Fossil fuel project has become a flashpoint for larger environmental and policy battles
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — It seems to border on sheer lunacy in this day and age to even consider an 850-mile pipeline to transport gooey tar sands oil across half a continent just because it can be done profitably. The environmental realities of increasing greenhouse gases alone would suggest that investing in this type of fossil fuel infrastructure would be a huge step in the wrong direction.
Yet for the second time, the U.S. State Department last week concluded that the pipeline would not have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.
Seen in isolation, the latest State Department study seems to make sense, purely from an economic standpoint. There’s a demand at Gulf refineries for a stable supply of crude. Mexico’s output is declining, and those facilities otherwise rely on crude oil from Venezuela. A good geopolitical argument can be made that it would be better to import oil from an ally.
But the environmental costs are probably too high. The new supplemental study
In response to public scoping comments for the proposed Project, the draft includes a detailed assessment of impacts on groundwater and surface water, including shallow groundwater associated with the Ogallala Aquifer and the NDEQ-identified Sand Hills Region.
Even trying to avoid surface waters as much as possible the pipeline route would cross approximately 1,073 waterbodies, including 56 perennial rivers and streams, as well as approximately 25 miles of mapped floodplains.
The results of the study drew predictable reactions from the environmental community, which, for better or worse, has made the pipeline into a symbolic centerpiece for its war on fossil fuels. There’s no question that tar sands oil development is a dirty energy intensive business, but the outcry — even to my sympathetic ears — is overwrought and out of proportion to the true impacts of the pipeline.
I don’t have a problem with using the pipeline as a way to gain attention for the larger issues surrounding energy development and politics, but in the end, the decision should be based on the best available information and facts, and not emotion. Whether or not the latest analysis includes that information is an open question. You can read all, or parts, of the study online here.
Here’s an excerpt from the executive summary:
Based on information and analysis about the North American crude transport infrastructure (particularly the proven ability of rail to transport substantial quantities of crude oil profitably under current market conditions, and to add capacity relatively rapidly) and the global crude oil market, the draft Supplemental EIS concludes that approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.
Conservation groups claim the analysis is fatally flawed. Here’s an excerpt from a press release sent out by the National Wildlife Federation, which takes issue with the main conclusion in the new study.
National Wildlife Federation has several major concerns with the analysis, but most objectionable is the claim that “approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands.”
“This analysis fails in its review of climate impacts, threats to endangered wildlife like whooping cranes and woodland caribou, and the concerns of tribal communities,” said the organization’s vice president for conservation policy Jim Lyon.
“If Keystone XL wouldn’t speed tar sands development, why are oil companies pouring millions into lobbying and political contributions to build it? By rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, President Obama can keep billions of tons of climate-disrupting carbon pollution locked safely in the ground.
“Canadian tar sands exports are blocked to the west by tribes that won’t sell out their natural resources to Big Oil, and blocked to the east by the European Union’s declaration that it won’t buy dirty tar sands oil. Without access to major U.S. export terminals from Keystone XL and other routes, tar sands production will be substantially slowed.
“President Obama should put his commitment to confront climate change above Canada’s desire to cash in on polluting tar sands. Keystone XL would force America’s wildlife and communities to accept all the risk of oil spills, contaminated water supplies, and climate-fueled extreme weather like superstorm Sandy, and to what reward? Higher Midwest gas prices and just 20 permanent jobs.”