Tunnel Vision

Oil companies are determined to build two massive new pipelines to transport crude from the tar sands. Local activists, concerned about spills and water quality, have geared up to fight them.


photo of an elevated pipeline traversing a landscapeistockphoto.com

“This is our last fight. For us, for the four-legged ones, for the flyers and the swimmers.” Those are the words of Helen Clifton, a passionate Gitga’at elder from Hartley Bay, a village situated in the Great Bear Rainforest – the largest intact temperate rainforest left on the planet. Clifton’s town is about 40 miles south of the port city of Kitimat, where the Canadian energy company Enbridge is planning to build a marine terminal for its controversial Northern Gateway oil pipeline project.

Enbridge wants to build twin 730-mile pipelines connecting Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands to Kitimat. One pipeline would transport natural gas condensate, used to reduce the viscosity of heavy tar sands bitumen, to the oil mines; the other would carry crude oil from the tar sands to Kitimat, where it would be loaded on massive supertankers bound for energy-hungry countries in Asia.

Several First Nations groups, including the Gitga’at, don’t want to see that happen. They are fiercely opposed to the pipeline, which would run through much of the traditional native lands and rivers on which their people rely for sustenance. They believe the pipeline, and the heavy tanker traffic involved, would put at risk one of the most fragile and important natural areas in Canada, a place that is home to red cedars, orca, humpback whales, and the elusive white spirit bear – as rare as the panda.

“We are a rich people of the coast with all our hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds, but if we ever get a spill it would be disastrous to all the coastal people of British Columbia,” Clifton says. “It is not that much to me, I’m not long for this world. But I have 30 great-grandchildren, and for them I will fight this to my last breath.”

Usually, oil pipelines are movers, not shakers. But Northern Gateway and another massive proposed pipeline – TransCanada’s Keystone XL, a 1,600-mile behemoth that will connect the tar sands to refineries in Texas – seem set to upend the global energy market. If approved by decision-makers in Ottawa and Washington, the two pipelines will open the floodgates for transporting tar sands petroleum to consumers around the world. Keystone XL, a $7 billion expansion of an existing cross-border pipeline, would carry 900,000 barrels of oil per day across two provinces and six states to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. The $5.5 billion Northern Gateway project could transport more than 500,000 barrels of tar sands crude daily from Alberta, across numerous mountain ranges and roughly a thousand rivers and streams, to serve markets including China, Japan, India, and perhaps California.

Pipeline proponents say the projects are essential for reducing the United States’ reliance on imports from unstable and less-than-democratic nations such as Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Expanding tar sands production is, they say, a way to boost North American energy security. Backers also say the massive infrastructure projects will help shake off the lingering economic recession. Keystone XL will create “13,000 immediate construction jobs and thousands of secondary jobs,” says Terry Cunha, a TransCanada spokesperson. Enbridge claims Northern Gateway will create about 1,150 “long-term” jobs.

Naturally, environmentalists see things differently. Green groups warn that the pipelines will keep North America and emerging economies hooked on oil from the Alberta tar sands for years to come. By greasing the crude’s path to market, the projects will encourage further reckless expansion of the tar sands. That would delay the transition to a renewable energy economy, while further degrading Canada’s boreal forests and spewing even more CO2 into the atmosphere.

“If the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, oil companies will continue to expand the destruction at the tar sands for decades into the future,” says Alex Moore, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “With Keystone XL, US imports of tar sands oil are expected to nearly quadruple. The truth is, traditional sources of oil are running out and our nation needs to decide whether we are going to continue on the path to dirtier and dirtier oil or choose clean energy. We can’t do both.”

In Canada, the Alberta tar sands were one of the top news stories of 2010 – if not the past decade. Not a week goes by without a major news story coming down the pike that can be traced back to the chunk of land near the town of Fort McMurray that has become one of the largest industrial projects in the history of Canada. In September of last year, Canadian-born Hollywood director James Cameron visited the area and called for a halt to mining expansion. Earlier in 2010, oil giant Syncrude, which operates one of the biggest mines, was found guilty of causing the deaths of 1,606 migrating ducks that landed in one of its toxic tailings ponds. There were reports of the Canadian government trying to undermine clean-emissions policies in California and the European Union, and of tar sands oil spilling into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Environmental Defence Canada has called the tar sands “the most destructive project on earth.”

map showing pipeline routes across north americamap: Nadia Khastagir, Design Action CollectiveProposed and existing pipelines for tar sands oil.

But before opponents of the Keystone XL project pushed the proposal into the public eye, the tar sands had received little attention from mainstream media in the US, despite the fact that Canada provides more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia does. Now, the prospect of a massive new pipeline running through mostly rural areas has created a grassroots backlash that stretches from Texas to Nebraska.

