Above: A TransCanada employee works on a section of the Keystone XL pipeline near Winnsboro last year.
More than a year after TransCanada crews started felling trees and digging trenches in East Texas, the southern segment of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—known as the Gulf Coast Project—will start delivering oil to Texas refineries today. The full Keystone XL line, which requires the administration’s approval because it crosses an international border, has met sustained opposition since it was first proposed in 2008. But when President Obama rejected the full project and fast-tracked its Oklahoma-to-Texas segment, conservative landowners formed an unlikely alliance with environmental activists and started a battle that continues today.
In Texas, pipeline opponents didn’t stop at holding signs and marching in major cities. Elderly landowners joined young protesters and locked themselves to TransCanada’s construction equipment or stood in front of machinery in rural East Texas where the pipeline was being built. In a three-month standoff with TransCanada, members of the Tar Sands Blockade built a “tree village” directly on the path of the pipeline route and lived on platforms 80 feet in the air. They documented their actions at every step, bringing national attention to the resistance against the pipeline in East Texas.
Meanwhile, two Texas landowners sued TransCanada for what they say is an abuse of its eminent domain power. One of the landowners, Mike Bishop, got a temporary injunction against TransCanada that prevented the company from building on his property. But it was a short-lived victory; days later, the injunction was overturned. Julia Trigg Crawford, a landowner near Paris, has gone through a series of appeals, and will potentially make her case before the Texas Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court directed TransCanada to turn in the information requested by Crawford by Feb. 6 so it can decide whether to hear the case.
Crawford participated in a press call this morning with other landowners and activists who are part of the Texas Pipeline Watch. The group has vowed to watch the Keystone XL pipeline “like a hawk” and document everything landowners and advocates see on the group’s Facebook page.
“I’m going to walk my land every day, as I know other landowners will do, because we all know it’s not the fancy detection systems that locate leaks; it’s the landowners walking their land,” Crawford said. “I stand with everybody in Texas, who’s going to be the biggest neighborhood watch ever.”
TransCanada started filling the 485-mile pipeline with oil in early December and will start pumping that oil to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast today. According to TransCanada, the pipeline is meant to relieve the bottleneck at Cushing, Oklahoma and get backed-up oil to Texas refineries. But critics contend that TransCanada’s interest lies in getting tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to foreign markets via Gulf Coast ports. The U.S. State Department’s draft environmental review of the project conceded most of the oil would be exported. The southern segment of the pipeline can currently carry 700,000 barrels per day, but the company says it has the capacity to carry 830,000 barrels per day. That expansion will likely only happen if the full Keystone XL pipeline is approved by the Obama administration.
Environmentalists first targeted Keystone XL because the pipeline is meant to carry diluted bitumen, or dilbit, which is considered dirtier than other fossil fuels. Refining the fuel is water and energy-intensive, and extracting bitumen from Alberta’s vast oil sands deposits presents its own set of environmental problems. Prominent NASA scientist James Hansen has said that if Keystone XL is built, it’s “game over for the climate” because of the immense carbon that would be released into the atmosphere. But for landowners living along the pipeline route, the chief danger posed by KXL is that of a spill.
To be able to move inside pipelines, the bitumen that is drawn from oil sands has to be diluted, hence the name “dilbit.” This is accomplished by mixing the bitumen with a cocktail of natural gas chemicals, which typically includes benzene, a known carcinogen. Folks are especially afraid of a leak on KXL because it would mean that these chemicals–many of them highly flammable–would spill out along with the bitumen.
“If there is a rupture or a spill the cloud of toxic gases is much larger and has a very negative impact on the health of people who live along the pipeline,” Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen said. “It is far greater than anything you would be exposed to with a rupture of a natural gas pipeline or a traditional crude pipeline.”
If the spill occurs in or near a body of water, there’s the added problem of the dense bitumen sinking after it separates from the natural gas liquids, making it extremely difficult to clean up. That’s exactly what happened in 2010 when a pipeline owned by Canadian company Enbridge leaked and spilled 843,000 gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. More than three years later, cleanup efforts are ongoing. Last year, ExxonMobil’s Pegasus line also leaked, spilling more than 200,000 gallons of dilbit in Mayflower, Arkansas. The fuel seeped up from the ground in a residential area, leading to the evacuation of 22 homes and an onslaught of health problems for Mayflower residents.
Texas landowners’ fears were exacerbated last year when they witnessed TransCanada repairing numerous sections of flawed pipeline. As the Observerreported in August, landowners found discarded pipe sections on their properties that had been removed because of dents, faulty welding and other “anomalies,” or flaws. Landowners also documented sagging pipeline inside a ditch and other violations of pipeline engineering code and regulation that experts say could later lead to leaks.
A month after we published the story, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) sent TransCanada a letter saying it had violated regulations, and detailing how pipeline should properly be installed in a ditch. A couple of weeks later, PHMSA sent TransCanada a second letter, this time citing its many welding woes. “On September 25, TransCanada stopped the Spread 3 welding after 205 of the 425 welds, or 48.2% required repairs,” the letter reads. The agency sent the letters and closed the case.
Two weeks ago, a group of landowners and activists met with PHMSA to ask what was being done to ensure TransCanada corrected problems on Keystone XL before it went online. Kathy DaSilva, who is a member of the grassroots organizations NacSTOP and Tar Sands Blockade, said the groups asked PHMSA to run additional tests on the pipeline before allowing it to operate.
“But we were told … that they have faith the problems were fixed,” DaSilva said. “I heard the words faith and trust way too much coming from a governmental agency who is supposed to make sure a pipeline [being] built doesn’t threaten my health or my water.”