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Climate Change and Extreme Weather Weren't the Only Reason to Oppose Keystone XL and Tar Sands Expansion This Summer

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This summer has seen growing public opposition to tar sands pipelines and expansion projects -- and for good reason. As climate change caused damaging extreme weather events across the country, environmental groups submitted comments to the State Department presenting a strong case for a broad and rigorous review of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, including the impacts on climate change of the expansion of tar sands oil extraction that Keystone XL will drive. Even as the environmental review process for Keystone XL commenced, Canadian regulators found that TransCanada had been operating the Keystone I pipeline without critical safeguards to ensure its emergency shutdown valves had power and rejected the tar sands pipeline company’s formal request ignore the problem. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a damning report of the tar sands pipeline operator Enbridge and its role in the devastating Michigan Kalamazoo River tar sands spill. On that same week, dozens of communities throughout the United States and Canada demonstrated in solidarity in a series of We are Kalamazoo actions, recognizing that the proliferation of tar sands in North America’s pipelines pose a risk to rivers, aquifers and landowners everywhere. In August, yet another major spill on Enbridge’s Lakehead system in Wisconsin prompted pipeline regulators to initiate a review of the company’s safety practices for the entire system. In Canada, public opposition to Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline has increased to historic levels, prompting federal and provincial leaders to oppose or distance themselves from the troubled tar sands project. Simply stated, the fact that tar sands pipelines are not in our national interest becomes clearer by the day.

Here are the details:

Environmental review for Keystone XL begins. TransCanada’s reapplication for a Presidential Permit for the northern segment of Keystone XL offers the State Department an opportunity to correct the gaps in the prior environmental review. In July, NRDC joined a coalition of environmental organizations submitted comments explaining the need for a broad environmental review for Keystone XL to address significant changes in the project, new information, and address gaps in the prior review. Here are a few of the issues that the environmental review for Keystone XL should include:

  • Evaluate whether there is a need for the new Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada’s application proposes a fundamentally different pipeline that will require a fresh and independent environmental review that looks at climate and other impacts and whether we even need this pipeline at all to meet our energy needs.  With the current U.S. overcapacity of pipelines from the Canadian border to the Midwest -- nearly twice as many as are needed -- it is clear that a Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Nebraska will only add to the problems in the Midwest, not alleviate them.  
  • Consider Keystone XL’s greenhouse gas emissions. A critical part of the environmental review must be the added impact of greenhouse gas emissions from the Keystone XL pipeline. Keystone XL packs a wallop while it comes to climate emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that by replacing 830,000 bpd of conventional crude with tar sands, Keystone XL will increase U.S. CO2 emissions by up to 27 million metric tons -- the impact of adding about 5 million cars on the road. And new research shows that tar sands development is causing significant additional CO2 emissions from Alberta’s peatlands and destroying carbon sequestration capacity in the Boreal Forest. Meanwhile, regulations promised by Alberta and Canada to mitigate these emissions haven’t materialized.
  • Assess new information on the safety of tar sands pipelines and weaknesses in oversight and industry practice. NTSB’s recent investigation of Enbridge’s tar sands spill in Kalamazoo River has identified major failings in industry practice and pipeline safety oversight. Moreover, experiences from the $800 million cleanup of that spill have demonstrated that tar sands spills are significantly more damaging than the conventional crudes historically transported in the U.S. pipeline system. The environmental review for Keystone XL should consider TransCanada’s plans, policies, and practices in context of the NTSB’s findings and evaluate the impact of tar sands spills along sensitive rivers, waterbodies and aquifers along Keystone XL’s route. 
  • Evaluate the route for Keystone XL. TransCanada’s new router for Keystone XL still crosses some of the most water rich portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, our nation’s largest source of groundwater. Rather than being evaluated by Nebraska’s Public Services Commission under the state’s new Major Oil Pipeline Siting law, TransCanada’s new route is being given an expedited yes or no vote by Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) – an agency without pipeline siting authority. The vulnerabilities of the new route and the lack of state oversight is why many Nebraskans are still protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. 

TransCanada asks to skip critical safety measure for Keystone I in Canada. In August, Canada’s National Energy Board found that TransCanada didn’t have emergency power generators for its emergency shut-off valves on Keystone I. This is particularly surprising given Keystone I’s early history of spills -- 35 in its first year of operation in the U.S. and Canada. Emergency shutdown valves are the primary tool pipeline operators have to limit the quantity oil that flows out of a pipeline rupture when it is discovered. The importance of having backup power generators for these critical safety devices is obvious -- particularly for situations where the same event that causes a pipeline accident also disrupts power lines. What’s more troubling is the fact that after being told it wasn’t in compliance with Canadian regulations, TransCanada argued that regulators shouldn’t require them to comply with regulations.   

Community Action in the US and Canada: We are the Kalamazoo. Two years after Enbridge spilled over 1.1 million gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River in what would become the most expensive onshore pipeline accident in U.S. history, citizens in dozens of communities across North America facing existing or proposed tar sands pipelines came together with a simple message: It could happen here.

The ongoing cleanup of the Kalamazoo tar sands spill, lasting over two years at a cost of more than $800 million, has demonstrated the unique risks associated with tar sands diluted bitumen. EPA spill responders were shocked at amounts of submerged oil involved in the spill and found convention spill cleanup methods ineffective. They’ve since signaled that all of the oil in Kalamazoo will not be cleaned up.

U.S. Government Investigation of the Kalamazoo Tar Sands Spill. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that Canadian pipeline company Enbridge had systemic problems with safety practices. Two weeks after NTSB’s investigation, a 50,000 gallon spill on Enbridge’s Lakehead system in Wisconsin belied Enbridge’s claims that it had addressed its safety issues following Kalamazoo.

Canada Backing Away from Tar Sands Pipelines. Opposition toward tar sands pipelines in Canada has been reaching historic levels. Recent polling shows that Canadian opposition to the Northern Gateway now outweighs support. Nowhere is the public opposition as great as British Columbia, where Premier Christy Clark recently recognized that the risks of a tar sands spill outweighed any economic benefits of a tar sands pipeline across the province – an opinion shared by the vast majority of her constituents. Financial analysts are downgrading their expectations of Northern Gateway’s survival. Even Canadian Prime Minister Harper, who had been a vocal supporter of the project, has distanced his government from the project, saying that the “the government doesn’t pick and choose particular projects,” noting that Northern Gateway would be “evaluated on an independent basis scientifically, and not simply on political criteria.” Like communities in the U.S., the more Canadians learn about these pipelines, the less they want them crossing their fishing rivers, farms and coastal waters. Which raises the question: If these pipelines are too dangerous for Canada, why should the U.S. put its lakes, rivers and aquifers at risk only to get tar sands to an international port?  

“I personally don’t think Northern Gateway will go through anytime soon or if it ever will. There’s just too much politics in the soup and there are too many environmental concerns in the soup and there’s aboriginal rights in the soup and that makes for a pretty unsavory soup.” Roger McKnight, senior petroleum adviser at En-Pro International Inc., Sept. 10, 2012

The Obama administration rejected the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline earlier this year because its risks had not been fully evaluated. What we’ve learned since then confirms the wisdom of that decision and presents a compelling argument for its repeat next year.

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