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Susan Casey-Lefkowitz’s Blog

Looking like a public relations ploy: tar sands oil company withdraws its request for a pipeline safety waiver

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Posted August 5, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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From the Gulf oil disaster to the mess in Michigan, the real cost of our addiction to oil is becoming more apparent. On Monday, we sent a letter to the Department of Transportation saying that the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline should not receive a safety waiver. Today, TransCanada withdrew their request for a “special permit” that would have allowed them to transport corrosive tar sands oil through thinner steel and under higher pressure than normally permitted by U.S. regulations from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Strangely, TransCanada is openly characterizing the withdrawal of their request as a public relations ploy. In their press release, the company holds out the possibility of requesting the safety waiver again in the future. Do they think to build confidence in their commitment to safety by this move? And, even without the safety waiver, TransCanada is still planning on using thinner steel (that they somehow call “stronger steel”) to save money. The company may recognize that it has a public relations problem, but it is not doing anything to address core safety and environmental concerns with the pipeline and with tar sands oil expansion.

The main set of concerns around this tar sands pipeline are not around how it is constructed, but about the type of oil it will transport. Bitumen or raw tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on Earth. The strip-mining of pristine Boreal forest in Canada causes daily incidents of air and water pollution and has raised concerns about high rates of cancer downstream. The upgrading and refining in the U.S. Gulf Coast will greatly add to the pollution burden in an area already known for its asthma, cancer and other health problems relating to the oil industry.

The United States does not need the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. We are working to build a clean energy economy based on home-grown innovation that will mean long-term jobs. We do not need to be importing pollution from Canada to fuel our cars and trucks.

And let’s take a closer look at what TransCanada is proposing. It is a far cry from what would make this tar sands pipeline “safe.” TransCanada will still use the thinner steel (they want that cost savings) but pump the raw tar sands oil through at lower pressure. As was noted by the Steelworkers in a release in 2009 when TransCanada first applied for the special permit, TransCanada does not adequately address how the thinner steel will hold up against the more-corrosive tar sands oil.

A withdrawal of the safety waiver request also does not address the fact that the tar sands pipeline will still cross the Ogallala Aquifer – the main freshwater source for farms and drinking water in eight states from Nebraska to Texas. With or without a safety waiver, the proposed tar sands pipeline puts precious resources and local communities at risk.

The idea of TransCanada getting a safety waiver in the first place was ridiculous. The recently completed TransCanada Keystone tar sands pipeline and the Enbridge Alberta Clipper pipeline received a similar safety waiver. The TransCanada Keystone tar sands pipeline has already had two reported leaks in the early days of operation.

Sadly, it sometimes takes a disaster such as the Enbridge pipeline rupture in Michigan to point out how wrong business-as-usual can be. And according to a recent NWF report, business-as-usual for pipelines has meant continuous leaks and ruptures. In the case of the new tar sands pipelines, let’s make sure that the existing ones do not profit at the expense of our health and safety. And as for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline – we should not build what we do not need.

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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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