Thousands of miles from Helen Clifton’s BC home, Texan David Daniels first heard of the Keystone XL pipeline when a neighbor phoned him to say that strangers were trespassing on his 20-acre wooded property near Winnsboro, Texas. Daniels, a 43-year-old carpenter with a wife and three-year-old daughter, built a house on his property five years ago. His land is home to a hardwood forest of 100-year-old oak, elm, and hickory trees, as well as springs and a spring-fed creek that runs so clear Daniels can drink out of it. But it is not a state-recognized wetland area, and, says TransCanada, that is enough to deem it an area of low-consequence suitable for a pipeline. The company plans to bulldoze a 175-foot-wide swath through Daniels’ property.

“After my neighbor called, I went out and it had been surveyed and staked all through the property,” Daniels says. “That was my introduction to the project and to TransCanada. A month later a letter came requesting permission to survey my property…. I didn’t write back. Three months later, there was a letter from a lawyer saying they had the power of eminent domain and that I had 10 days to comply or they were going to seek a court order.”

After consulting his lawyer, and contacting TransCanada’s legal representatives, Daniels met with the company’s local negotiating team in early 2009 and initiated discussions that started with an initial offer of $2,400 for an easement on his property. But, more than money, Daniels wanted answers. And the last time the lawyers came up to his house, he had a list of 54 questions about everything from construction-mitigation plans to water testing.

“They did answer all of the questions but some made no sense at all,” Daniels says. “But they said it was their final offer and if I didn’t sign, they’d take me to court and condemn my property and I’d get zero. At that point what do I do? What choice do I have?” Daniels signed off on an easement agreement for $13,900.

TransCanada’s Cunha says that more than 75 percent of landowners along the entire line have “come to an agreement” with the company, and most of the necessary approvals are in order. The only hurdle left is a permit from the US Department of State, which is required since the pipeline crosses the border. That leaves the Keystone XL plan in the hands of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Although Clinton may have tipped her hand last October when she hinted that the department was “inclined” to approve the pipeline, activists are quick to point out that the project is still under review.

“The State Department has since clarified several times that the environmental review is ongoing,” says Ryan Salmon, energy policy advisor for National Wildlife Federation. “Whether or not the pipeline is ultimately approved depends on the conclusions in the environmental review, which we think will provide a strong case for rejecting the project.”

New Frontiers for Black Gold

Extracting oil from tar sands is technically difficult, environmentally destructive, and expensive. It’s also lucrative. No surprise, then, that countries around the world are sizing up their own tar sands for exploitation.

In the US, approximately 32 billion barrels of oil are contained in eight deposits in the Colorado River watershed of eastern Utah. Although the reserves are not of the same scale as the Athabasca oil sands, investors are eagerly eyeing the deposits.…more…

But environmentalists remain concerned. Friends of the Earth recently uncovered a cable released on Wikileaks that, according to Alex Moore, reveals that Washington officials made a statement that tar sands oil is “similar” to other sources of oil. Moore says that’s not in line with what they were told by US diplomatic staff in Canada. “The staffer stationed in Canada stated that tar sands oil has a ‘higher environmental footprint,’ which is what scientists say, as well,” Moore says.

Friends of the Earth – along with Corporate Ethics International and the Center for International Environmental Law – made further investigations targeting correspondence between Secretary Clinton and a former staffer, Paul Elliott, who is now a lobbyist for TransCanada. The State Department refused their Freedom of Information Act request. “TransCanada clearly thinks that Mr. Elliott’s relationship with Hilary Clinton will help them get approval of the controversial pipeline,” Moore says. “The public has a right to see the communications between the Secretary and her former campaign director turned pipeline lobbyist.”

Texas carpenter Daniels says that had he known that the pipeline wasn’t a done deal and still depended on an environmental impact study from the State Department, he might not have sold out to TransCanada. “If I had known that, I never would have signed [the easement agreement],” he says. He and his neighbors have organized a local group opposing the Keystone XL project dubbed simply, “STOP,” which is doing all it can to inform local landowners and elected officials about the negative impacts of the pipeline.

“To be quite honest I’ve never done anything like this before,” Daniels says of his newfound environmental activism. “I was more the introverted hermit-in-the-woods type. But I’ve been told a whole bunch of lies…. I have no reason to trust this company.”

Daniels questions whether Trans-Canada even had the right to eminent domain that it was threatening him with during negotiations. He’s also concerned about additional chemicals being added to the crude oil to help move it through the pipeline and by the lack of an emergency response plan – concerns echoed by Salmon at the National Wildlife Federation.

“The pipeline will transport the raw form of Canadian tar sands, or bitumen,” Salmon explains. “This viscous heavy crude is combined with natural gas condensate to make a mixture called diluted bitumen, which is pumped at relatively high pressures and temperatures to make it fluid enough to flow through pipelines. TransCanada is using pipeline technology and safety standards for conventional crude oil, despite several indications that diluted bitumen is more unstable and corrosive.”

