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Keystone XL: The Fracking Truth

April 23, 2013 4 comments

The Keystone pipeline brings 590,000 barrels per day of Canadian crude oil through the US to Illinois, according to TransCanada. Keystone XL is a 1,661 mile extension of the Keystone pipeline system that was proposed in 2008. If Keystone XL moves forward, an additional pipeline would be installed through the United States from Keystone to gulf coast refineries in Texas. In January 2012, President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL proposal as it stood. Now, the project has been revised by TransCanada, and will no longer move through the environmentally sensitive “Sand Hills” region in Nebraska. As of March 22nd, President Obama said that he was going to “make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done.” Before this is approved, however, certain aspects of the project should be considered.

This project presents several environmental justice issues. The people most affected by the project did not participate in the decision-making process, and they suffer disproportionate negative impacts of the project while not sharing its benefits.

The proponents of Keystone XL argue that the pipeline will stimulate the economy and promote energy independence for the United States. These arguments have been used to dismiss the reluctance of the landowners and communities affected by the project. According to a NY Times article by Leslie Kaufman, TransCanada threatened to sue many landowners and confiscate their lands if they did not comply with plan for the pipeline.  In Texas alone, 34 families have endured legal action by TransCanada, according to Kaufman.

The communities and landowners will bear a disproportionate portion of the negative impacts, while not receiving most of the benefits. According to TransCanada, the six US states that the Keystone XL pipeline crosses “are expected to receive an additional $5.2 billion in property taxes during the estimated operating life of the pipeline.” However, this estimate fails to account for the likely damage caused by oil spills along the pipeline route. According to the US Department of Transportation, over half a million barrels of oil and other contaminants have spilled from US pipelines, causing 76 deaths and $2.4 billion in property damage alone, not including environmental damage. Despite TransCanada’s promises that it would “meet or exceed world class environmental standards,” the original Keystone pipeline has had 12 oil spills in its first year, and over 30 overall. The fact that Keystone XL crosses an active seismic zone will only add to the likelihood of spills.

One major point of contention of the Keystone project is that the source of the natural gas, the tar sands in Canada, would need to be fracked in order for the gas to be extracted. The fracking process used to be a method of last resort for gas companies. Now, it is used in 60% of the new oil and gas wells around the world as fossil fuel resources diminish. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process by which shale is broken up deep underground using a combination of water and chemicals in order to free the gas so that it can be extracted. Many of the chemicals used are extremely toxic, and have to be used in large volume. Some chemicals we don’t even know about, while others we know all too well, unfortunately. The exact mixture varies from company to company, but deadly carcinogens such as formaldehyde, benzyl chloride, and naphthalene are common.

In the town of Dimock Pennsylvania, 13 water wells were contaminated as a result of fracking. Mercury, arsenic, cadmium, barium, DEHP, glycol compounds, sodium, phenol, manganese, and other chemicals had were found to be in exceedance of acceptable levels in these wells. The contamination levels were so high that the water actually became combustible, and one of the 13 contaminated wells exploded. Cabot Oil & Gas, the company that practiced fracking in the area, was required to provide alternate sources of water to the residents of Dimock and to provide financial compensation for damages.

The number of potential jobs that the Keystone project would offer has also been exaggerated. On a Fox news report, the CEO of TransCanada stated that the project would bring 20,000 jobs to the US. However, an independent study from the Cornell labor institute has deflated that number to 2,500-4,650 temporary jobs lasting only about two years, and even this number would be reduced due to high oil prices increasing unemployment.

Furthermore, the profits of the project do not go to the United States, but to foreign interests. According to Climate News, most of the oil that will be transported through the pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico will go to other markets outside of the US. In addition, TransCanada has already conceded that the pipelines will not provide nearly enough oil to alleviate gas prices or gas demand in any significant way.

Keystone XL will not solve our energy problems; it will only enable us to use more gas. Overestimates of it viability, the number of jobs it creates, and the potential benefits are outweighed by the potential damage that it can cause. As the availability of gas around the world dwindles and energy demand increases, more expensive and dirty sources of fossil fuels will be sought out.

In the end, our ecosystems, cultural artifacts, and people should be permanently affected by our temporary need for energy. If we wait ten years for more sustainable practices of extraction and transportation, the oil will still be there. In the mean time, we need to reevaluate our use of oil as a nation and how we can minimize impacts on our communities and natural resources.

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