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Robert Redford

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Punching Back at Big Oil

Posted: 09/24/11 01:43 AM ET

When you challenge Big Oil in Houston, you can bet the industry is going to punch back. So when I wrote in the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that we should say no to the Keystone XL pipeline, I wasn't surprised when the project's chief executive weighed in with a different view.

The corporate rejoinder, written by Alex Pourbaix, president for energy and oil pipelines for the TransCanada Corp., purported to cite "errors" in my oped. Let's set the record straight, point by point.

First, the Keystone XL, as proposed, would run from Canada across the width of our country to Texas oil refineries and ports. It would carry diluted bitumen, a kind of crude oil, produced from the Alberta tar sands. On those points, we all agree.

I say this is a bad idea. It would put farmers, ranchers and croplands at risk across much of the Great Plains. It would feed our costly addiction to oil. And it would wed our future to the destructive production of tar sands crude.

That's where the disagreement begins. Pourbaix claimed it was "not accurate" for me to call tar sands crude "the dirtiest oil on the planet." He cited a report by the Royal Society of Canada that compared Canadian tar sands crude to oil from Libya, Venezuela or the Middle East.

The fact is, producing oil from tar sands generates 17 percent more of the carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions that are warming our planet than conventional oil in this country. It's 19 percent dirtier than Middle East Sour, 13 percent dirtier than Mexican Heavy and 16 percent dirtier than Venezuelan crudes.

Those aren't my numbers. That's what the U.S. State Department concludes in its Final Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed Keystone XL. Anyone who wants to can read it right here.

For that matter, in the very report Pourbaix cites, the Royal Society of Canada itself warns (p 292) that the greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production "pose a major and growing challenge to Canada's ability to meet national GHG (greenhouse gases) emission reduction targets in keeping with international GHG reduction targets."

As it turns out, tar sands crude is not only the dirtiest oil on the planet, it's so bad it's put Canada's climate change goals in jeopardy. Glad to have the chance to clear that up.

Pourbaix then took issue with my assertion that "the strip mining and drilling" involved in tapping tar sands was putting critical forest land at risk. Pourbaix wrote that "80 percent of the oil is now extracted through drilling, not strip mines."

In fact, 53 percent of all tar sands last year were produced from open mines, according to the Energy Conservation Resources Board, (p 6), the Alberta energy regulator that tracks tar sands production.

Mining and drilling, moreover, both damage the environment and put it at risk of great harm, according to the Pembina Institute, which reports on those risks here.

Next, Pourbaix assures us that "just 0.1 percent of the Canadian boreal forest has been disturbed by oil sands operations over the past 40 years."

Even if that's true, the boreal forest is one of the largest contiguous ecosystems on Earth. Destroying a small portion of that forest is still a lot of destruction. The tar sands region alone covers an area the size of Florida, and the majority of it has already been leased for tar sands production.

Pourbaix claims tar sands crude "is not corrosive or heated." I never claimed it was heated; I pointed out it can reach temperatures as high as 150 degrees F in transit. That sounds hot to me.

As to corrosion, I'll refer to one of the country's foremost experts on pipeline safety, Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit dedicated to making fuels transportation as safe as possible.

At a June 16 hearing of the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Weimer was asked whether U.S. pipeline safeguards are adequate for the proposed Keystone XL and the large volumes of tar sands crude -- diluted bitumen, actually -- the pipeline would carry.

"There are some questions about the corrosivity and the abrasiveness and the pressure and the temperature that need to be answered," Weimer said. So far, he said, "we don't now the answers to those questions." Until we do, "we would prefer to wait until those questions are answered before that pipeline moves forward."

During the same hearing, the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates U.S. pipelines, was asked whether our present set of integrity requirements -- the guidelines for building, maintaining and operating safe pipelines -- was adequate for dealing with tar sands crude.

Her reply: the requirements were not designed for tar sands crude. Period.

In other words, the nation's highest government safety official and one of our most respected private pipeline safety experts both agreed: tar sands crude poses troubling challenges to pipeline safety that we, as a nation, have yet to address. To move forward would be rolling the dice.

Pourbaix played down the significance of the 14 leaks that have plagued a smaller Keystone pipeline over the first year of its operation. Similarly, he played down the risk such a leak might pose to the Ogallala Aquifer, the most important source of groundwater in the country.

The Ogallala provides drinking water for millions of Americans and nearly a third of our nation's irrigation needs. Most of this aquifer's water is concentrated in a small part of Nebraska called the Sand Hills. The proposed Keystone XL would slice right through that area.

What would a pipeline accident there mean? It could spill as much as 7.9 million gallons of toxic crude oil into the aquifer, contaminating up to 4.9 billion gallons of water in a plume 15 miles long, according to a report released this summer by University of Nebraska professor and environmental engineer John Stansbury.

No oil pipelines currently cross this sensitive region. TransCanada is the first to try because it's the shortest, cheapest route. It's a route the country can't afford to take, one reason why Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman is opposed to the pipeline.

Pourbaix asserts we should all relax, citing the preliminary green light the project's been given by the State Department's environmental review, which Pourbaix calls "one of the most exhaustive ever."

Here again, though, the Environmental Protection Agency has found the State Department's assessment to be flawed at every turn. It's hard to take comfort in that.

Pourbaix falls back on the last refuge of corporate polluters everywhere: the pipeline, he writes, means jobs, 20,000 of them.

That number, though, is inflated more than three-fold, the State Department calculates. And the Cornell Global Labor Institute issued a report concluding that the project might kill more jobs than it creates. Even the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada is opposed.

So much for blind faith and allegiance to industry assumptions.

Finally, Pourbaix reduces his argument to what is, essentially, a threat.

"Americans can either get their oil from a stable, secure and friendly trading partner in Canada," he writes, "or continue to import conflict oil from repressive nations such as Venezuela or the Middle East."

Here's a better idea. Let's build the next generation of energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces. Let's develop wind, solar and other cleaner, safer, more sustainable sources of power and fuel. Let's invest in high-speed rail and smart communities that give us better transportation options.

Let's do these things so we won't need to keep going to the ends of the Earth, ravaging our forests, putting our oceans and workers at risk and creating havoc worldwide to sustain an oil addiction that is sapping our economy and bleeding us dry.

That way, the next time someone from Big Oil comes around asking us to buy into their usual mix of distortions and deception, we'll at least have the option of making up our own minds.