The petroleum slurry that will run through the Keystone XL pipe also has Nebraskan Ben Gotschall worried. Gotschall is a rancher. His family runs an organic farm in Hope County in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, one of the states the pipeline will cross. TransCanada’s 36-inch, underground pipeline will go through the Ogallala Aquifer that provides the drinking water to residents of Nebraska and seven other states. Thirty percent of groundwater used for irrigation in the US comes from this aquifer as well. Gotschall first heard of the pipeline a year ago when public hearings were held for the project, and has been opposing it ever since. He has provided testimony against the pipeline to the state legislature and travelled to Washington to speak with his congressman and other lawmakers and anyone else who will listen. “I’m doing everything that I can to try and stop it and raise awareness in the community,” he says.

Tar sands oil has a host of toxic additives that increase the health risks, and that makes the crude oil flowing under the Ogallala that much more dangerous, says Rachel Huennekens, grassroots media campaigner for the Sierra Club. “It is many times more toxic [than conventional crude oil],” says Heunnekens. “There is a significant threat to the area water supply if a spill happens. And a spill is likely.”

photo of a tar sands facility, smokestacks and fraction towers evidentDavid Dodge, the Pembina Institute, oilsandswatch.orgSyncrude’s tar sands processing facility and upgrader. About 1,600 migrating ducks

TransCanada’s Cunha says the company’s focus is on providing what will more than likely be the safest pipeline in that region. “We are using state of the art technology,” Cunha says. “We’ve had numerous third party assessments on our system, and we’ve determined that if something were ever to happen the impact would be minimal and we’d clean up and restore that area.”

Keystone XL will have a series of valves that can shut down sections of the pipeline remotely, thus containing any spill to a 50-mile section of pipeline. But one doesn’t have to look far to find a company claiming impeccable safety standards that has also suffered an oil spill – BP and the Gulf of Mexico disaster being only the most recent example.

According to the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, there have been 5,626 “significant incidents” in the US since 1990, resulting in 2.5 million barrels of oil spilled and more than $4.4 billion in property damage. In Canada, a National Energy report states there is an average of one rupture every 16 years for every thousand kilometers of pipeline.

Enbridge, the world’s largest oil pipeline construction company, trumpets its safety standard in defense of the Northern Gateway pipeline. But Michigan activist Autumn Smith has reason to disagree. Last summer an Enbridge pipeline carrying tar sands oil spilled nearly a million gallons into a Michigan creek that winds its way past her backyard and into the Kalamazoo River. Although the company was quick to respond with containment and collection efforts, Smith claims the job was never completed. She has organized a campaign, including an online petition at Change.org, to get Enbridge to finish the cleanup.

“I do not think that safety is a priority for Enbridge,” Smith says. “I believe Enbridge is concerned about money and profits. In the days and weeks following the spill, they were trying to figure out how to get the line back up and running, rather than focusing on the massive disaster they had just created.”

Not an ideal record, says ForestEthics campaigner Nikki Skuce, for a company planning to run the Northern Gateway pipeline over the Rockies, across hundreds of rivers and streams, and past the largest intact temperate rainforest left on the planet.

Caution: Wide Load

For more than 40 years, Linwood Laughy and his wife Borg Hendrickson have lived on Highway 12, two miles from Kooskia, Idaho, the last stop on the two-lane highway before it winds deep into the Clearwater National Forest. As writers and occasional tour guides, they handpicked this remote location along the Clearwater River because of its long history of quiet beauty. Now they fear history is taking an awful turn because of plans to expand an open-pit oil mine nearly a thousand miles away.…more…

She believes the project has little chance of success.

“Enbridge has underestimated the risks and opposition associated with this project,” Skuce says. “If the project isn’t stopped by a First Nations legal case, it will be stopped by a federally legislated tanker ban. If it’s not stopped by the environmental review process, it will be delayed by lack of shipper agreements. If all else fails, First Nations and community resistance will rise up and take action. Enbridge is essentially shoving money down a rat hole for a project that will never go ahead.”

Indeed, opposition to the proposal is especially strong among the many First Nations in British Columbia, despite Enbridge’s attempts to court their support by offering an ownership share in the pipeline. Representatives from more than two dozen nations have signed the Save the Fraser Declaration, which claims First Nations won’t allow Northern Gateway “or similar Tar Sands projects” to cross their “lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of the Fraser River salmon.” The Coastal First Nations’ similarly worded Declaration to Ban Tar Sands Oil Tankers protests how the pipelines could increase the risk of an oil spill – either along the pipelines or from increased tanker traffic that could reach up to 200 supertankers a year.

“I have 30 great-grandchildren and the oldest is 18. What is her world going to be like in 10 years?” Helen Clifton wonders. “Enbridge is offering 10 percent and want us to accept the deal. It may end our way of life and you’re going to take 10 percent?”

That question pretty well sums up the trade-offs involved with both pipelines. Pipeline defenders hold up energy security as one of the great assets of their projects and claim a major surge of economic growth and jobs if their plans are approved. But will that be enough to hold off the growing groundswell of opposition intent on convincing decision makers that short-term gains should not be made without consideration of long-term risks? The answer will play a major role in determining how the world will meet its energy needs.

Ron Johnson is based in Toronto, Canada, where he is an editor for Post City magazines and contributes to The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, The National Post and the London Business Times.

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