Obama Should Dash TransCanada's Pipe Dream

The destructive consequences of drilling for oil in Canada’s tar sands are widely known: The industry fouls groundwater, destroys land, and wastes enormous quantities of soil and water. Until recently, the best thing that could be said about tar sands exploitation was that its environmental costs were confined to Alberta. But a proposed trans-North America pipeline would export the tar sands’ dirty impact to the United States, and carry the potential for catastrophic pollution.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the Keystone XL pipeline would transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day from a supply center in Alberta to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, claims that its project will stimulate the U.S. economy to the tune of $20 billion and provide 250,000 jobs. Given the fragile state of America’s employment figures, it’s little wonder that the State Department expressed affinity for the project in a cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton must issue a decision on the pipeline by December.

Yet, the tar sands’ massive carbon footprint – oil derived from the sands generates an estimated 23% more carbon emissions than other fossil fuels – has drawn thousands of protestors to Washington, D.C. over the last two weeks to implore the White House to reject the pipeline. “The Keystone Pipeline would be a 1,500 mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” wrote environmental activist Bill McKibben, climate scientist James Hansen, and other signatories in an open call to protestors. The carbon emissions produced by tar sands exploitation, associated deforestation, and the oil itself could make it impossible to stabilize Earth’s climate.

Unfortunately, China’s thirst for oil means that tar sands extraction is all but assured, despite the best efforts of indigenous groups to block supply to foreign supertankers. Canada is committed to the tar sands, and that oil is going to be sucked out and burned sooner or later. But, even though we’re doomed to feel its impacts in the form of climate change, the U.S. would still be wise to keep the pipeline, and localized pollution, at bay.

Earlier this summer, a broken ExxonMobil pipeline dumped 42,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River, imperiling one of America’s largest intact ecosystems. But that spill would represent a thin trickle compared to the gusher that would be released if Keystone ruptured. According to environmental engineer John Stansbury, a single break in the proposed pipeline could release up to 6.9 million gallons of oil into the Yellowstone. Furthermore, says Stansbury, breaches in the pipeline are inevitable, and will occur much more frequently than TransCanada claims.

TransCanada predicts 11 significant spills in the pipeline’s first 50 years of existence; Stansbury asserts that 91 spills is a more realistic estimate. And, while TransCanada says it can fix any leak within 19 minutes, Stansbury thinks that a slow leak in a remote stretch of pipe could go unnoticed for two weeks. The results of such a spill, Stansbury writes, could be catastrophic. Oil in the Platte River would foul aquatic ecosystems and drinking water as far downstream as Omaha and Kansas City. A spill in the Sandhills region of Nebraska would be even more frightening, as crude could contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of 30% of American irrigation water.

Stansbury’s paper documents the effects of a worst-case scenario oil spill, and of course, such a cataclysm isn’t a fait accompli. But if the catastrophes of the last decade have taught us anything, it’s that “Black Swans” must be considered in risk assessment. Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, and Deepwater Horizon, were all worst-case scenarios that, in retrospect, seem entirely predictable.

Disasters transpire with alarming frequency in the volatile real world, and gauging a project’s worst-case scenario is the safest measure of its environmental impact. It may be unlikely that the Keystone pipeline destroys American agriculture by pumping 6.9 million gallons of crude into the Ogallala Aquifer, but even that slim risk should convince President Obama to veto the project.

Photo Credit: Tarsandsaction