Tar Sands

Published on January 24th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor

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Election 2014 – Keystone XL pipeline could be THE hot issue of the midterms

By Meteor Blades

Numerous sources say the State Department will present its final environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline sometime in the next few weeks. Given that the delivery of the EIS will trigger a 90-day period of comments by federal agencies, President Obama could announce a thumbs up or down on the $5.2 billion project sometime in May or early June. Just in time, report Peter Nicholas and Carol E. Lee, to make his decision a factor in the 2014 mid-term congressional elections. Senate and House Republicans and not a small number of oil- and coal-state Democrats support the disputed pipeline:

Should he approve Keystone XL, he risks angering a key part of the Democratic coalition, suggesting the White House could at the same time give environmentalists a policy victory elsewhere.

“You can’t do the Keystone pipeline and have climate change as a legacy issue for you, because the pipeline would destroy your legacy. Hopefully he understands that,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. […]

Some Senate Democrats locked in tough re-election fights, among them Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, have said they might file legislation seeking to overturn the ruling if Mr. Obama reject the pipeline.

Keystone XL, over which thousands of protesting eco-activists and indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States have been arrested, is designed to transport up to 830,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands deposits and shale oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota and Montana to the refineries of Gulf Coast Texas where the stuff can be transformed into usable fuels.

Foes, more than 76,000 of whom have taken the CREDO pledge to be arrested to stop the pipeline, have raised various objections to it, called XL because it is 36 inches in diameter instead of the more standard 30 inches. Those objections include the threat of leaks into the nation’s largest aquifer, a source of irrigation water in eight states comprising the nation’s Midwest breadbasket. Leaks of diluted bitumen are dirtier and more difficult to clean up than other oil leaks. Not that aquifers are easily scrubbed no matter what they are contaminated with. But the key opposition comes from the fact that extracting and refining this unconventional source of petroleum is more carbon-intensive than for other oil.

Meanwhile, builder TransCanada announced Wednesday that it has started shipping tar sands-derived petroleum—diluted bitumen—from Cushing, Oklahoma, to customers in Nederland, Texas, via the southern leg of Keystone XL. Also called the Gulf Coast —pipeline, TransCanada predicted in a press conference that the southern leg will be carrying an average of 520,000 barrels of petroleum a day by year’s end. After raising the hopes of environmental advocates when he rejected the pipeline in January 2012, President Obama dashed them again a few months later with his decision to fast-track Keystone’s southern leg that has now begun operations.

The decision, which backers—both Democrats and Republicans—have sought to speed up over the years, has taken so long in part because approval requires the president to conclude that any pipeline crossing international boundaries fulfills the “national interest.” That is, or should be at least, a high bar.

The first 2011 draft EIS had to be supplemented with another after Obama rejected TransCanada’s application for the pipeline in 2012 but informed TransCanada that it could reapply. Which it soon did, with its original route through Nebraska altered to avoid some fragile wetlands. The supplemental EIS was delivered in March 2013. It essentially green-lighted the project, asserting there would be no major environmental impacts that would not also occur in the absence of the pipeline. The Environmental Protection Agency called the SEIS insufficiently backed up by the evidence.

It soon came out that the consulting firm which put the SEIS together for the State Department was ERM, a TransCanada contractor with a long history of approving oil-related projects. That conflict of interest is still under investigation. Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva and 23 colleagues sent a letter to the president in December asking that he delay any decision on Keystone XL until after completion of the federal investigation into the lies ERM told on its conflict-of-interest form when it applied for the SEIS contract.

This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a new report concluding that Keystone XL and other pipelines for carrying tar sands petroleum to the Northeast and Atlantic states will add to their carbon emissions. NRDC noted:

Gulf Coast refineries are taking an increasing volume of tar sands crude as more pipelines are built or retrofitted to carry it to the Gulf. While most of the tar sands-derived product from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would be exported, some of it could end up being sent from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. If the pipeline is approved, even a small percentage of the pipeline’s volume could cause a dramatic increase in the volume of tar sands flowing to the Northeast, a major threat to the carbon intensity of the region’s fuels. Additional threats may be posed by refineries in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and eastern Canada, some of which may be considering options including retrofitting in order to process more tar sands.

By 2020, if these carbon intensive projects move forward, as much as 18 percent of the region’s fuel supply could be derived from the high-carbon feedstock. At that penetration, the switch to tar sands fuels would increase greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 10 million metric tons, an amount that would offset most of the carbon pollution reductions that the region is seeking under its landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Even without Keystone XL, the region’s fuel supply will contain more tar sands if steps are not taken to keep out this high-carbon fuel. In the short term, between 2012 and 2015, the volume of tar sands–derived fuel supplying the Northeast is projected to grow more than sixfold.

In his climate speech in June, President Obama said: “The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. […] I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Good words. Encouraging words. Approving Keystone XL would turn them to ashes.

Committing to a project with a 60-year lifespan that helps lock the nation into adding more carbon to an atmosphere already demonstrating the global warming perils of being over-burdened with the stuff would be a tremendous move in the wrong direction at a time when we should be working to keep as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible.

The decision on Keystone XL should be made based on long-term thinking, not the possible short-term effects it might have on the re-election prospects of senators and representatives, many of whose own records on dealing with climate change are myopic at best.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)

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