In the latest show of force by opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, a group of 150 major Democratic donors sent a letter Friday to President Obama, urging him to reject the controversial application from TransCanada for permission to send more than 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast.
The signatories comprise business leaders, philanthropists and celebrities—including clean energy entrepreneurs Vinod Khosla, Jigar Shah and Steve Kirsch, long-time Obama bundler Wendy Abrams and actress Blythe Danner.
A State Department official confirmed that for the first time the department will make public all the public comments received on its draft environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL pipeline.
In an email to InsideClimate News, the official, who requested anonymity, said the comments would be posted on Regulations.gov.
"Although the volume of comments will be extraordinarily high, the posting will maximize transparency," the official said. "We are working on the technical details and exact timing of posting the comments."
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Every day more than one million barrels of oil flow to refineries in the United States from western Canada's oil sands region. Producers hope to quadruple that amount in the next decade, arguing that oil from a friendly neighbor will deliver an extra degree of national security.
But this oil is no ordinary crude oil, and it carries with it risks that we're only beginning to understand. Its core ingredient — bitumen — is not pumped from wells but is strip-mined or boiled loose underground.
Industry insiders long considered bitumen to be a "garbage" crude. But now that the light, sweet oil we covet has become more scarce and its price has skyrocketed, bitumen has become worth the trouble to recover. At room temperature, bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter, thick enough to hold in your hands. To get it through pipelines, liquid chemicals must be added to thin it into what’s known as dilbit, short for diluted bitumen.
The 2010 pipeline spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River was far larger than the pipeline operator has reported, according to accumulating evidence and documents recently released by federal investigators.
The estimate that Enbridge Inc., the pipeline's Canadian operator, has used since a couple months after the spill is 20,082 barrels, or 843,444 gallons. The estimate used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is larger—1 million gallons—but the documented sources indicate that estimate may also be low, by a significant degree.
Almost two years after the spill, oil is still being removed from the Kalamazoo River, and 30 miles of the waterway remain closed to the public. The cleanup has been difficult because the line that ruptured was carrying diluted bitumen, or dilbit, an unconventional form of oil derived from Canada's oil sands that has defied traditional oil recovery methods.
"I would think Enbridge could sharpen their pencil and come up with a better number," said Carl Weimer, Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an industry watchdog group. "I am always suspicious when the original number sticks around so long, because penalties for Clean Water Act violations are based on how much goes into the water."
A ruptured pipeline near Michigan's Kalamazoo River leaked oil for more than 17 hours, even as 16 high-priority alarms sounded in the operator's control room in Canada. Control room workers restarted the pipeline twice during that period—and were preparing for a third restart—when they learned from an outside party about the massive spill in 2010.
The 30-inch pipeline, called Line 6B, is owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. branch of Enbridge Inc., Canada's largest transporter of crude oil. Line 6B spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River and a nearby creek, making it one of the biggest oil pipeline spills in U.S. history, and the most expensive, with costs surpassing $700 million. More than 30 miles of the river remain closed to the public today, as the cleanup continues. The Michigan accident occurred while oil was still spewing from BP's exploded well in the Gulf of Mexico, and it never received much national attention.
The NTSB, which is expected to reveal the results of its investigation sometime this summer, released hundreds of documents totaling thousands of pages last week. Included in the trove is a factual report compiled by two Enbridge employees and three federal investigators. It provides an hour-by-hour, and sometimes minute-by-minute account of the unfolding disaster as experienced by Enbridge operators, analysts and supervisors who were monitoring computer consoles, hearing the repeated alarms, and discussing what to do in the company's Edmonton, Alberta control room.
The report does not quantify how much oil escaped from the initial rupture, or how much additional oil was pumped out of the 6 1/2-foot tear in the line when it was restarted twice. The NTSB did not respond to questions from InsideClimate News about how much oil may have leaked from Line 6B at these different stages of the unfolding series of events.
Over the last decade, Charles and David Koch have emerged into public view as billionaire philanthropists pushing a libertarian brand of political activism that presses a large footprint on energy and climate issues. They have created and supported non-profit organizations, think tanks and political groups that work to undermine climate science, environmental regulation and clean energy. They are also top donors to politicians, most of them Republicans, who support the oil industry and deny any human role in global warming.
What is less well documented are the many Koch businesses that benefit from the brothers' efforts to push the center of American political discourse rightward, closer to their own convictions. At the top of the list are the Koch family's long and deep investments in Canada's heavy oil industry, which have been central to the company's initial growth and subsequent diversification since 1959.
