What tar sands oil means in America’s heartland

With Elizabeth Shope, NRDC advocate

One of Canada’s largest pipeline companies, TransCanada, is proposing to build a 1,800-mile-long pipeline that would cut through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas (map).  This high-pressure pipeline, the Keystone XL, would carry the dirtiest crude oil on the planet – tar sands strip-mined and drilled from Canada’s boreal forests and wetlands – to the Gulf States for refining. Such a pipeline anticipates a more than tripling of the amount of tar sands dirty crude coming to our cars and trucks at precisely the time that America is working to become a leader in clean energy. A tar sands pipeline will keep the United States addicted to oil.

TransCanada has said that the farms and ranches along the pipeline’s path are less deserving of protection than urban areas and has asked for permission to operate in these communities at high pressure with a weaker pipe than will be used in urban areas. The pipeline company is asking the Department of Transportation to waive safety regulations so that it can use less steel in its pipe. This will save TransCanada a lot of money. But what will it gain farmers and ranchers through whose land the pipeline passes? What will it gain local police and emergency responders who will have to deal with pipeline leaks and explosions?

Ironically, the decision about the tar sands pipeline is not in the hands of our climate experts, nor of folks whose land the pipeline will trample. Instead, it is the Department of State that makes the final decision of whether to grant the pipeline a permit – simply because it starts in another country. This authority comes with a requirement to do an environmental review, the draft of which we are awaiting, and to determine if the pipeline is in the national interest.

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline would be the third tar sands pipeline being planned from Alberta into the United States. In 2008, the Bush State Department approved a first TransCanada Keystone pipeline which will bring 590,000 bpd of tar sands from Hardisty, Alberta to Wood River and Patoka, Illinois, and to Cushing, Oklahoma. Just last summer, Obama’s State Department approved Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper tar sands oil pipeline, which would have an ultimate capacity of bringing up to 800,000 bpd to Superior, Wisconsin. An additional 900,000 barrels per day from the Keystone XL pipeline would mean that the United States was either locking itself into using 2.3 million bpd of this dirty fuel for decades to come, or that these pipeline companies are wasting billions of dollars on this infrastructure – dollars that could be put to use for renewable energy development. To accommodate this drastic increase in imports of heavy crudes, many refineries would have to be retooled with expensive, carbon-intensive, and polluting equipment such as cokers and hydrocrackers.

This may sound like a good idea, or at least like a necessary risk, in order to provide our cars with fuel, but the reality is that importing Canadian tar sands crude is dirty and expensive. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in the national interest. If approved, the Keystone XL pipeline will undermine our efforts to combat climate change, put local communities at risk, and expand the destruction of Canada’s Boreal forests and waters in Alberta.