to use the law," said Kosek.
Fourth generation rancher Luebbe (pictured above) described the stressful "emotional roller coaster" of facing down Big Oil despite strong-arm tactics that have caused many along the proposed pipeline to cave in and sign away their rights. Having attended Nebraska State Congress sessions she calls "a joke" and implying that only a handful of state senators haven't been bought by TransCanada's "briefcases loaded with money," Luebbe doesn't trust the company to abide by a verbal agreement to detour the pipeline away from the Sand Hills. "We don't know if it's coming through our ranch yet."
Pratt emphasized the potential hazards to wildlife and shot down TransCanada arguments that the pipeline would provide energy security and lower gas prices as "completely false. This is an export pipeline to send oil elsewhere," she said.
Hannah, who was arrested during a demonstration protesting the pipeline outside the White House in August, spoke from in-the-trenches experience about that and other aspects of the issue. "[TransCanada] wants to do the Keystone XL so they can get it to a port city and the open market. They know they can't get it to Vancouver because the First Nations will stop it. They think it will be easier to go through us," she said, revealing that Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager is the company's chief lobbyist, and his predecessor is now the senior advisor on President Obama's re-election campaign. She believes Obama postponed his decision because "he was too nervous to take a stand before the election," and she is determined to keep fighting against Keystone XL.
Hannah pointed out that the Ogallala Aquifer is a non-replenishing source that needs to be protected "with every fiber of our being. We can live without oil because there are other ways of making energy. We have the means and we can do it, we just need to set our minds to it. The commitment to this Keystone pipeline will shackle us to a future of fossil fuel dependence and it will only provide maybe 5,000 temporary jobs in construction."
Additionally, she noted, the Alberta tar sands "is widely considered to be the most destructive environmental disaster on the planet. It's filled with cadmium, lead, arsenic, all these contaminants, and the amount of natural gas needed to produce the oil could power 35 percent of Alberta just from the energy they use on a daily basis. Scientists say that if we allow this pipeline to go through, the carbon emissions would be so exorbitant it would be game over for the climate."
Hannah also underscored the hazards inherent in a process that requires the sand-filled oil to be heated to 150 degrees to pass through pipelines. "It's really corrosive — that's why the first pipeline had 12 spills in 12 months. This pipeline will have a spill and we cannot afford it. We can't afford the greenhouse gases and we cannot afford a spill in our precious water reserves. This is not in the best interests of the American people or our health. It won't lower gas prices. There's no level on which this makes sense. They're a private company looking for profit and doing things that should be illegal. We've got to fight against it and fight for clean energy," said Hannah, suggesting TarSandsAction.org as a resource for those who want to take part in in-person protests. "This country was founded for the people, by the people, and we need to move back to that."
"Pipe Dreams," which has made the short list for Oscar consideration in the Documentary Shorts category, is being shown at select theaters in Los Angeles and is also available for order at pipedreamsdoc.com.
Photos courtesy Leslie Iwerks Productions, Inc.