Because Koch Industries is a privately held company, the public has little access to information about the depth and diversity of its Canadian oil sands holdings. Over the past several months, however, InsideClimate News has pieced together a rough picture of the company's involvement in the industry, using published reports from the National Energy Board of Canada; documents and data extracted from the website of Canada's Energy Resource Conservation Board; securities disclosures and filings of Koch businesses in Canada; court documents from an inheritance battle that pitted Charles and David Koch against their two other brothers; Canadian and U.S. media reports; company newsletters and press releases; and two books, one written by Charles Koch and the other the autobiography of a long-time Koch company director.
These sources reveal that Koch Industries has touched virtually every aspect of the tar sands industry since the company established a toehold in Canada more than 50 years ago. It has been involved in mining bitumen, the hydrocarbon resin found in the oil sands; in pipeline systems to collect and transport Canadian crude; in exporting the heavy oils to the U.S.; in refining the sulfurous, low-grade feedstock; and in the subsequent distribution and sale of a variety of finished products, from jet fuel to asphalt. The company has also created or collaborated with other companies that have become leading players in the development of Alberta's oil resources, and it remains deeply invested in western Canada’s oil patch.
Koch Industries declined to answer any questions for this story.
In June of 2010, in the midst of the BP Gulf oil disaster, someone deep in the bowels of the U.S. State Department was considering a two-year delay in the Keystone XL pipeline project, according to documents released last week. Public concerns about the oil industry were peaking, and the $7 billion Canada-to-Texas oil sands pipeline, which had looked like a shoo-in at the beginning of 2010, was getting a closer look.
At one point, the State Department even asked a lawyer for TransCanada, the Alberta-based company that was trying to get a federal permit to build the pipeline, to provide an assessment of how such a delay would impact the company.
What happened to that request—or to the idea of possibly delaying federal approval of the pipeline—remains a mystery, crucial to understanding the decision-making process behind one of the biggest energy projects pending before the Obama administration. The pipeline would allow an enormous supply of a particularly dirty form of oil, locked up in Alberta's tar sands, to reach refineries in the Gulf of Mexico and markets around the world.
The documents, which the State Department released last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Friends of the Earth, contain no further mention of a possible delay beyond an email thread that began on June 28 and petered out on June 30.
The documents do show, however, that TransCanada had special access to key State Department officials during this delicate period, when the future of the company's most important project hung in the balance. In 2009 TransCanada had begun ordering the large-diameter pipe it would need for the project. Evraz, the Russian company that got some of the business, announced that steel and pipe production for TransCanada’s order would begin in 2010.
TransCanada's most important link to the State Department was its Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist, Paul Elliott, who had been a senior member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. A month earlier, Elliott had secured an exclusive meeting for TransCanada's CEO with a key State Department official, who coached him on what the company should insert into the public record.
The Pew Environment Group released a report earlier this month urging protection of the Canadian boreal, the world's largest intact forest and the biggest carbon sink on land.
(Listen to the SolveClimate News podcast episode: Canada's Pristine Forest of Blue: Conservation or Death by 1,000 Cuts)
The study says the "forest of blue," which covers 60 percent of Canada's landmass and contains nearly 200 million acres of surface freshwater, is under threat from oil sands development, mining, logging and hydropower projects, despite efforts to protect large swathes of it. David Sassoon spoke with Steven Kallick, director of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign at Pew, who has devoted much of his life to the boreal's conservation.
David Sassoon: What are some of the report's key findings?
Steven Kallick: The most important finding is that this area is the largest intact wetlands complex in the world. It has the most unfrozen surface freshwater of any ecosystem on the planet, and some of the world's largest lakes.
There's no other landscape like it. And the value of this resource goes way beyond the borders of Canada. It has global effects on climate, on carbon sequestration and on migratory wildlife that really make it a global concern.
The Keystone XL pipeline, awaiting a thumbs up or down on a presidential permit, would increase the import of heavy oil from Canada's oil sands to the U.S. by as much as 510,000 barrels a day, if it gets built.
Proponents tout it as a boon to national security that would reduce America's dependence on oil from unfriendly regimes. Opponents say it would magnify an environmental nightmare at great cost and provide only the illusion of national benefit.
What's been left out of the ferocious debate over the pipeline, however, is the prospect that if president Obama allows a permit for the Keystone XL to be granted, he would be handing a big victory and great financial opportunity to Charles and David Koch, his bitterest political enemies and among the most powerful opponents of his clean economy agenda.