Keystone Pipeline Derailed – For Now

On Jan. 18, President Obama rejected the permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, which was sought by Canadian firm TransCanada and Big Oil interests. The Obama administration determined that more study was needed to see whether the project was in the long-term national interest of the United States. Communities along the proposed pipeline route that are concerned about public health and safety issues welcomed the administration's decision, even as Republican lawmakers vowed to continue fighting for the project.

Congressional Republicans slipped a provision into a payroll tax bill in December that forced the president to decide within 60 days whether to approve or reject the project, which had not yet received the legally required economic, environmental, and safety reviews. In his statement rejecting the pipeline, Obama focused blame on the "rushed and arbitrary deadline," which he explained prevented the State Department from making a "full assessment of the pipeline's impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment."

The $7 billion pipeline would have transported tar sands, which are more corrosive than crude oil, from Alberta, Canada, through America's heartland to Texas. As proposed, the pipeline would cross six U.S. states, several major rivers – including the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Red Rivers – and the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies two million Americans with drinking water and farmland irrigation. The construction and operation of the pipeline would have brought significant risks to the lives and livelihoods of those living along its route and near the refineries to which the tar sands were destined.

Reaction from Affected Communities

Thousands of communities face the prospect of a major new pipeline flowing under their homes and businesses, with the risk of leaks, explosions, and emissions that come with it. These communities include landowners, farmers, and ranchers in America's heartland, many of whom have owned their land for generations. The risk of possibly losing their land through eminent domain to a foreign corporation prompted some to organize. For instance, the Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group, a committee of the Northern Plains Resource Council, is a group of Montana landowners whose property would be crossed by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The group organized to negotiate a contract with TransCanada that would have protected landowners and public safety.

Sandy Barnick, a member of the group and a rancher whose farm near Glendive, MT, would be crossed by the pipeline, said that the impacts of the pipeline had not been adequately analyzed. "I hope this decision sets a precedent that the impacts from a project must be determined before approval," Barnick stated. Farmers and ranchers are "stewards of the land," Barnick pointed out. Their livelihood depends on the quality care of land, clean water, and livestock.

Communities near the refineries where the pipeline would have terminated include many low-income and minority groups. These communities, already subject to dangerously high air pollution from a growing number of hazardous and polluting industries within their neighborhoods, were not supportive of the proposed pipeline project. Currently, communities are "being disproportionally bombarded with refineries and power plants cooking crude oil," stated Hilton Kelley, community activist and founder of the Community In-power and Development Association (CIDA) in Port Arthur, TX. The Keystone XL pipeline would further exacerbate the heavy burden of pollution, environmental injustices, and health problems these communities currently confront. The pipeline would bring "no benefit to our community," Kelley stated, further noting that low-income communities are a target for industries because they are "areas of least resistance." Kelley added, "Enough is enough already."

Though groups praised the president's decision, they were mindful that the pipeline is still a possibility. Graham Christensen, a Nebraska farmer and Public Affairs Director of the Nebraska Farmers Union, a grassroots organization with more than 5,300 family farm and ranch family members, noted that landowners in the state were excited about President Obama's decision but were "reluctant to be too happy." The "battle is not completely over yet," he added.

Not everyone in Keystone states supported the president's decision. Some landowners and small business people in eastern Montana noted that they would make millions annually if the pipeline were built. Jeannie Barnard, manager of Big Flat Electrical Cooperative in Malta, MT, told the Billings Gazette, "I'm disappointed."

Business groups in Beaumont, TX, including the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Association of Manufacturers, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Consumer Energy Alliance, were supportive of the Keystone XL pipeline, claiming it would bring economic benefits to the region.

Communities' Right to Know

Many applauded the administration's stand that the public has a right to know about health and safety risks before decisions about permitting are made. Community organizations pointed to flaws in the State Department's Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), the failure to provide emergency response plans, and the lack of a study on the corrosiveness of tar sands oil and how that may impact the structural integrity of the pipelines carrying such oil.

Communities and environmentalists believed that the State Department's Final EIS, released in August 2011, did not contain sufficient information about the potential risks from the pipeline, such as the harm from spills, the health impacts on low-income communities living near refineries, and the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions. The EIS also failed to include in-depth analysis of alternative routes that would avoid Nebraska's Sand Hills region and the Ogallala Aquifer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strongly criticized a prior draft of the EIS, stating that it failed to "provide the scope or detail of analysis necessary to fully inform decision makers and the public."

Also, communities along the pipeline route are still waiting to see emergency response plans. The Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group argued that "emergency personnel (largely volunteers) and property owners who live near the pipeline, deserve an opportunity to comment on TransCanada's Emergency Response Plan prior to approval."

Key Health and Environmental Concerns among Communities

Communities near the path of the proposed pipeline worry about potential accidents and spills, water contamination, and increased air and noise pollution. Recent oil spills have deepened skepticism about the adequacy of federal pipeline regulations and the government's ability to protect public health and safety.

In July 2010, a million gallons of tar sands oil poured into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan from a pipeline run by Canadian company, Enbridge. The spill exposed residents to toxic chemicals, coated wildlife, and caused long-term damage to the local economy and ecosystem. EPA officials gave Enbridge 13 months to complete oil removal but said a full clean-up could take years. Many community members consider the Kalamazoo spill a warning of the risks that the Keystone XL pipeline poses to the Yellowstone River, the Ogallala Aquifer, and the many other water bodies that it would cross.

Heightening concerns, TransCanada's Keystone I pipeline, which runs from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois, leaked 14 times during its first year of operation between 2010 and 2011. One of the largest spills occurred in North Dakota in May, when 21,000 gallons of crude tar sands leaked from the pipeline, temporarily shutting it down. Experts warned that spills would have been more likely with the Keystone XL pipeline because of the more corrosive consistency of the tar sands oil being used. As a result, a thorough study was requested to examine the corrosiveness and risks of tar sands and their impacts on pipelines.

Increased air pollution is also a major health concern, especially for communities near the refineries where the tar sands ultimately end up. Moreover, an independent study from Cornell University estimates that the pipeline would produce almost no permanent jobs and between 2,500 and 4,600 temporary construction jobs. The dangers from the proposed pipeline loom large, and the benefits are ephemeral.

Future Uncertain

In rejecting the permit, President Obama said, "[T]he administration will allow TransCanada to reapply after it develops an alternate route through the sensitive habitat of Nebraska's Sandhills." TransCanada said it had already started to work with Nebraska authorities to find an alternative route. In fact, TransCanada stated that it may begin to build pipeline segments inside the U.S. in areas that do not require federal approval, and then later apply for permission to connect the pipeline from the U.S. segments to Canada.

Republican lawmakers have pledged to move forward with the project even without approval from the administration. Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) introduced a bill (H.R. 3548) that would strip authority for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from the president and State Department and instead give it to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. House Republicans are also considering attaching approval of the pipeline to an extension of the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance, which will be reviewed in February.

EDITOR'S NOTE: TransCanada announced Feb. 27 that it will move forward with the Keystone XL pipeline. The company now plans to apply for two separate permits: one for the construction between the U.S.-Canadian border and Steele City, Neb. (the "Keystone XL Project") and the second for the construction between Cushing, Okla., and Port Arthur, Tex. (the "Gulf Coast Project"). For more on this update, visit The Fine Print.

Image in teaser by flickr user Travis S., used under a Creative Commons license.

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