Keystone Pipeline controversy

2013-04-03 10:13
An "oiled" duck recovered near in Mayflower, Arkinsaw, is rescued and prepared to be taken to a wildlife rehabilitation group assisting ExxonMobil after a pipeline ruptured and dumped several thousands of barrels of oil. (Log Cabin Democrat, Courtney

An "oiled" duck recovered near in Mayflower, Arkinsaw, is rescued and prepared to be taken to a wildlife rehabilitation group assisting ExxonMobil after a pipeline ruptured and dumped several thousands of barrels of oil. (Log Cabin Democrat, Courtney

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Chicago - The raging controversy over the Keystone XL Pipeline is not a choice between whether more oil will be imported to the USA or not. It is solely about how it will get there.
 
What seemed like it was going to an electoral headache for now reconfirmed President Barack Obama, the Keystone XL Pipeline, was sweetly kicked into touch when Obama said he wouldn’t decide whether to veto the controversial construction project until after the election.
 
The pipeline is intended to help facilitate the transportation of a crude tar sands oil product (called bitumen, or a diluted version called dilbit) from Alberta in western Canada down towards the Gulf of Mexico, where a mass of US refineries are located, and a host of ports which present far easier export routes to the rest of the world than from Alberta. The pipeline would also journey via the USA's new oil hotspots in North Dakota and surrounds.

This project, however, has angered environmentalists who argue the pipeline promotes further reliance on oil (in this instance a specific type of oil that requires more carbon-intensive techniques to extract), and presents environmental risks to those who live near the pipelines' proposed sites. Environmentalists are a strong Democrat constituency, but the pipeline has (somewhat loosely) been painted as a jobs boon, hence the president's wise move to make this a post-election decision.
 
The problem? The president now has to make a decision. And what isn't going to help him is the fact that the town of Mayflower, Arkansas was flooded on Friday by an oil slick when a pipeline beneath the town burst. The visuals aren't pretty – oil runs like rainwater down the streets and every video of it that has made cable news has someone in the background remarking on how bad it smells. Oil-slicked birds, of course, accompany these reports, so considering permitting the Keystone XL Pipeline currently is going to make the president's life a little tougher.

Increased concern among critics

It is peculiar, however, that this most recent spill has received so much attention. It happened in a small town, in a state that isn't highly reported on in a national sense, and isn't really a disaster that stands out. According to the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration there have been over 10 000 "reported incidents" regarding pipelines since 1993, 987 of which are regarded as "serious". Twenty-nine of those serious incidents took place in 2012 alone, and in those 11 people were killed while 55 were injured.
 
Since 2002 (when measuring metrics changed) there have been an average of 637 incidents per year (half are transportation of "hazardous liquids"), 40 of which are classified "serious". In these incidents an average of 14 people die per year, while an average of 58 are injured. While it may be uncommon to see oil flowing into the street drains of a small Arkansas town, it isn't uncommon for the contents of a pipe to be spilled. 
 
Whatever the motives of the outlets reporting this, it has increased concern among critics of the pipeline, in the one argument that may in fact hold when it comes to public debate: Concern for those who live near the proposed pipeline site.
 
The main thrusts of arguments against the pipeline have thus far been related its symbolic nature – the USA's continued reliance on foreign oil (or, oil at all). It is worth making absolutely clear that the lack of a pipeline will not stop the growth in the Canadian tar sands oil industry, nor will it stop oil flowing into the USA from its neighbour.

Take, for example, the booming oil industry in North Dakota. Due to a lack of pipeline capacity the area's rail infrastructure has quickly increased to keep up with demand from the oil proceeds: Since mid-2009 rail capacity has tacked upwards, and is seven times larger than it was (from around 100 000 barrels per day to over 700 000 barrels per day) and is projected to continue growing in line with the industry. The same trends are happening on the Canadian side of the border.

Chemical cost

The Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement by the US Department of State (under whose authority the Keystone XL Pipeline falls because it crosses a border, and who will make the actual decision which the president will decide whether to veto) says clearly, "The continuing rapid development of the [North Dakota oil] resource does not appear to have been curtailed because of this lack of pipeline capacity". In other words, if the pipeline is not built, the oil will make its way down south anyway, because rail transport will make up for it. There is precedent for this too.

The same report cites a higher than necessary uptick in rail infrastructure from within Wyoming and Montana when coal began to be mined out of the Powder River Basin: "In 1980, approximately 99 tons per year of coal was transported out of the Powder River Basin. By 2008, this had increased to approximately 500 million tons, or an average increase of 14 million tons per year every year for 28 years."
 
In further indication the industry shows no signs of slowing down, Shell does viability forecasts and has taken into account a possible carbon tax of up to $40 per ton produced. As things stand there is no such tax, but there remains the possibility, as Australian companies will attest. According to the Washington Post, John Abbott, executive vice president for heavy oil at Shell Canada, said that the $40 per ton tax estimation is well above prices on Europe's existing carbon exchange, and the oil sands still pass financial muster.
 
The other major opposition to the pipeline is due to the contents of what will be coming down it – bitumen (or dilbit) is a different animal when it comes to spills, because it is more difficult to clean up. The product is thinned with chemicals before it is transported through pipes. In a high profile case in Michigan in July 2010 these chemicals evaporated when a pipeline ruptured and the clean-up was unexpectedly difficult because the remaining bitumen, which ended up in the Kalamazoo River, sank due to its density. Some of that oil remains in the river, because the work involved in getting it out is more environmentally unfriendly than just leaving it there.
 
This begs the question of whether transporting the oil via pipeline or train is safer, which draws mixed opinions from experts. While trains derail far less than pipelines have "incidents", trains tend to move through population centres, which means the potential for impactful disaster is heightened. The Keystone XL Pipeline has specifically had its route changed to lessen its environmental impact.

How many jobs?

Since the North American oil boom began a few years ago only one serious train incident has occurred: Last month 14 carriages (of a 94-carriage train) derailed around 100km north of Minnesota. Luckily, due to the ground being frozen at the time the clean up was easier than expected, although it still managed to spill an estimated 700-odd barrels of oil. Pipelines, however, are a significantly cheaper way of transporting fuel.
 
Much of the argument for the pipeline is that it will create jobs, with studies ranging from the absurdly low to the absurdly high (as low as 400 jobs to as high as 20 000 jobs). According to the State Department an estimated 5 000 jobs will be created through the project. This doesn't hold too much water, as the State Department, also in the aforementioned Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement, estimates that alternatives, should the pipeline not be built, will add 4 460 jobs anyway due to forced upgrading of rail and existing pipeline infrastructure. There is only a 10% discrepancy in the amount of jobs to be created no matter what happens.
 
All of this means that the people with the most legitimate gripe are the ones who will be living near the proposed pipeline. However, sadly for them, the choice is not whether oil will be coming through the USA from Canada or not.
 
The competing arguments in this whole controversy will actually only determine whether the oil, extracted from Canadian tar sands in a carbon-intense process, will be brought to the American south by train or by pipeline.
 
And the people who live near whichever is the winner will just have to cope with it.

 
- News24
Read more on:    barack obama  |  us  |  environment
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