The Keystone XL pipeline project is not dead yet

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Two Republican bills passed last week in the United States seem crafted to force movement on the issue of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline and, more subversively, to attack Barack Obama's second presidential bid.

The House of Representative bill (H.R. 3408) was passed on Thursday, February 16 by a vote of 237-187 and removed President Obama as the decision-maker responsible for deciding the fate of the pipeline. The senate has not voted on this new bill.

Republicans bring back the Keystone XL debate

It was only last month that President Obama denied a permit for the project after Congress set a February 21, 2012 deadline, claiming there was not enough time to concretely review the project. That deadline was part of the last-minute payroll tax cut deal in December 2011.

U.S. political observers and pundits alike claim Obama's decision was a reaction to being forced by the Republicans to make a decision on the pipeline and the issue of American jobs. At that time, Democrats and environmental activists erroneously declared the Keystone XL pipeline dead. The pipeline project isn't dead, just the latest build permit.

If H.R. Bill 3408 passes in the Senate, approval power over the Keystone XL pipeline project would shift from President Obama to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This change could mean that the TransCanada project could be approved on a much shorter timeline. If made into law, the Bill would give the FERC 30 days to approve the $7-billion project if it is deemed safe. It's the same tactic of quick force but, this time, Obama's hands would be tied.

Here's how TransCanada describes the Keystone project: "a 2,673-kilometre (1,661-mile), 36-inch crude oil pipeline that would begin at Hardisty, Alberta and extend southeast through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. It would incorporate a portion of the Keystone Pipeline (Phase II) through Nebraska and Kansas to serve markets at Cushing, Oklahoma before continuing through Oklahoma to a delivery point near existing terminals in Nederland, Texas to serve the Port Arthur, Texas marketplace."

Critics in Canada and throughout the different U.S. states are concerned about what impact this tar sands pipeline would have through environmentally sensitive areas such as the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala is one of the world's largest aquifers and covers an area of approximately 450,000 square kilometres in eight states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

About 27 per cent of the agricultural land in the U.S. overlies this aquifer system, which yields about 30 per cent of the nation's groundwater used for irrigation. In addition, the aquifer system provides drinking water to 82 per cent of the people who live within its boundaries.

In August 2011, an environmental impact report by the U.S. State Department found the Sandhills route (through the Ogallala Aquifer) would be the most economically feasible, and would be unlikely to have significant environmental impacts. Essentially, the State Department has decided that economic frugality trumps environmental concern, a common theme with oil pipeline projects.

Another bill, S. 2100, would bar the Democrats from using the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve unless the TransCanada pipeline project gets approved.

This Republican bill has been described as another underhanded move to punish Obama for refusing to approve the pipeline project.

According to Daniel J. Weiss, writing in Alternet:"In other words, unless the president approves Keystone, he cannot sell our emergency oil -- even if Iran causes an oil supply disruption in the Strait of Hormuz, a hurricane or other disaster disables oil production or refining facilities, or any other type of event causes gasoline prices to soar above $4 per gallon. If any of these events happen, middle-class Americans would pay significantly higher gasoline pump prices, giving billions of dollars more to big oil companies that made record profits last year."

These two bills are the political currency-as-weaponry being used to attack Obama with the added benefit of pushing forward the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project -- touted by Republicans to bring in "jobs jobs jobs" along with Canadian tar sands oil.

This despite the fact that TransCanada itself announced on Tuesday, February 14 -- smack in the middle of the debate over both Republican bills -- that it was pushing its own target date back from 2013 to 2015.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed "profound disappointment" at President Obama's decision to deny the Keystone XL's permit.

Both the U.S. Republican Party and the Conservative Party of Canada are gung-ho about the pipeline. And both blamed fringe groups of activists and "eco-terrorists" for hijacking an economic stimulus project that was supposed to bring jobs to both sides of the border.

This contrasts sharply with the opinion of environmental and Indigenous rights groups who oppose the pipeline.

