Cutting Corners to Approve Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Is Foolhardy

Suffering the health impacts of refinery pollution in Texas

This morning, President Obama will give a speech in Oklahoma, a crossroads of oil pipelines and a state that has just suffered through one of the worst droughts in recent memory and is no stranger to how climate change is making their already often violent weather even more extreme. The White House has said that the President will talk about the need for moving forward quickly with new pipeline infrastructure to take oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast. Part of that new infrastructure will be the southern leg of TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Americans deserve an energy policy that meets our needs, but not at the expense of our climate, air and water. It is downright foolhardy to cut corners on safety reviews for permitting the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline – that will carry costly and dirty tar sands from Canada. We already know from experience that tar sands oil is more likely to spill and harder to clean up once it spills. And to fight climate change, we need to reduce our dependence on oil. The people of Oklahoma, Texas and the rest of the country deserve better.

The White House released a statement that the President will announce two new things this morning. The first is an executive order to improve federal permitting and review of infrastructure projects. The goals seem to be faster and more coordinated permitting while still protecting the health and environment in local communities. But the President is also issuing a memorandum directing federal agencies to give top priority to the southern leg of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and “other projects that relieve bottlenecks.” Again it calls for a balancing of economic needs with needs of local communities and the environment. Unfortunately, in the case of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the economic needs are all those of the oil industry to move tar sands to the Gulf Coast for export, not of the American people.

The Canadian company TransCanada already has a pipeline to Cushing that transports Canadian crude – most of it from the costly tar sands strip-mines of Alberta. TransCanada is now proposing a new pipeline to take its expensive Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast – in a southern leg of the Keystone pipeline project. This will reduce the amount of oil in the Midwest – and thereby raise oil prices – but will it help American consumers and domestic oil producers?  It doesn’t seem likely given TransCanada’s shipping commitment for Canadian crude.

What we do know is that transporting raw tar sands oil or diluted bitumen carries a new set of economic and health risks as a report just out from Cornell University shows. The first Keystone tar sands pipeline has leaked repeatedly ever since it was constructed – at least 14 times in its first year of operation just in the United States. Along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, residents are still cleaning up from a July 2010 break of another tar sands pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy that sent close to a million gallons of tar sands oil into the river. 

But no matter what a pipeline carries, we do not want to leave our health and safety in the hands of the oil industry. Their track record is hardly a good one. Looking at the data from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the yearly average for liquid pipeline spills over the past 5 years has been 348 reported, 118 of which were significant meaning they included a fatality or injury.

Residents in Oklahoma and Texas are not happy at the prospect of a tar sands pipeline. Listen to some of the voices from Texas in this blog and video where landowners and residents in communities near refineries speak out. Native Americans in the region are also protesting as the pipeline will cross important burial grounds and cultural sites.

This week’s energy tour also focuses on renewable energy, stopping oil subsidies, and strengthening fuel efficiency standards. That is the path that will ensure the health, safety and economic well-being of Americans, not cutting corners on the southern leg of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Costly and dirty tar sands oil takes us backwards at a time we need to be doing everything we can to fight climate change.

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