by Thom Kilburn
Environmental crises are becoming all too common in the domestic oil industry. Throughout the last weeks of March, parts of the U.S. witnessed three accounts of oil spills and leaks. Industry proponents and environmentalists alike have used these incidents as fuel for their side of the ever-polarizing debate over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
20,000 gallons of crude oil were reported to have leaked into a nature preserve in Hamilton County, Ohio on March 16. On March 23, up to 168,000 gallons of “tar-like” oil gushed into the waters of the Houston Ship Channel in the Gulf of Mexico. Immediately following this incident, 1,638 gallons of crude oil spilled into Lake Michigan off the coast of Northwest Indiana on March 24.
With approximately 200,000 gallons to be cleaned up, oil companies are teaming up with the Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to mitigate the damages. Meanwhile, the fractious and highly politicized debate over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline rages on. Some claim the recent spills point to the hazardous effects of fossil fuel dependence, while others assert that accidents are inevitable and the economic growth from the Keystone XL project is too valuable to pass up.
After five years of claims and counter-claims about the proposed Keystone XL project, the Obama administration is soon expected to make his final executive decision on whether to green-light the pipeline. Keystone XL would be built by TransCanada Corp. and would stretch 1,179 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The new pipeline could transport up to 830,000 barrels (nearly 35 million gallons) of oil per day.
Proponents of the pipeline’s construction have continuously employed the job-creating argument. Like any big construction project, capable workers are needed to make the initiative a reality. According to an analysis conducted by the U.S. State Department, “3,900 would be employed directly if the job is done in one year, or 1,950 per year if work is spread over two.” Moreover, there would be additional indirect work for the companies supplying services and goods for the project. Neighboring towns may also experience an economic stimulus from money spent by workers on food and housing. In total, the State Department estimates a total of 42,100 created jobs.
As many have refuted, however, these jobs are temporary—the number of permanent jobs created by the Keystone XL pipeline is much lower. “The proposed project would generate approximately 50 jobs during operations,” stated the State Department’s analysis.
Proponents have also asserted that the construction of a domestic pipeline would lessen our dependence on foreign energy suppliers like Saudi Arabia or China.
Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, argued that research by U.S. and other groups “have shown that for at least the next 20 years, the U.S. will continue to import between 3.5-7 million barrels of oil per day. So even with the growth of U.S. production in places like the Bakken or other fields, the U.S. will continue to rely on millions of barrels every day and KXL is a part of helping get more safe, secure and stable supplies of oil to refineries, especially on the U.S. Gulf Coast.”
Critics of the Keystone XL pipeline have heavily relied on environmentally charged arguments to protest the project’s construction. The oil that would be transported via the pipeline originates in Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan, in what the industry calls “oil sands” and environmentalist critics call “tar sands.” Many the claim this type of oil to be “the dirtiest oil on the planet.”
Tar sands are imbued with a thick type of petroleum called bitumen. Having the consistency of cold molasses, this substance is found in sandstones—hence the name “tar sands.” In order for crude bitumen to be successfully channeled through the Keystone XL pipeline, it must first be refined and purified—a process which makes it one of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) surveyed published scientific research on the subject and found that getting Canadian bitumen produced and processes into transportable fuel produces between 70 percent and 110 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the weighted average of transportation fuels now used in the U.S..
The CRS also estimated that the tar sands flowing through the Keystone XL pipeline would result in an increase in U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases that equals that of 770,800 and 4.3 millions passenger vehicles. The CRS stated it was “uncertain” on whether or not that would mean an increase in global emissions. The State Department, however, said “such a change was unlikely to occur.”
In light of the recent oil spills, environmentalists have fortified their arguments against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline with notions of potential leaks or breaks in the line itself. Those that live near the areas in which the pipeline will be built have voiced similar concerns.
“There’s going to be a leak somewhere,” said Julia Trigg Crawford, a Northeast Texas landowner who unsuccessfully fought for years to keep the pipeline off her family’s land. “It’s not a question of if it will leak but when it will leak. We are all watching for something to happen.”
Bernard Weinstein, associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute at the Cox School of Business at SMU, said that concerns about safety or notions of leakage are unfounded.
“I think what’s happened is you’ve had a lot of environmentalists trying to stir up controversy by claiming there are safety issues related to the Gulf Coast project,” said Weinstein. “That’s a straw man. Accidents will happen and occasionally you do find ruptures of oil and gas pipelines. This is a pipeline built in 2013 and 2014 with the best available materials and technology.”
“The probability of a leak or spill is very, very low. Does that mean there will never be an incident? In the next 100 years, there probably will be. There is no human activity that is totally incident-free.”
President Barack Obama is predicted to make a final decision on whether to expand the already-existing Keystone pipeline into Keystone XL pipeline before summer. Before then, support for and protest against will remain in the realm of speculation.