A 'slap in the face' to Native Nations

According to the Indigenous Environmental Network Executive Director Tom B.K. Goldtooth: "Native Americans have spoken, the Mother Earth Accord clearly outlines U.S. Native Nations' opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Elected Tribal leadership met with President Obama in private at the White House Tribal Leadership Summit in December 2011. Tribal Chairmen from many nations told President Obama face to face that this project is not in the national interest. The action of the Senate to circumvent the White House on this decision is a mockery of American democracy and slap in the face to the sovereignty and treaty rights of U.S. Tribal governments who stand opposed."

The claims about the pipeline's economic benefits are also being challenged by the Cornell Global Labor Institute. In fact, its newest report claimed that "the Keystone XL pipeline may kill more jobs than it creates" by raising fuel prices and potentially causing spills that would harm the agriculture industry.

The Conservative government of Canada and the Republican Party in the United States are also both pushing forward on Keystone XL despite the fact that the use of pipelines to transport tar sands oil is under serious scrutiny due to potential environmental risks such as pipeline spills.

Environmental concerns over pipeline safety also arose during debate of the two Republican bills as two new leaks were discovered along an Enbridge pipeline in northern Michigan. Enbridge was also responsible for a 2010 pipeline rupture that spilled more than three million litres of oil in southern Michigan.

This further reinforces concern regarding the Ogallala Aquifer and other environmentally sensitive areas set to be traversed by the Keystone XL pipeline.

Where there are pipelines, there will be spills

Another pipeline giant, Enbridge Inc., has been under intense scrutiny for pipeline ruptures, including the Norman Wells' pipeline leak in the Northwest Territories, which leaked up to 1,500 barrels into the northern environment. Enbridge fell under scrutiny for that May 9, 2011 pipeline spill when it originally reported that only four barrels of oil had been spilled, and was later forced to revise that number.

Using data from Enbridge's own reports, the Polaris Institute calculated that 804 spills occurred on Enbridge pipelines between 1999 and 2010. These spills released approximately 168,645 barrels (26,812.4 m3) of hydrocarbons into the environment.

According to TransCanada: "Each year, billions of gallons of crude oil and petroleum products are safely transported on pipelines. If they do occur, pipeline leaks are small; most pipeline leaks involve less than three barrels, 80 per cent of spills involve less than 50 barrels, and less than 0.5 percent of spills total more than 10,000 barrels."

Critics are quick to accuse TransCanada of minimizing the risks of Keystone pipeline leaks. According to an independent study by John Stansbury that analyzed the potential for worst-case scenarios spills at four locations along Keystone's 2,700 kilometre route through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the report found that TransCanada repeatedly underplayed the frequency and severity of spills.

TransCanada has a history of its own spills. For example, the Keystone pipeline had two spills within a two-and-a-half-week period in the spring of 2011; one in Kansas and one in North Dakota.

The Stansbury report is damning: "The primary questionable assumptions are: (1) TransCanada ignored historical data that represents 23 per cent of historical pipeline spills, and (2) TransCanada assumed that its pipeline would be constructed so well that it would have only half as many spills as the other pipelines in service (on top of the 23 per cent missing data), even though they will operate the pipeline at higher temperatures and pressures and the crude oil that will be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline will be more corrosive than the conventional crude oil transported in existing pipelines. All of these factors tend to increase spill frequency; therefore, a more realistic assessment of expected frequency of significant spills is 0.00109 spills per year per mile (from the historical data (PHMSA, 2009)) resulting in 91 major spills over a 50-year design life of the pipeline."

In other words, more pipelines built means more oil leaked and spilled.

So, we are left with a question: Is it wise for the United States to rush forward on the Keystone XL pipeline in light of all the social and environmental arguments against the project just to make political hay against Obama before the November 2012 election?

Krystalline Kraus writes the Activist Communiqué blog for rabble.ca.

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