Stop the Keystone XL pipeline

August 1, 2011

Andrea Hektor describes what's at stake in Montana's Keystone XL pipeline project--and recent protests against it.

THE SILVERTIP oil pipeline owned and operated by ExxonMobil burst on July 1, spilling approximately 1,000 barrels--the equivalent of 42,000 gallons--of crude oil into the Yellowstone River near the town of Laurel, Mont., about 20 miles north of Billings. In the hours following the spill, more than 140 people were evacuated from the area surrounding the spill location due to fears of an explosion, and residents were only allowed to return after fume levels were determined to be at acceptable levels.

Weeks later, the full environmental impact of the spill is still unclear, and any efforts at cleanup on the part of ExxonMobil are small to nonexistent. As of July 11, most of the damage from the spill appeared to be contained within 25 miles of the location of the ruptured pipeline, although some areas of contamination were detected up to 45 miles away.

Despite statements by ExxonMobil and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) that crews were being mobilized to clean up the oil, only between 1 and 5 percent of the spilled oil has been recovered, and the EPA's Steve Merritt has admitted that the rest is unlikely to be found. At this point, the remaining oil is "unlikely to be found" because it has dissipated far enough downstream to no longer be detectable in quantities large enough to be easily recovered.

A park employee checks on containment booms used to stop the flow of oil from the Yellowstone River
A park employee checks on containment booms used to stop the flow of oil from the Yellowstone River

The EPA has stated that it will continue to do water and air quality testing downstream of the spill and expects few to no long-term health impacts. There is also an ongoing investigation into the causes of the spill and potential problems with oil pipeline infrastructure in the region.

The Silvertip pipeline transports crude oil from the Silvertip pump station near Elk Basin, Wyo., to ExxonMobil's oil refinery in Billings, Mont., and is part of a growing network of pipelines transporting both crude and refined oil throughout the region. The spill comes at a contentious time, given that Congress is attempting to push through approval for TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

In total, the proposed Keystone XL project would consist of approximately 1,711 miles of new, 36-inch-diameter pipeline, with some 327 miles of pipeline in Canada and approximately 1,384 miles in the U.S. The massive pipe would be capable of transporting 700,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Thick crude from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta would be piped to oil refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma, and would continue onward to the Gulf of Mexico for export from the U.S.

ON THE heels of the Silvertip spill, more than 70 members and supporters of Earth First and Northern Rockies Rising Tide occupied the Montana Capitol Building on July 12 to demand that Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, oppose the Keystone XL pipeline project. While Schweitzer has publicly chastised ExxonMobil, he has simultaneously continued to promote construction of the pipeline. As with many politicians, Schweitzer's actions and rhetoric surrounding environmental issues don't match up.

As activist Erica Dossa of Bozeman, Mont., told USA Today:

As the recent ExxonMobil pipeline disaster has made clear, Gov. Schweitzer is attempting to turn Montana into an extraction state, while at the same time publicly proclaiming his supposed support for clean energy, protecting the environment and building healthy communities. It's one or the other--you can't be clean and dirty at the same time.

During the occupation, most protesters took part in direct action. Some activists locked their arms in a mock oil pipeline made out of PVC plastic pipe, and a large number of demonstrators danced on a table in the governor's office. While the protest was at times loud and rowdy, there was a high level of seriousness among the activists during a question-and-answer session with Schweitzer when he responded to a request to meet with the occupiers.

Throughout the interaction, Schweitzer was unable to fully address the concerns of those in the room, whether they were about the environmental impacts of the pipeline projects or the social impacts of the tar sands mining project in Alberta. He refused to straightforwardly answer activists' questions, and even made a joke after being confronted with the statistic that in one community near the tar sands refineries, 19 of 21 babies born in an 18-month period were stillborn.

Activists made sure to point out issues beyond the direct environmental effects surrounding pipeline construction and tar sands oil refining. As one of the occupiers pointed out, "We've been talking about the environmental effects so far, but there are social effects too. Up in Alberta, indigenous people and local communities and communities of color and working-class communities are getting screwed by all the devastation that's happening up there."

When asked whether he cared about these broader social issues, and whether he would take a stand, Schweitzer had no response. And when asked outright whether he would stand with Big Oil or the people of Montana, Schweitzer responded "Well, I believe there must be a third choice," and went on to encourage individuals to change their lifestyles. Effectively, Schweitzer tried to push off any responsibilities that he, as an elected representative, should have related to environmental stewardship.

THE NUMEROUS potential environmental impacts of this pipeline include the more well-known increase in greenhouse gasses caused by burning fossil fuels and the lesser-known impacts of tar sands fuel extraction, arguably one of the dirtiest forms of energy extraction in the world. There are also a large number of unknowns about pumping tar sands crude because of how thick and abrasive the oil is in comparison to oil pumped from traditional wells.

Despite increased pressure on the U.S. government to fully investigate the potential hazards of oil-related projects--pressure stemming largely from the anger surrounding the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in April 2010--approval of the Keystone project appears to be moving forward.

The approval process has not been business as usual for big oil, as TransCanada has faced numerous lawsuits and requests for more in-depth environmental impact reports and pipeline spill remediation procedures. But many of the suits, including one by the Natural Resources Defense Council that challenged the pipeline on the grounds that its permit was based on a deficient environmental impact statement, have been thrown out in court.

The Keystone pipeline would cross the Sandhills in Nebraska, a large wetland ecosystem, and the Ogallala Aquifer, which spans eight states, provides drinking water for 2 million people, and is one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world. Portions of the pipeline will also cross an active seismic zone that had a 4.3 magnitude earthquake as recently as 2002. As the Silvertip pipeline spill and the Deepwater Horizon disaster show, Big Oil cares little about what would happen in the event of a pipeline rupture, and the spill potential presented by the Keystone XL pipe has not been fully researched by TransCanada.

A report by John Stansbury, a professor of environmental and water engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, estimates that the pipeline would likely experience 91 spills producing leaks of more than 50 barrels of oil during its first 50 years of operation.

TransCanada only predicts 11 spills. Stansbury also concludes that it would take 10 times longer to shut down the pipeline when a leak developed than what TransCanada has estimated. Given that TransCanada's most recent pipeline, the Keystone pipeline (not the same as the proposed Keystone XL), has spilled 12 times in the last 12 months, Stansbury's conclusions seem plausible, while TransCanada's seem like a massive underestimation.

Politicians also seem to care little about potential environmental destruction, as Gov. Schweitzer's response to those that occupied his office shows. When Schweitzer suggested that activists and your average person cut back on their personal oil use as a solution to global fossil fuel dependence, he was repeating the rhetoric that most of the U.S. is familiar with--that the problem is too big to fix, and that the solution has to be made on an individual level.

The environmental impact of a fossil fuel-based economy is massive, and too often we're told that the solutions and alternatives on a nation-wide or international scale are nonexistent. But it has been well documented that the solutions to an oil-centric society not only exist, but also are eminently possible.

A broad, popular movement that considers and engages in a variety of tactics is necessary if the Keystone XL Pipeline is going to be halted. Stopping the pipeline would only be the first of many steps required in a long struggle against fossil fuel extraction and toward environmental justice.

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