New Keystone XL Route Still Threatens Water Supply

Cross-posted from WeArePowerShift.

At the height of the Keystone XL battle, some of the pipeline’s toughest opponents came from Nebraska, where people of all political persuasions were alarmed at the damage a potential spill would cause. And rightfully so: According to the original plan, KXL would have crossed the Nebraska Sandhills, an ecologically-sensitive area that sits above the Ogallala aquifer.

TransCanada just re-applied for a permit to build KXL along an alternate route, one that avoids the Sandhills. But, according to the new plan, the pipeline would still threaten the crucial aquifer. Lisa Song of InsideClimate News reports:

The company’s preferred corridor avoids the Sandhills of southwest Holt County, just as TransCanada promised it would. But it still crosses through northern Holt County, where the soil is often sandy and permeable and the water table is high—the same characteristics that make the Sandhills so vulnerable to the impact of an oil spill.

In some parts of the new corridor, the groundwater lies so close to the surface that the pipeline would run through the aquifer instead of over it. (See map of TransCanada’s preferred Keystone XL route.)

What does that mean for the no-KXL movement? Obviously, a major objection to KXL–that it could poison water for thousands of people–is still completely valid. That means landowners, even those who don’t object to the pipeline on principle, may be powerful allies again, as TransCanada gears up for another battle over the border crossing permit.

However, that permit may soon be useless. A new batch of pipeline projects, none of which require State Department approval, could render KXL redundant.

  • The Bakken Crude Express will carry oil from deposits in North Dakota to the market hub of Cushing, Oklahoma. This pipeline will serve U.S. refineries the same way KXL would, but for about a tenth of the cost.
  • Enbridge, another Canadian pipeline company, plans to reverse the flow of its Seaway pipeline, in order to pump crude from Oklahoma to Texas.
  • Flanagan South, also by Enbridge, will carry oil to Oklahoma and is expected to be in service a year before KXL would be.
  • Meanwhile, Enbridge’s Trailbreaker project, which would ship tar sands oil into New England, seems to beback on the table. Several green groups claim Enbridge is trying to skirt proper review by breaking Trailbreaker into smaller phases.

Round two of the tar sands fight is about to begin. This time, the result may hinge more on the presidential election, since Obama will try to avoid another controversial decision. For his part, Romney has said he is prepared to build KXL himself, if need be. (Presumably, that is why he wears blue jeans at campaign stops.)

If KXL is ever delayed or permanently canceled for any reason, the climate movement can and should claim a victory. After all, they helped draw toxic attention to it, in the first place. From a carbon perspective, though, the “alternatives” are no better. A tar sands pipeline, by any other name, still smells like tar sands.

Image: Tar Sands Action

Ballot Initiative Could Restore Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park

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Hetch Hetchy valley before dam

Hetch Hetchy, before the dam was built

When you hear “Yosemite,” you probably think of Yosemite Valley, with its world-class waterfalls and famous rock formations. But another valley in Yosemite National Park offers scenery just as stunning.

At least, it would, if it weren’t filled with water. In 1923, Hetch Hetchy, known as “Yosemite’s twin,” was dammed to provide drinking water for San Francisco. Today the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir stores 117 billion gallons of alpine water so pure it’s exempt from filtration rules.

But an initiative launched by Restore Hetch Hetchy (RHH) could see the dam destroyed and the valley restored to its natural state. If RHH can secure 7,400 supportive signatures, Californians will vote on a ballot measure to do just that.

John Muir, the patron saint of the preservation movement, was fiercely opposed to the flooding of Hetch Hetchy. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he exclaimed. “As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” Hetch Hetchy was Muir’s last great fight, and one of the few he lost.

Modern San Francisco residents might not consider themselves “devotees of ravaging commercialism” Yosemite National Park Mapwith “a perfect contempt for Nature,” as Muir put it, but many would probably object to draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Besides providing water to the Bay Area, the dam generates hydroelectricity that powers buses, light rail, street lighting, and cable cars. From a climate perspective (as opposed to an environmental one), damming Hetch Hetchy might not have been a bad idea.

However, the Reservoir isn’t as essential as many believe. According to RHH,

Hetch Hetchy is only one of nine reservoirs that comprise the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s water system. Although Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is the most well-known, it stores less than 25% of the system’s water. San Francisco’s water-bank in Don Pedro Reservoir, downstream on the Tuolumne River, holds twice as much water as Hetch Hetchy.

If the dam at Hetch Hetchy were removed, San Francisco would still get water from the Tuolumne River; the water would simply be stored at a different location. So what’s the catch? Mainly the price tag. At up to $10 billion, the project will be a bit unpalatable in a recession. Still, it wouldn’t be unprecedented–hundreds of dams have been torn down in the U.S. over the last fifteen years.

Restoring nearly a century of damage to the Hetch Hetchy valley would be an intensely interesting challenge in itself. Even RHH calls it “the most ambitious and audacious act of environmental preservation in our history.” Yet a restored Hetch Hetchy would attract tourists and their money, helping to relieve the overcrowded Yosemite Valley.

