Sure enough, Mo called me first.
Whoa! How about that? she said.
She pointed me to the website Bold Nebraska, which organized the pipeline opposition: “Our rebel alliance of ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, conservationists, young people, grandmas, professors, artists, entrepreneurs–Nebraskans.”
Mo says that in the early days of the effort, Jane Kleeb, who started Bold Nebraska, endured a lot of ugly criticism. A few weeks ago though, boos went up at the sight of a TransCanada advertisement at a Nebraska Cornhusker football game, and “political seismometers went off all over the state.”
All politics is local
Nebraska may not be high on the list of environmentally progressive states–I can’t say–but it has taken this bull by the horns.
There’s been an alignment of political forces too: Those who oppose the exploitation of tar sand oil, period. Those who want to protect the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer. And those who see the siting of the pipeline as an issue of Nebraska state sovereignty. Not to be decided by the White House. Not by the State Department. Not by a Canadian corporation.
Now, it is a kick in the pants that this tempting offer for a 7 billion dollar, 1,700 mile construction project right through the middle of the American heartland comes now, when jobs are so desperately needed.
But isn’t that the very definition of a Faustian bargain?
TransCanada reports that after the construction is done, the number of pipeline-related jobs that would remain in Nebraska is…about 100. The cost in terms of climate change? Priceless.
Trust is the issue
A critical issue is whether this or any industry earns the public’s trust.
Bold Nebraska features this quote from a University of Nebraska study: ”Analysis of Frequency, Magnitude and Consequence of Worst-Case spills from the Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline”:
TransCanada assumed, without supporting data, that Keystone XL will be constructed so well that it will have only half as many spills as existing pipelines, even though the tar sands crude to be transported through the pipeline is more likely to leak than the conventional crude in other pipelines (tar sands oil pipelines have 16 times more safety incidents due to its corrosive nature, much more so than traditional crude oil).
That kind of “assumption” puts a finger on the cocktail of arrogance and greed that makes it oh so tempting for a corporation to underestimate risks and cut corners.
The Department of State’s response to the analysis is here–interesting reading.
2010 brought us Deep Water Horizon and the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. They were just momentary pauses though; then it was back to business-almost-as-usual. We want to believe that the coziness between industry and regulators has been broken up.
But I love a history lesson, don’t you?
North to Alaska
In 1968, oil geologists discovered an immense oil field in Alaska, above the Arctic Circle.
A pipeline was proposed to carry the crude from the North Slope to the marine terminal in Valdez. A nine year legal and political battle ensued–in many respects comparable to the Keystone XL. PBS’s American Experience did a fascinating episode about it in 2006–here’s the historical timeline from their website.
You’ll thrill to the discovery of more than 30,000 falsified weld x-rays (1975). You’ll gasp as the oil tanker Exxon Valdez runs aground, 11 million gallons spill into Prince William Sound and images of oil-covered seabirds become iconic (1989). You’ll thoughtfully weigh the benefit of 16 billion barrels of domestic oil that have been delivered by the pipeline since 1977. And you’ll note that the most recent leak to shut down the pipeline was in January 2011.
Build a pipeline, load up tankers, insure the risk. We know how to do that.
TransCanada’s CEO said they re-routed Keystone XL because “This project is too important to the U.S. economy, the Canadian economy and the national interest of the United States for it not to proceed.”
Apparently he’s wrong though. Like a drug dealer, the energy industry is simply moving to a new street corner.
This week, it’s reported that the smart money is shifting to pipelines that would run west from the tar sands, over the Canadian Rockies to Vancouver. From there, oil tankers will take it to California refineries which have already been upgraded to process the heavier, lower quality crude.
“California is the prize,” said Greg Karras, senior scientist with Oakland-based Communities for a Better Environment. “It’s where the [Canadian tar sands] industry is going. They have this gigantic reserve of fundamentally dirtier oil that they want to exploit, sitting above the best refining country in the world.”
Win the battle, lose the war?
This has been an extraordinarily good year for Nebraska farmers. Corn prices are at record highs and the Sandhills are safe for now.
Bold Nebraska rightly congratulates all those who forced the re-routing of Keystone XL. However their claim that they “beat Big Oil” should be probably be modified to: “We made Big Oil abandon Plan A.”
Note: Tar sands, or oil sands, is a mixture of sand, other minerals, water and a dense form of petroleum – bitumen — that resembles tar in appearance. Like tar, it doesn’t flow easily and requires extreme heating via steam injection to extract. Intense energy is required, giving the crude a carbon footprint that is 10-20 percent greater than other oil.