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Some Keystone realities

Actually reading the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project, released January 2014 by the U.S.

Actually reading the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project, released January 2014 by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), is quite interesting.

The debate over whether to build the proposed 875-mile pipeline that would bring 830,000 barrels per day of crude from Morgan, Mont. to Steele City, Neb. (originating in Alberta, of course) has been ongoing for what seems like forever.

It seems clear to many who have been following the drama that U.S. president Barack Obama will continue to veto the project until his final term is up, leaving him with the legacy that he was the president who said ‘no’ to the Keystone Pipeline.

The issue is complex to say the least, and impossible to fully cover in a single editorial, though you may notice this editorial is longer than normal, as this matter deserves the added information. There are several points made in the Impact Statement that would make a person wonder why this project has received the amount of scrutiny it has by so many. Likewise, there are several points that warrant caution with this pipeline. The Keystone Pipeline extension was first proposed in 2008. Currently in the U.S. there is over four million kilometres of existing pipeline; the Keystone extension would add 1,408km.

For the purpose of this editorial, we are going to discuss the issues that have been most talked about over the years: climate change effects; water contamination; impact on endangered species; economic benefits; and perhaps the most important issue, as it has been one of the main concerns raised by opponents of the pipeline and really is the basis as to whether the project will have a negative impact on the environment; the impact of potential spills and a comparison of the frequency of spills between pipelines and other modes of transporting oil.

Keep in mind that the OES, which completed the Impact Statement, is a bureau of the U.S. government under the direction of Kerri-Ann Jones, who was appointed to her position by President Obama.

Also keep in mind, that because it is the U.S. that is delaying the pipeline, this editorial will focus on potential impacts south of the border.

With regards to construction of the pipeline, the Impact Statement states, “…climate conditions during the construction period would not differ substantially from current conditions. However, during the subsequent operational time period, the following climate changes are anticipated to occur regardless of any potential effects from the proposed project…”

The key to this statement is that climate changes are anticipated “regardless of any potential effects from the proposed project,” so if the pipeline is not built, it makes no difference as far as climate change is concerned.

The idea of an underground pipeline leaking into an aquifer is a picture many opponents have painted for the public over the course of the Keystone debate.

The Impact Statement, however, claims that any potential impact of a leak would be very limited.

“Modeling indicates that aquifer characteristics would inhibit the spread of released oil, and impacts from a release on water quality would be limited,” it states.

The assessment goes on to examine each aquifer in the pipeline’s path – here are the findings:

1) Alluvial Aquifers and Northern High Plains Aquifer, including the Ogallala Aquifer: “…petroleum releases from the proposed project is unlikely to extensively affect water quality in this aquifer group.”

2) Great Plains Aquifer: “Overall, it is very unlikely that the proposed pipeline area would affect water quality…”

3) Northern Great Plains Aquifer system: “In the case of a large-scale release, these impacts would typically be limited to within several hundred feet of the source, and would not affect groundwater…”

4) Western Interior Plains Aquifer: “…there is an extremely low probability that a petroleum release from the proposed project would affect water quality in this aquifer.”

5) Shallow groundwater and water wells: “Those wells that are in the vicinity of a petroleum release from the proposed project may be affected.”

In a nutshell, some wells could be affected by a leak, but aquifers would be safe, as they encompass ‘characteristics that would inhibit the spread of released oil and impacts on water would be limited.’

Of the hundreds of acres of wetlands in the path of the pipeline, the report anticipates that two acres would be lost.

To keep this topic brief, here is the summary of the Impact Statement’s findings: “Of the federally listed, proposed and candidate species, the endangered American burying beetle is the only species that is likely to be adversely affected by the proposed project.”

Construction of the pipeline will support 42,100 jobs in the U.S., while operation of the pipeline only 50.

The significant factor economically, however, is property tax revenue, which the report said would be ‘substantial for many counties,’ garnering around $55.6 million in the first year spread across 27 counties and three states.

There is also expected to be no impact on residential or agricultural property values.

Finally, on to the most important factor when it comes to this new pipeline, and what all of the above information is reliant on:

Of the 1,692 oil leak incidents from a pipeline component between 2002 and 2012, 321 occurred from the main pipeline itself. The remaining were from components that could occur from any other form of oil and gas transportation, such as tanks, valves and pumps.

Of these spills, 79 per cent were ‘in the small range’, 17 per cent were ‘medium’ and four per cent were large (greater than 42,000 gallons).

Small leaks ‘have little effect on nearby natural resources’, while medium and large could have an effect depending on how quick remediation takes.

The most telling piece of information from the Impact Statement is what the OES found when they compared the pipeline’s probability of a spill with other forms of oil transport – the estimates are as follows:

No pipeline/ship oil via rail and existing pipelines: 294 (releases per year); 1,227 barrels released per year).

No pipeline/ship oil via rail and tanker: 276 (releases per year); 4,633 (barrels released per year).

No pipeline/ship oil via rail from Lloydminster to Gulf Coast: 383 (releases per year); 1,335 (barrels released per year)

No pipeline/ship oil via rail from Fort McMurray to Gulf Coast: 455 (releases per year); 1,606 (barrels released per year).

Proposed Keystone Pipeline: 0.46 (releases per year); 518 (barrels released per year).

How telling is this information when you take into consideration that the basis of most of the argument against the Keystone Pipeline is its potential to leak and have an adverse affect on the environment?

The irony in all of this is that the National Post reported last week that TransCanada Corp., in the face of continued delays with its Keystone Pipeline proposal, said it plans to ‘diversify into the oil-by-rail business within months.’

Considering the above assessment on potential oil spills, is this the new standard for ‘mission accomplished’?

The Impact Statement points out that ‘in the event of a large pipeline leak, supervisory control and data acquisition advisors would automatically detect noticeable changes in pipeline pressure and flow rates,’ to help mitigate and quickly remediate potential spills.

One could of course argue that Alberta’s oil sands initiative should be halted in its entirety, but is that a logical contention at this particular point in time?

The Impact Statement also states that there is a ‘greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines.

Keep in mind: no sensible person wants to see the environment destroyed, animals wiped off the planet or our water supply contaminated. But there has to be a reasonable level of compromise when it comes to matters like the Keystone Pipeline. People can point their finger at those who support the project and call them evil, but that gets us nowhere and is nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to demonize those whom with which they disagree, much like it is wrong to label all those who oppose Keystone as tree-huggers or left-wing loons.

Perhaps when technology allows, and celebrities are not the only people who can afford to drive an electric car, and there are charging stations around the world and batteries that get you further than 200km per charge, we won’t need to have these debates anymore.

The debate will then turn to the world’s growing electricity problems.