A year ago, it seemed that the construction of a 1,700-mile pipeline connecting northern Alberta with the United States was all but a certainty. Now, it feels like TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline is losing momentum.
Because the pipeline would cross an international border, it requires the approval of the U.S. State Department, something that a New York Times editorial says is less likely to occur. “An environmental assessment carried out by [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s department] last year was sharply criticized by the Environmental Protection Agency for understating the project’s many risks. The department has since undertaken another environmental review that will soon be released for public comment.” The review is likely to be critical of the project and may add to the growing skepticism that surrounds the Keystone XL plan. Most of the skepticism falls into three broad categories.
1. Environmental concerns
Because the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would link oil from Alberta’s tar sands with American refineries, it has garnered opposition from some environmentalists. The EPA has reported that emissions from oil produced in the Alberta tar sands are 82 percent greater than conventionally produced oil. To get oil from the sands, hot water or steam is used to extract a tar-like substance called bitumen. The bitumen is transformed into a shippable liquid by heating it up using another fossil fuel, natural gas. All of this accounts for the above-mentioned 82 percent figure. That figure does not include the process of getting to the bitumen in the first place, in which huge swaths of Alberta’s boreal forest are undercut and strip-mined.
Compounding these concerns about carbon emissions are concerns about pipeline spills. About 800,000 gallons of bitumen spilled from an older pipeline and into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River last July. A new TransCanada pipeline that began carrying diluted bitumen a year ago has already had nine spills. These spills, along with other pipeline leaks and fatalities in the past year, have put pipeline safety under the microscope.
2. Water concerns
There are also concerns that developing oil from the Alberta tar sands requires too much water and puts too much water at risk.
It takes about two tons of Alberta sands to be developed into a barrel of conventional oil, but it takes about four times as much water to do that compared to the average barrel of crude oil. The story in the New York Times says, “Operations in Alberta have already created 65 square miles of toxic holding ponds, which kill migrating birds and pollute downstream watersheds, a serious matter for native communities.”
Across the border, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is likely to run into a whole slew of other water concerns, namely the Ogallala Aquifer, a shallow but vital drinking water source that sits under Nebraska and supplies more than 2 million people with water. Anyone who has had the pleasure of driving through Nebraska also knows there’s a whole bunch of corn in that state which requires water from sources that would be adjacent to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
3. Political concerns
The true threat inside the Beltway comes down to politics, and the Keystone XL pipeline faces a few obstacles. The aforementioned reviews by the State Department aren’t great signs for TransCanada, but the concerns go beyond that.
In the Senate, the pipeline has few skeptics, with two of the biggest from Nebraska, not surprisingly. Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) have raised serious questions about how to protect the Ogallala Aquifer and the agricultural production that Nebraska and much of the country depend on. Last week Johanns was quoted as saying, "You can drive through areas and the water is sitting there on top of the surface," Johanns says. "I mean, the Ogallala Aquifer lays right there.”
The Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, has also voiced concerns. In the wake of pipeline explosions that led to deaths in Allentown, Pa., and San Bruno, Calif., Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will hold a pipeline safety forum in Washington, D.C., in mid-April. LaHood has asked Congress to boost the maximum federal civil penalty per day for pipeline violations to $250,000 from $100,000, according to several reports. LaHood also wants raise the limit for a series of pipeline violations to $2.5 million from $1 million, according to a statement. “People deserve to know that they can turn on the lights, the heat, or the stove without endangering their families and neighbors,” LaHood said.
This sounds like doom and gloom for the future of the pipeline, the project does have at least one thing going for it: President Obama wants to reduce our dependency on oil from the Middle East. But Canada's good neighbor factor may not be enough for the Keystone XL to survive this political test. After all, spills, deaths and water contamination can create an un-neighborly atmosphere.