Does Gulf spill controversy stretch all the way to Canada?
Oil and gas spewing from that broken wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico has spread at least as far as the Florida coast, and could go further. Controversy and questions about the relative safety of different kinds of fuel pipelines may have spread over an even wider area — taking in Washington DC, Alberta, Canada, and a big slice of the U.S. heartland.
Have the ripples from that BP spill reached the U.S. State Department? At least one environmental group thinks that could be the case. The State Department, which approves energy pipelines that cross international borders into U.S. territory, is considering the environmental impact of a massive pipeline that would have stretched from Canada’s oil sands fields all the way to Texas. But on Wednesday, the department extended the public comment period for the Keystone XL Pipeline Project a few weeks, from June 15 to July 2, with additional public meetings on the project on June 18 in Houston and on June 29 in Washington DC.
Fuel made from oil sands, also known as tar sands, appeals to those who favor fuel made by U.S. allies — like Canada — instead of countries that use oil revenues to oppose the United States and U.S. citizens abroad. And given the mess in the Gulf of Mexico, supporters of Canadian oil sands say that getting oil on land is less of a risk than deepwater drilling. But environmental groups argue this method is destructive to terrain and requires lots of climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions to produce.
Now, in light of the devastation caused by the BP spill, conservationists argue that the Keystone XL pipeline could cause on land what the BP blowout has done underwater. The National Wildlife Federation maintains that the pipeline’s nearly 2,000-mile path takes it under some of the most productive U.S. farmland and a huge underground fresh water reservoir called the Oglala Aquifer.
Ben Gotschall, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in Nebraska, is worried about a possible pipeline leak.
“We don’t really know what could happen,” Gotschall said by telephone. “We could look at the Gulf BP spill as an example of what can happen when you have an oil leak in water. Obviously there is not sea life under there but it is fresh drinking water, so that’s a concern.”
Gotschall, whose family’s 10,000-acre (4,047 hectares) ranch is about 250 miles (402.3 km) from Omaha, said the Keystone XL pipeline is slated to go through Nebraska’s Sand Hills, a very porous sub-surface that could let any spill go down into the aquifer.
The National Wildlife Federation warned in a report before the State Department’s decision to push back the comment period: “This pipeline system would virtually assure the destruction of swaths of one of the world’s most important forest ecosystems, produce lake-sized reservoirs of toxic waste, import a thick, tarlike fuel that will release vast quantities of toxic chemicals into our air when it is refined in the United States, and emit significantly more global warming pollutants into the atmosphere than fuels made from conventional oil.”
NWF president Larry Schweiger said in a telephone interview, “The tar sands, like the deepwater oil in the Gulf, is a high-risk high-pollution oil development that is leading us further and further into this path of dependency on dangerous oil.”
Two oil sands pipelines have already been approved, so this wouldn’t be a first, and crude derived from oil sands has been flowing on other pipelines to the United States for decades. The oil industry is well aware of the environmentalists’ criticisms and has been working to get out the message that they are spending millions on technological fixes for issues like water use and toxic tailings ponds.
The U.S. demand for oil isn’t going to go away anytime soon. What would you tell the State Department’s meetings on this project?
Photo credits: REUTERS/Lyle W. Ratliff (Oil from BP spill dots Orange Beach, Alabama, June 10, 2010)
REUTERS/Todd Korol (Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s expansion mine, which produces synthetic crude from oil sands, north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 24, 2006)