“To the Senate of the United States: I am returning herewith without my approval S. 1, the “Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act.” Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.
The Presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.” – Barack Obama, February 24th, 2015
So ended, for the time being, the struggle of TransCanada and the Keystone XL pipeline for presidential permits allowing them to construct on American soil. Their inquiry, a modest affair by most standards, grew eventually to encompass many larger issues and concerns, including the relationship between land, native peoples, and the government, economic benefits for the United States, the polarized political atmosphere that is the American government, and — perhaps most importantly — the environmental havoc the project would set forth.
To start, however, we should set about with the beginning rather than the end. The Keystone XL pipeline controversy opens with the oil sands of Canada. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the oil sands in Alberta make up approximately 97% of Canada’s oil reserves. These sands provide an oil source, yes — in fact, one of the largest of these types of oil reserves in the world — but it does not function in the same manners traditional oil resources do. According to the Washington Post and AJ+, these oil sands consist of clay, sand, and a thick, dense oil about the same consistence of molasses called bitumen. To extract this alternative oil, energy companies employ one of two methods: surface mining or drilling methods. The distribution of these methods is about equal. In surface mining, large trucks transport 400 ton loads of sands to refineries where hot water separates the bitumen from the sand and clay. When the oil sands lie deeper than surface mining may reach, drilling methods are employed. These entail drilling “wells” into the earth before filling them with steam, effectively melting the bitumen and allowing it to be removed from the sand directly. Below is a map of where exactly the oil sands fall in Canada and relate to the United States:
So Canada has some oil. How does that relate to any kind of pipeline? Funny you should ask! The accepted reason TransCanada wishes to build a pipeline of this sort in the United States is so that it may be connected even further to the global oil market, according once again to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. And how does the company wish to proceed? This handy little video — unfortunately made just before Obama’s veto and therefore a bit outdated — will cover the very basics of the oil sands and an overview of the Keystone XL pipeline itself.
For a better look at where exactly TransCananda wished to build, the below maps outline existing pipelines and how the Keystone pipeline would have fit into that network.
According to CNN, this extension would have allowed TransCanada to pump 830,000 gallons (3,142,000 liters) of crude oil into the United States every day through the Keystone pipeline to be transported to refineries in the Gulf. Here, supporters of the venture make the point that this oil will be mined regardless of the American government’s decision, that one way or another this crude oil will find its way to refineries in the Gulf, especially through railways, which are, in fact, more pollutant than the pipeline would have been.
However, these supporters lack a fundamental understanding of what some may call “the big picture.” In December 2009, Canada signed an international agreement called the Copenhagen Accord and in this accord, it agreed , along with several other nations of strength and large carbon emissions, to lower their footprints via CO2 levels. As of May 20th of this year, Canada’s activities on this matter have been labelled “inadequate” by the Climate Action Tracker. This nifty website shows that Canada’s activities, if left unchecked in the state they’re in, will actually increase its CO2 emissions in coming years. With the expanded oil sand exports the Keystone pipeline would have facilitated, Canada would have fallen even further behind in their efforts to reduce their effects on global climate change. To put into perspective how much greater impact bitumen has on the environment than traditional oil sources, Jennifer Grant, director of the oil sands program at Pembina Institute, states that from the sand to the gas tank, oil sands emit 23% more emissions than traditional sources. In the graphic below, the effects of oil sand mining on Canada’s Copenhagen Accord are even more evident:
This isn’t the only environmental issue the pipeline projects or the oil sands companies have experienced, either. Jennifer Grant explains that the issue of oil sand extraction is much larger than TransCanada would have you believe. She says that the oil sands are a very large natural resource which inherently have large ties to the ecosystems around it. When specifically referencing the reclamation law enforced in Alberta, Canada, Grant states that: “Reclamation has not kept pace with the level of disturbance on the landscape today. We’ve only seen about one square kilometer of the 700 or so square kilometers that’s been disturbed reclaimed and certified by the Alberta government.” This startling fact means that around 700 square kilometers of mined land still exist in their disturbed states, having displaced the thousands of species of plant and wildlife which used to inhabit it. Canada’s vast ecosystem and habitat is collapsing at the hands of TransCanada and companies like it — and this practice would only be expanded, exploited, and extended by that failed Keystone pipeline.