This is a multi-sided issue, one that could potentially pit climate hawks against environmental preservationists. Certainly it will divide the famously green and progressive San Francisco.

What do you think?

 

Learn more: The GuardianRestore Hetch Hetchy

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Of Oil and the Undead: A Keystone XL Update

Not long ago, the creature known as Keystone XL was hidden in the uncharted lands of bureaucracy, unknown to the general public. That was before an alliance of environmental campaigners, climate activists, college students, and Nebraska landowners dragged Keystone into the spotlight and made it pivotal issue in Washington.

A New York Times article, a corrupt environmental review, and a couple thousand arrests later, Keystone XL was a celebrity. Its every move became headline news. The No-KXL campaign convinced Obama that the pipeline was dangerous (politically, at least), and he tried to lock it up until after the election. But Republicans in Congress threw a tantrum and demanded a rushed decision on Keystone XL, even though State had warned that the review process would not be complete.

So it was that Barack Obama killed Keystone XL. But the pipeline’s friends on Capitol Hill aren’t backing down. The Grand Oil Party seems to have made reanimating Keystone XL its number-one goal. Right now, they have three main options:

  • Keystone XL will likely be featured in the House’s infrastructure bill. The “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act” is a veritable Frankenstein of pro-oil policies and outdated urbanism. (To paraphrase the bill’s authors: Bikes and pedestrians = bad, highways and oil drilling = ♥.) Keystone XL would be in good company.
  • Alternatively, Keystone XL could be added to the next payroll tax bill. The previous one–a stopgap measure–was considered a “must-pass,” so the Republicans used it to rush a decision on the pipeline. They could try the same strategy again, this time requiring an approval. But the leadership would take some heat for holding the popular tax break hostage over an unrelated issue.
  • Big Oil’s pals in the Senate are promoting a standalone bill to approve Keystone XL. So far, 44 Senators have signed on. A House version is in the works as well. If you’re wondering, it would be legal for Congress to approve Keystone XL on its own, but Obama would have to pass a bill circumventing his own authority. In other words, the standalone bill would serve mainly as a talking point

If these options fail, Zombie XL could still come back with an alternate route, or TransCanada could apply for a new permit. For now, though, our oily adversary is confined to the laboratories of Congress.

The Keystone XL is unpredictable and known to attack without warning. Be sure to follow @TarSandsAction and @TheGreenLens for the latest news.

HUGE: Keystone XL Delayed

In an important (and honestly surprising) victory for the grassroots, President Obama has delayed a decision on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

From Tar Sands Action:

…the president sent the pipeline back to the State Department for a thorough re-review, which most analysts are saying will effectively kill the project. The president explicitly noted climate change, along with the pipeline route, as one of the factors that a new review would need to assess….

And he has made clear that the environmental assessment won’t be carried out by cronies of the pipeline company–that it will be an expert and independent assessment.

Note that Obama didn’t reject the pipeline outright, as activists have been demanding. Instead, he effectively put off the decision until after the elections, thus avoiding a political conundrum. While we didn’t get a strong statement against the Keystone XL, we did get a vindication of the anti-KXL movement.

Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone. One month ago, a secret poll of “energy insiders” by the National Journal found that “virtually all” expected easy approval of the pipeline by year’s end. As late as last week the CBC reported that TransCanada was moving huge quantities of pipe across the border and seizing land by eminent domain, certain that its permit would be granted.

And here is a statement from the White House, via the HuffPost:

“Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood,” Obama said. “The final decision should be guided by an open, transparent process that is informed by the best available science and the voices of the American people.”

This all seems obvious to those of us who were aware of–and even helped expose–the depth of corruption in the review process. But make no mistake: Without the groundswell of opposition, Obama and the State Department would have quietly signed off on the project.

Now, the pipeline is delayed, perhaps permanently. Even if it resurfaces in 2013, we will have fresh verbal ammunition in the form of a (supposedly) independent impact study, as well as ample time to strengthen and reorganize our movement.

The Keystone XL victory–go ahead and call it that–is proof of the power that a collective political effort has. We can make a dramatic difference when we channel our convictions into sustained, nonviolent action.

And we’ll need plenty more of that in the days ahead. We can expect oil apologists and their allies in Washington to continue distorting the facts about Keystone XL jobs and energy independence. The difference: Now we have to confidence to stand up and keep moving forward.

New! See Through a Green Lens on Tumblr

I’m stoked to announce that the Green Lens will now be available on Tumblr. Why Tumblr? Here are a few reasons:

  • Tumblr is happening. Like a stylish Brooklyn neighborhood, the site was first colonized by hipsters–but now big names like Mother Jones and the New Yorker have launched satellite Tumblogs. Tumblr is also the home of much of the Internet’s creative class: designers, photographers, artists, and filmmakers.
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Check out the new Journal, and let me know what you think!