In the fall of 2012, the Keystone Pipeline unceremoniously cut through my hometown in East Texas. The pipe itself was laid just a few yards from my backyard fence. However, it didn't technically cross my family's property, so we received no warning or apology. Thus, I woke up one morning to the smell of diesel, and then I watched from my bedroom window as acres of trees fell to the ground. Strangers tromped through my front yard for months - putting flags down, digging holes, and directing massive steamrollers, tractors, and trucks. The pipeline continued its path through the little town of Douglass, blocking off roads and ruining many more front yards. The pipe is closer in proximity to my school, Douglass High School, than any other school in the state. No one has given Douglass High School an apology either.
It probably isn't hard for anyone to believe that I am ardently opposed to extension of the pipeline; the personal contact I have had with this issue has left a disgustingly bad taste in my mouth. However, my aversion is based on more than the "Not In My Backyard" syndrome; I have reasons to dislike the project that are less superficial than my ruined view. And while I am definitely biased, a myriad of others across the country agree that expanding the Keystone Pipeline is wrong, and most of their yards are still intact.
(picture taken from my home during construction)
What is KXL?
TransCanada, a Canadian energy company, owns the Keystone Pipeline and has used it to run fuel through the midwest since its completion in 2010. In 2008, TransCanada first proposed an extension to the pipeline that would come in multiple parts: one new leg from Nebraska to Oklahoma, one from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast, one small extension in Southeast Texas, and one very large jaunt from Canada to Nebraska known as the Keystone XL, or KXL (see map).
The leg from Oklahoma to the Gulf, known as the Gulf Coast Project, is the section that tore through my sleepy little community. To the disappointment of landowners and environmentalists nationwide, all of these new legs were approved and completed by January 2014 except for the KXL.
Big consequences could come with completion of the KXL. Many may initially dismiss the extension as "just another oil pipeline," or support the economic stimulus it creates. However, the KXL presents large new threats to our world that outweigh any temporary financial gain.
The Threat of Tar Sands Expansion
One of the biggest differences between the KXL and other pipelines is that it would carry bitumen crude from the Alberta tar sands. Tar sands, also called oil sands, are mixed deposits of clay, sand, water, and bitumen. Bitumen is a thick, black crude that can be extracted from tar sands and refined into oil. However, the bitumen extraction process is extremely complicated and wasteful, even more so than that of conventional crude oil.
Tar sands are often taken from the Earth through surface mining. Because large tar sands deposits are found beneath heavy Canadian forests, this process begins with chopping down trees and demolishing fragile ecosystems. Large chunks of Earth are then dug up and taken to separation facilities. At these facilities, hot water agitation methods extract bitumen from the sands. Tar sands are naturally thick, so it takes huge amounts of water and energy to obtain just a small amount of bitumen. Up to four barrels of water and enough natural gas to heat a home for four days are used to create one barrel of oil, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Once the bitumen is removed, the toxic leftover "sludge" of water, minerals, and oil is dumped into what are called tailings ponds.
Existing tailings ponds can cover around 67 square miles (according to Oil Sands Today), and they present a danger to wildlife as well as people. The oil and dirt settle into the bottom of the pond, while the water rises to the top. The water, now tainted by harsh chemicals, is toxic and potentially deadly to fish and other animals that may use the pond. Some residual oil can also float to the top, posing a risk to waterfowl. Meanwhile, the bottom layer of harmful material can seep through the ground and contaminate groundwater, putting people who live nearby at risk.
The Natural Resource Defense Council reported that those who live near any tar sands operation site face health risks from air and water contamination, and may also be at higher risk for cancer development. The tar sands industry is destructive to both the Earth and its inhabitants. The KXL would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil through the US daily. It is imperative that we halt the KXL's completion if we want to stop the growth of tar sands mining.
The Ogallala Aquifer
The KXL's proposed corridor would cut straight through America's heartland, and run over the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. The Ogallala is one of the world's largest aquifers. In fact, it is the most heavily used aquifer in the US, and vital to the state of Nebraska, where it provides 83% of the state's irrigation water. The KXL has already changed its path through Nebraska once in order to avoid the Sandhills, a unique prairie region that is a National Natural Landmark. However, the pipeline’s path would still cross over a portion of the aquifer. While no one can predict just how serious a spill into the aquifer would be, many believe TransCanada is wrong for running tar sands oil, which is more corrosive than traditional crude, through such an important source of water. Unless the KXL is stopped, one of our country’s largest water resources will be at risk for contamination.
The Danger of Spills
TransCanada’s track record for pipeline leaks and spills is already far from pristine. In its first year, the original Keystone Pipeline ruptured 14 times, the largest spill involving over 21,000 gallons of oil. Other diluted bitumen pipelines are known for causing dangerous spills as well, due to the extreme corrosiveness of the material being transported. Michigan has still not fully recovered from an Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill in 2010, when almost one million gallons of tar sands leaked into the Kalamazoo river - the largest inland oil spill in American history. Pipelines carrying diluted bitumen present a new danger to our environment, as the harmful substances they carry have the potential to seriously affect the health of communities and ecosystems in their paths. The Huffington Post reports that the integrity of the Keystone pipe laid in Texas is already in question. Toxic materials and shabby pipes are a recipe for an environmental crisis.
I believe we should use our country’s resources on expanding sustainable industries. With its tailing ponds and energy use, tar sands production is not even close to a sustainable business. To support the KXL is to support the harmful and wasteful process of creating bitumen crude, and to neglect our own needs for water and safety. Supporters of the pipeline claim that the US will benefit economically, but no amount of economic gain is worth letting TransCanada ruin our health, safety, or environment. It’s time to stand up to the Keystone XL Pipeline once and for all, before it’s too late.