The State Department’s decision to push back its recommendation on the Keystone project comes amid pressure from all directions.
On Friday, the U.S State Department’s Office of the Inspector General announced that a contractor review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will not be completed until January, delaying the State Department’s recommendation to proceed with the project. The inspector general’s office is investigating if recommendations made by the State Department on a seperate February 2012 report into a conflict-of-interest problem have been followed.
At question is ERM Group, which is writing the supplemental environmental impact statement for the pipeline project. Critics of the Keystone project, including Friends of the Earth — have argued that ERM has financial ties to TransCanada Corp., the pipeline’s owner.
The review will delay construction of Phase IV of the pipeline, which would be a direct run from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Neb. The existing Keystone Pipeline System pumps up to 590,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil a day to the Midwest. Phase I, the main pipeline running from Hardisty to Steele City, was completed in 2010. Phase II, running from Steele City to Patoka, Ill., was completed in 2011. Phase III and Phase IV, which constitute the Keystone XL project, have been plagued with delays and protests since it was first proposed.
Phase IV, the Steele City expansion, is currently routed to cross the Ogallala Aquifer — one of the largest underwater reservoirs of freshwater in the nation and the only major source of water for around two million people who live on the High Plains. Due to the nature of tar sands oil, a leak over this area could potentially endanger significant parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.
Division within the administration
The State Department’s draft environmental impact statement, released last March, has many — including members of the Obama administration — feeling that collusion between the oil companies and the State Department has taken place. In a 12-page open response letter to the Department of State, the Department of Interior stated that the State Department’s conclusion that the Keystone XL pipeline’s affect of wildlife would be temporary was incorrect. The Interior Department insists it warned the State Department that the pipeline would have long-term adverse effects.
The project has the potential to affect resources and values at seven units of the National Park System and one unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It would cross five trails in the National Trails System, including the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, California National Historic Trail, Pony Express National Historic Trail, and Oregon National Historic Trail, and would come within 10 to 12 miles of the Niobrara National Scenic River (NSR) and 40 miles of Missouri National Recreational River (NRR). The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline alignment crosses an easement refuge (82 X) administered by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) located in the S1I2, Section 23, T37N, R32E in Phillips County, Montana. In addition, the project has the potential to impact the Hagen Site National Historic Landmark.
Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure, access roads, and power lines and substations, impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project (ie: operation and maintenance phases).
The letter was accompanied by over 100,000 public comments to the regulations.gov website that denounced the report.
In April, the Environmental Protection Agency came down hard on the State Department, decrying that the department’s report was knowingly blind to greenhouse gas emissions and potential damage to the aquifer. Analyses from oil consultants with ties to oil companies that might benefit from the completed pipeline — including EnSys Energy, which worked with ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Koch Industries and ICF International — contributed to the environmental analysis.
“The marketplace and ethics sometimes collide,” said Joel Mintz, a member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform, on why the consultants may have given their analyses a bias toward the oil companies. “If their livelihood comes from consulting for the oil and gas industry, I think it would be expected they’d be sympathetic to their future and past clients. They’ll want to keep consulting.”
A project that will happen…
This conflict-of-interest may reflect a harder truth. Canada has an estimated 168 billion barrels of tar sands oil in reserve compared with just 4.1 billion barrels of conventional oil. Canada’s oil strategy depends on getting the tar sands out of the ground and refined as quickly as possible.
The United States already has bitumen refineries in Patoka, so the completion of the Keystone pipeline would allow tar sands to be flushed to Patoka to be extracted and then sent to New Orleans or Houston for shipment to the international market.
The high importance placed on the bitumen-refinery route — set out by the Keystone XL project — has afforded no room for doubt. Despite the State Department’s possible disapproval of the Keystone XL project, TransCanada intends to increase tar sands production. “We agree with the U.S. State Department that should Keystone XL not be approved, alternative modes of transporting natural resources, including rail, would likely deliver the crude intended for the Keystone XL market,” said Joe Oliver, Canada’s natural resources minister.
This “it’s happening, no matter what” mentality has placed enormous pressure on Washington — particularly, the State Department. The high environmental cost of bitumen refining, however, makes this situation unbearable for those forced to make a decision.
Tar sands, or bituminous sands, are a mixture of sand, clay, water and a tar-like form of petroleum called bitumen. This mixture is usually found in a solid or semi-solid state — it’s commonly referred to as “the rock that burns” — and must be mined to free it from the earth. As bitumen is the remains of natural decomposition, it is usually accompanied by large pockets of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which are released as the rock is freed. This release of greenhouse gas is thought to be enough to trigger a global warming catastrophe.
“Oil from tar sands makes sense only for a small number of people who are making a lot of money from that product,” said Prof. James Hansen, a leading climatologist, in an interview with the Guardian. “It doesn’t make sense for the rest of the people on the planet. We are getting close to the dangerous level of carbon in the atmosphere and if we add on to that unconventional fossil fuels, which have a tremendous amount of carbon, then the climate problem becomes unsolvable.”
Only about 20 percent of the tar sands reserves are accessible from surface or tunnel mining. To get the rest, water- or solvent- drilling is needed, in a manner that is similar to hydrofracking. The massive amount of water needed to dissolve and carry solid rock and tar-like oil begs a second environmental concern, with the third coming from the fact that the bitumen only makes up a tenth of the tar sands’ total composition. To get to the bitumen, the tar sand must be ground, dissolved in water, transported thousands of miles to a refinery — where, in the eventuality of a pipe leak, the water-dissolved tar sands will readily migrate into the area’s water table — to be boiled and chemically separated.
The morality of progress
Only in light of a high demand for oil is such a scheme financially reasonable. Morally, however, it may be unreasonable. Three years ago, the Enbridge Energy pipeline burst near Marshall, Mich., releasing more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek. Last March, an ExxonMobil pipeline burst in Mayflower, Ark., releasing thousands of gallons of oil and forcing 22 home evacuations.
“All oil spills are pretty ugly and not easy to clean up,” said Stephen K. Hamilton, a professor of aquatic ecology at Michigan State University who advises the EPA and the state on the cleanup in Marshall. “But this kind of an oil is even harder to clean up because of its tendency to stick to surfaces and its tendency to become submerged.”
For those affected, the recovery has been slow and painful, the response from the oil companies at times dodgy and elusive, in spite of promises. Ultimately, the price of a project like Keystone XL should not be measured by what can be gained, but by what can be lost.
Matt Davis, a real estate agent in Kalamazoo, commented to the New York Times on life after the spill. “Enbridge hopes people forget,” Davis said. “But this is my town. This is where I grew up. Enbridge isn’t from around here.”
“We didn’t ask for them to have their pipeline burst in our backyard. Make it right. Take care of the mess you made.”