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Keystone Rejection Highlights Need for Improved Safety in Energy Production

Peter Lehner

Posted January 30, 2012 in Moving Beyond Oil

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On the day that President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought corrosive Canadian tar sands oil through America largely for export, I was at an energy conference in Houston, listening to a tar sands representative talk about what the industry had done, and would do in the future, to reduce the impacts of tar sands extraction.

We need to be hearing--or rather, seeing--more of this from the energy industry. Tar sands oil is not only dangerous and dirty to produce--it's dangerous to transport as well. Oil companies and the government have either ignored, or failed to grasp, the fact that tar sands oil is more prone to spills than conventional crude. And we don't have safeguards in place to protect ourselves.

Scientific analysis shows that tar sands oil is more corrosive and abrasive than conventional crude. Furthermore, because it's so thick, tar sands oil is pushed through pipelines at higher temperatures and pressures. All this adds up to more wear and tear on pipelines, which were designed to meet safety standards for less corrosive conventional crude. 

TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, claimed that their proposed pipeline would meet or exceed world-class safety standards. Yet their first foray into tar sands oil transport, the Keystone pipeline, leaked 35 times in its first year of operation, and was temporarily shut down by authorities. This leakage rate greatly exceeded what TransCanada executives had predicted. A former TransCanada construction inspector even filed a complaint with the Labor Department, claiming he was harassed and eventually fired for reporting shoddy construction on the Keystone pipeline.  

Leaks in pipelines carrying tar sands oil are harder to detect, too, because they're easily confused with a natural phenomenon in tar sands oil transport known as column separation. In July 2010, a tar sands oil pipeline ruptured in Michigan, spilling more than 840,000 gallons of corrosive oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed. The leak continued unchecked for 12 hours because operators thought they were seeing column separation. Emergency response teams were only called in 19 hours after the leak began. The Michigan Community Department of Health reported that 60 percent of people living near the spill were sickened, displaying symptoms consistent with petrochemical exposure. The long term effects of this spill on people's health and the environment will not be apparent for years to come.

In addition to the high risk of spills, the global warming pollution created by tar sands oil production--three times that of conventional oil--also poses health and safety risks. The tar sands industry says that over its entire life cycle, including when the fuel is burned in our gas tanks, tar sands gas and oil produce 5 percent to 15 percent more global warming pollution than other crude oils. NRDC's research puts the number at 20 percent. We are confident that our figure is more accurate, but in any case, scientists are recommending that we cut global warming pollution in half--not increase it.  

This is perhaps the most insidious risk posed by the Keystone XL pipeline. Its construction would have added an estimated one billion tons of global warming pollution to our atmosphere, hastening the effects of climate change. Global warming threatens the health of communities across the country, not only because of the dangerous heat waves, floods, and droughts it causes, but because warming also leads to increased smog--and thus more asthma attacks--and encourages the activity of insects that spread infectious diseases. Energy production that drastically boosts global warming pollution is, plain and simple, a health risk.

Despite the clear dangers this pipeline poses, House leaders are trying to push through a new bill that would allow Congress to guarantee approval of Keystone XL--without allowing for public comment--while trying to exempt its owners from the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. That means when the pipeline spills, TransCanada is not responsible for cleaning up.

Future energy development in this country needs more responsibility, not less, in order to move forward safely. The President's rejection of Keystone XL should be a signal that energy companies no longer have a right to run roughshod over the welfare of local communities. It will take more than a PR campaign to convince local residents that their drinking water will be clean, their land protected, and their air safe to breathe. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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