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

Keystone XL Jobs Figures are Rife With Misleading Math and Conflicts of Interest

Activists protest Keystone XL pipeline at White House

Industry and government estimates of Keystone XL jobs are unreliable, according to independent study.

Have you heard that the Keystone XL pipeline would create 20,000 jobs? If so, you might have read it in a news article and assumed that it came from trustworthy, independent research. But the truth is a bit more complicated.

I’ve already mentioned that TransCanada’s job figures are inflated–but now we have even more evidence. The media has cooperatively echoed TransCanada’s estimates: 13,000 direct construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs. But the TransCanada chief executive himself, Russ Girling, admitted to the Washington Post that the first number was misleading:

Girling said Friday that the 13,000 figure was “one person, one year,” meaning that if the construction jobs lasted two years, the number of people employed in each of the two years would be 6,500. That brings the company’s number closer to the State Department’s; State says the project would create 5,000 to 6,000 construction jobs, a figure that was calculated by its contractor Cardno Entrix.

Cardno Entrix also handled the Keystone XL environmental review. Why is this important? Because Cardno Entrix lists TransCanada as a “major client.” It turns out that TransCanada handpicked the firm for the State Department. Then, by pure coincidence, the “State” research sounded just like an advertisement for the pipeline: thousands of Keystone XL jobs and “limited adverse environmental impacts.” (See the NYT story for details.)

Made in Canada

Now what about the 7,000 manufacturing jobs? To answer, that, we’ll return to the WashPo article:

As for the 7,000 indirect supply chain jobs, the $1.9 billion already spent by TransCanada would reduce the number of jobs that would be created in the future. The Brixton Group, a firm working with opponents of the project, has argued that many of the indirect supply jobs would be outside the United States because about $1.7 billion worth of steel will be purchased from a Russian-owned mill in Canada.

TransCanada, of course, insists that most of the pipeline would be made in Arkansas. On the other hand, DeSmogBlog notes,

TransCanada has already signed contracts for nearly 50 percent of the steel pipe for the project. A Russian company, Evraz, will manufacture roughly 40 percent in Canadian mills, and an Indian company, Welspun, is likely to produce the rest.

An independent analysis

You might be wondering if there are any Keystone XL jobs reports not funded by TransCanada. As a matter of fact, Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute has just what you’re looking for. Here are some key points from the study:

  • The construction of KXL will create far fewer jobs in the US than its proponents have claimed and may actually destroy more jobs than it generates. 
  • The industry’s US job claims, and even the State Department’s analysis, are linked to a $7 billion KXL project budget. However, the budget for KXL that will have a bearing on US jobs figures is dramatically lower—only around $3 to $4 billion.
  • The claim that KXL will create 7,000 manufacturing jobs in the US is unsubstantiated. There is strong evidence to suggest that a large portion of the primary material input for KXL—steel pipe—will not even be produced in the US
  • The industry’s job projections fail to consider the large number of jobs that could be lost by construction of KXL. This includes jobs lost due to consumers in the Midwest paying 10 to 20 cents more per gallon of gasoline and diesel fuel. These additional costs ($2 to $4 billion) will suppress other spending and cost jobs.
If you also consider that the Keystone XL would do almost nothing to decrease oil imports from the Middle East (see here and here), you can build a solid case for rejecting the project without even mentioning environmental impacts. Add tar sands, a dash of spilled oil in a water supply, and an extra large helping of climate change, and you’ve got one nasty concoction.
That’s why, on Sunday, thousands of activists encircled the White House to make the point: Keystone XL is not in the national interest.
Mr. Obama, are you listening?

Keystone XL Pipeline: Facts and Myths

(Updated 9-04-11.)

Political debates in the U.S. are often plagued by disinformation, and the TransCanada oil pipeline controversy is no exception. So here’s my humble effort to dispel a few misconceptions.

Myth: There is little to no chance of an oil spill. In fact, a University of Nebraska study found that the pipeline could have nine times as many spills as TransCanada estimated. The pipeline will carry diluted bitumen from the tar sands, and it’s possible that “DilBit” poses a greater risk of corrosion and spills that conventional oil (see the NYT article for details).

Myth: A Keystone XL oil spill would be harmless. The study mentioned above also said that a rupture could take ten times as long to shut down and spill six times as much crude oil as TransCanada predicted. Specifically, the XL could leak up to 7.9 million gallons in the Nebraska Sandhills, home of the world’s largest underground reservoir, the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala supplies drinking water to millions of people in eight states and provides over a quarter of U.S. agricultural water.

Myth: Oil spills are the worst problem the pipeline would cause. The Keystone XL would allow more oil to be pumped from Canada, which opens the way to expanding the tar sands. In case you haven’t heard, Alberta’s tar sands are the most destructive project on earth, covering a Florida-sized area that was once Boreal forest. The extraction process uses massive amounts of water and natural gas, and leaves toxic tailing ponds that are visible from space.

Even more importantly, the carbon footprint of tar sands production is three times that of old-fashioned oil. That’s why twenty top climate researchers wrote a letter to President Obama saying tar sands oil “does not make sense to exploit.” James Hansen, an eminent scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, has gone a step further:

Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts….Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.

Myth: The Keystone XL would lower gas prices. The Energy Department says the pipeline would have a minimal effect on national gas prices, and may even lead to an increase in oil and gas prices in the Midwest.

Myth: The Keystone XL would enhance our energy security. Nobody thinks it’s a great idea to rely on Saudi Arabia and Venezuela for our oil supply. That’s why the oil industry and its cheerleaders are spinning the KXL as an energy security issue. But, according to a report commissioned by TransCanada itself, building the pipeline would not reduce oil imports from “unfriendly” countries.

How is that? The Keystone XL is an export pipeline. As Oil Change International reported,

The Port Arthur, Texas, refiners at the end of its route are focused on expanding exports to Europe, and Latin America. Much of the fuel refined from the pipeline’s heavy crude oil will never reach U.S. drivers’ tanks.

If we want to achieve energy independence, we should start by promoting renewable fuels in the U.S., not by playing middleman in the Canadian oil market.

Myth: We need the Keystone XL because it would create jobs. Yes, building a 2,000-mile-long pipeline would create jobs. So would a high-speed railway, a wind farm, or a solar array. In fact, green industries account for more jobs than do oil and gas production. And don’t forget that TransCanada’s job estimates were greatly exaggerated. A Cornell University report found the pipeline would create far fewer jobs than TransCanada claims, according to the company’s own data. Most of these jobs would not be local and many would not even be American. Furthermore, the number permanent American jobs could be as low as 50, based on TransCanada’s figures of operating costs.

Still, some would argue that relatively few jobs are better than no jobs, and that temporary employment is better than none. Job creation is certainly a priority, but oil pipelines aren’t the only way to do it. Focusing on short-term benefits, however much-needed, while ignoring the long-term environmental and social impact is a risky strategy, to say the least.

Image: Tar Sands Action/Flickr