On July 25th, 2010 at 5:58 in the evening, without a single notice from the people of Marshall, Michigan, oil began to steep into their water. For more than seventeen hours, the leak spilled into the Kalamazoo River, undisturbed and noxious, from a ruptured Enbridge Pipeline before it was discovered on July 26th. Calls entered emergency facilities regarding the strange odor hanging about the air, but the public remained unaware of the threat that had just entered their river and ecosystem. Ignorant of the devastation occurring just outside the doorstep, workers at Enbridge misinterpreted the “broken pipe” alarm and continue to send oil out through the ruptured pipe until an outside source notified them at 11:00 the following morning. Voluntary evacuations followed, with three hundred people in the area reporting medical ailments possibly related to the spill. The EPA responded that day with the formation of an Incident Management Team made up of federal, state, and local resources. On July 28th, that incident management team stormed Enbridge with the Clean Water Act and demanded that they begin removing oil and that they find the origin of the spill.(Michigan Radio Newsroom) The company estimated 843,000 gallons (3,191,000 liters) of crude oil spilled first into Talmadge Creek and then the Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary. The spill was later contained to 80 river miles from Lake Michigan, which serves 10 million people lake-wide. (EPA and EPA) Five years later, the state and Enbridge both admit that the Kalamazoo River will never return to what it used to be, that there will never come a day when all of the oil leaked that day is cleaned. (Michigan Radio Newsroom)
According to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) via the University of Delaware, there are four main methods of cleaning an oil spill:
- Allow the oil to break down naturally in the environment. This method is best employed when there is no risk of pollution to nearby plant and wildlife and works best on light oil, unlike the thick oil of the Keystone XL pipeline.
- Contain the spills with buoyant structures called “booms” and “skim” the oil from the surface. This method holds little weight with groundwater, however, the main area of concern with the Keystone XL pipeline.
- Add dispersants to the affected water. These decrease the surface tension and force the oil into small droplets, more easily diluted by the movement of the water and more open to bacteria and evaporation. This method of cleanup is only useful, however, if applied within two hours of the spill occurring.
- Use biological agents to speed the oil’s natural deterioration. This method, called biodegradation, employs fertilizer introduced into the spill in hopes of fostering bacteria to break down the oil faster. However, many factors play into whether this method is effective, including whether the soil is sandy or rocky.
And while research on offshore oil spill cleanup is fairly extensive, its onshore counterpart seems to lack the same sort of inspection. However, Gerald Graham, president of marine oil spill prevention and planning company Worldocean Consulting, estimates that only ten to fifteen percent of an offshore oil spill is cleaned out of the ecosystem. This certainly does not bode well for onshore oil cleanup efforts, should they be needed along the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Faced with this truth, opponent’s concerns over the Keytsone Pipeline fall into a much more reasonable light. The proposed pipeline would have stretched the breadth of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest fresh water sources in the world. According to Dr. J. A. Schneider of CUNY Oswego, this aquifer holds enough water to submerge the entire continental United States in two feet. Indeed, a U.S. Geological Study from 2008 found the aquifer cover 450,000 kilometers squared, Colorado to Kansas and Texas to South Dakota. (MIT Mission 2012: Clean Water) This water source irrigates farms in eight states making up one quarter of the United States total agricultural output — and the Keystone XL pipeline was set to mow right through it. (Washington Post) Below is a map of exactly the route the project would take through Ogallala:
With the Kalamazoo River disaster in mind — and the consensus that the cause was neglect of the pipe by Enbridge — one can sympathize with those worried over the pipeline’s path through Ogallala. A spill into this aquifer could contaminate thousands of acres of farmland and send the agriculture industry straight into the red. Professor John Stansbury of the University of Nebraska predicted that a spill could result in 6.5 million gallons (24,610,000 liters) of crude oil entering the aquifer and 4.9 billion gallons (18,550,000,000 liters) of groundwater becoming contaminated. The project, should it fail as pipelines are wont to do (see: BP oil spill, Kalamazoo River spill, etc.), could spell disaster for communities throughout the midwest.
All this in mind — the promise to the environment and international community Canada made in the Copenhagen Accord, the pollution that would spew from the sand, the poor reclamation efforts, the threat of a spill unlike one ever seen before — the proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline neglect one very major point as their time in the spotlight enters its twilight hours: their oil sands can very well stay buried in the earth for centuries to come, should the human race experience a funny, genuine slip of heart.
Sources and Alternative Reading: