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Pass on the Pipe, Mr. President

Five reasons President Obama should carry out his threat to veto the Keystone XL pipeline.

This story was updated 1/9/2015 to reflect the outcome of a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling.

President Obama vetoed only two bills in his first six years in office. With a new Congress being sworn in today, it looks like that’s about to change. Republican leaders have vowed to make approval of the Keystone XL pipeline the first bill to reach the president’s desk, and early this afternoon, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters: "If this bill passes this Congress, the president won't sign it."

That’s not exactly shocking to anyone who has been listening to the president criticize the pipeline (and Congressional efforts to fast-track it) in recent weeks. But it’s still a positive sign for opponents, who thought they had the president’s support for a veto but weren’t 100 percent sure. There’s no shortage of reasons for the president to waive his red pen menacingly in the direction of the Capitol building (Earnest cited the ongoing State Department environmental review process and a pending Nebraska Supreme Court case), but here are five of the most compelling.

1. The Pipeline Would Have Minimal Economic Impact

TransCanada is trying to sell KXL as a boon for the U.S. economy, but data suggests otherwise. In 2010, the company commissioned a study from the Perryman Group that claimed the pipeline would generate nearly 119,000 jobs. You’ll notice that link goes to a press release rather than the report, which has become very difficult to find on the Perryman website.

Why have all the links to the study gone dead? Perhaps because an independent academic study found its estimates to be wrong—by a lot. In 2011, a Cornell University report called the Perryman calculations “deeply flawed.” The Perryman study included $1 billion of spending and 10,000 person-years of employment for a completely separate project. The overall investment figures Perryman used to come to its conclusion were inflated, because nearly half of that investment would not have created jobs for Americans. For instance, a large portion of the pipeline’s steel, which has already been bought, was manufactured abroad.

In all, the Cornell study concluded that KXL would create between 2,500 and 4,650 direct construction jobs for a two-year period, and it would have no detectable impact on the nation’s unemployment rate. Even TransCanada CEO Russ Girling appears to have abandoned the Perryman numbers, admitting late last year that the pipeline would produce only 50 long-term jobs. (And really, that number is more like 35.)

The pipeline wouldn’t bring down U.S. gas prices, either. If TransCanada is allowed to finish KXL, it would divert crude oil that’s currently being refined and sold in the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, where it could more easily be sold overseas at higher prices. According to Cornell's research, the pipeline would likely increase gas prices by 10 to 20 cents per gallon in 15 Midwestern states, which would increase our national oil bill by $5 billion.

2. TransCanada Has a Poor Safety Record

Former TransCanada employee Evan Vokes started working as a pipeline-materials engineer for the company in 2007. One of his responsibilities was to ensure that TransCanada complied with a series of court orders issued after the company fell afoul of federal safety rules. Things didn’t go smoothly. Vokes observed bad welding practices, defective parts installed into pipelines, and a failure to adequately inspect workmanship.

He repeatedly warned his supervisors, who only sometimes implemented his recommendations. Other times, they ordered him to shut down his investigations.

It didn’t take long before the problems manifested themselves. The Keystone 1 pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Cushing, Oklahoma, ruptured in 2011, spewing 21,000 gallons of crude oil into the air “like a geyser.” In all, the pipeline had 14 leaks in its first two years of operation. Another pipeline that Vokes worked on, known as the Bison, also suffered leaks and an explosion.

With TransCanada ignoring his warnings, Vokes turned to the Canadian National Energy Board in 2012. The company wasn’t due for an inspection until the following year, but, armed with Vokes’ evidence, the regulatory agency moved the date forward. TransCanada failed in four of the nine safety areas reviewed: hazard identification; risk assessment and control; operational control; measurement and monitoring; and management review.

Forbes ran a column last year titled “It’s Crazy to Think Keystone XL Won’t Leak.” Tell that to Congress.

3. Tar Sands Oil Is Terrible for Human Health

From open pit mines in northern Alberta to the oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, the tar sands industry will damage the health of Americans and Canadians who will see no benefits from KXL.

Indigenous groups in Canada are complaining loudly about strange maladies, but few in the government are listening. “Last year alone we buried 15 of our people. Some of them young people—thirtysome years old—cancers, stomach cancer,” Celine Harpe, an elder in the Cree community in Fort McKay, Canada, told Earthwire last year.

The Alberta Cancer Board noted in 2009 that in a community near tar sands development, “the number of cancer cases… was higher than expected for all cancers combined and for specific types of cancer, such as biliary-tract cancer and cancers in the blood and lymphatic system.” Chemicals used in the tar sands industry are known to cause these cancers. The same chemicals have been detected in local rivers and in the bodies of wildlife, such as moose, ducks, and muskrats, which are commonly eaten by the indigenous community. There are elevated levels of air pollution near tar sands pits. The coincidence is difficult to ignore.

Port Arthur, Texas—where the proposed pipeline would terminate at Gulf Coast refineries—has enough environmental problems already. (Ted Genoways wrote about them for onEarth last year, in a story that won the prestigious Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.) According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, Port Arthur has some of the worst air pollution in the country. The mostly African-American community is breathing dangerous levels of benzene, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. The pollution is so bad that residents near the refinery live with the smell inside their homes.

More tar sands mining will intensify these problems at both ends of the pipeline and communities in between. People in Detroit and Chicago are living next to mountains of petroleum coke, or pet-coke, a tar sands byproduct. Residents are already concerned about dust from the piles blowing into their homes or washing into waterways. Construction of the KXL pipeline will only grow the pet-coke mountains.

4. There's Continuing Controversy Over the Route

The 875-mile-long KXL pipeline extension (the southern portion is already built) would run from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. Several Nebraska landowners along that route have refused to sell their land to TransCanada are fighting in the courts to top the foreign company from taking their property through eminent domain.

Wait, how can a foreign company take American landowners' property? Thanks to a hastily passed Nebraska law. 

Until the end of 2012, the power to approve KXL’s route through Nebraska lay with five independently elected members of the state’s Public Service Commission. The Nebraska legislature, however, transferred that power to Governor Dave Heineman. The same bill also permitted the governor to give TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder, the right to force landowners to sell their property—a highly controversial power usually reserved for the government, not foreign companies.

The last-minute move didn’t sit well with a few Nebraska farmers and property owners, who sued the state. They argued that the legislature acted beyond its constitutional powers, and that the proposed route passes through environmentally sensitive areas with a high water table and sandy soil. (A previous route across the Ogallala Aquifer, a critical water source for the Midwest, had already been blocked.) In February, the trial judge agreed with the property owners in a decision that nullified the governor’s approval of the pipeline route. On September 6, the Nebraska Supreme Court heard the state’s appeal, and a decision is pending.

[UPDATE 1/9/2015: The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in the case this morning. Though a majority of judges found the law allowing KXL to cross the state unconstitutional, a supermajority of five judges is needed to overturn the law, and the court fell one short. The three judges who didn’t find the law unconstitutional said the landowners lacked standing to challenge it, so they wouldn’t rule on its constitutionality.]

[UPDATE 9/30/15: TransCanada has withdrawn from the Nebraska lawsuit, effectively nullifying the governor's approval. The company will now submit its proposal to the state Public Service Commission, which will hold public hearings and has the power to approve, reject, or alter the route. The process will take 7 to 12 months. If TransCanada wins approval, it will then have to buy easements along the route, and seize property from unwilling landowners through eminent domain. In effect, TransCanada is back to square one in Nebraska.]

The State Department stopped its review of the pipeline proposal as it waited for the Nebraska courts tosettle the issuea sensible move, since evaluating the pipeline’s environmental impact without a settled route is impossible. The president has said that regardless of the Nebraska Supreme Court outcome, he won't make a final decision on the pipeline until that State Department review is complete—and that Congress shouldn't try to supersede the legally mandated process.

5. Global Warming

It’s not too dramatic to say that a vote for KXL is a vote for more climate change. Producing a barrel of tar sands emits four times as much greenhouse gas as a barrel of conventional crude. If we want to get serious about climate change—and experts keep saying we should—one of the first steps has to be cutting down tar sands production.

Without KXL, the tar sands industry can’t grow. Hauling tar sands crude to refineries by rail is nearly three times as expensive as pipeline transport. Without the pipeline, new extraction projects have no hope of profitability. Several energy companies have recognized this fact. Shell, Total SA, and Suncor all canceled or suspended tar sands projects last year, and some of them have explicitly acknowledged the lack of pipeline access as a factor in their decisions.

* * *

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline is clearly a losing proposition for everyone involved—and everyone on the planet. No wonder the president doesn’t want to sign it.

Photo: summonedbyfells

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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