Eleanor Fairchild has been arrested twice: once outside the White House in August 2011 and again last month while standing on her own property near Winnsboro, Texas. In both cases, the 78-year old landowner was protesting the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which will cut through her farm on its way from Cushing, Okla. to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Fairchild's latest arrest has made her a celebrity of the anti-pipeline movement, which was once dominated by the nation's largest environmental groups. In recent months, however, those groups have pulled back from Texas, leaving the spotlight on landowners like Fairchild and on the Tar Sands Blockade, a grassroots organization launched in June with the goal of stopping the project through nonviolent civil disobedience.
Although the mainstream environmental groups say they're still committed to stopping the Keystone XL, they've shifted their focus to the northern leg of the project, which would run from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska and which still lacks a federal permit required for construction. Stopping the southern leg—which begins in Oklahoma and runs through Fairchild's property on its way to the Texas coast—would be much more difficult, given that it's already under construction.
Texas landowners who oppose the pipeline are now fending for themselves and hoping that the Tar Sands Blockade will draw attention to their plight.
Less than a week after President Obama's re-election, environmental groups are again pressuring him to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. This time, they have a new argument: that the heavy Canadian crude oil the line would carry isn't necessary for energy security, because U.S. oil production is booming to record levels even as consumption drops.
"The environmental community has established the Keystone XL as a real priority," said Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for the climate action group 350.org. "People want to stop it. They expect the president to stop it, and we're going to stop it."
350.org and other groups have already scheduled an anti-pipeline protest for November 18 in Washington, D.C. Emails announcing the demonstration were sent just minutes after Obama's victory Tuesday night.
For much of the Northeast, Hurricane Sandy was a harsh wake-up call to the extreme weather destruction that can be amplified by climate change. But Sandy's warning is also resonating in states further south along the Atlantic, which escaped the brunt of the storm but face equal, if not greater, risks from the combined effects of sea level rise and intense storms.
Florida is particularly vulnerable. A 2007 climate change study that mapped how a 9.8-foot sea level rise would affect New York City—maps eerily similar to the flooding from Sandy's 9-foot storm surge—also offered a look at how Florida would be affected. If anything, the images are even more chilling.
The scenarios for Florida are based on a sea level rise of roughly 3 to 7 feet. The coastal fringe of downtown Miami, where many of the city's luxury hotels are located, is covered in blue—the map's symbol for inundated land. Nearly all of Key West would be underwater, except for a few pockets of high ground including the area near Key West Cemetery. Fort Lauderdale would be flooded along most of its coast, as would downtown Tampa.
The decision to detour the Keystone XL around land owned by its noisiest opponents, plus the distraction of the fall election, has lowered the volume of protests against the proposed pipeline.
In the reroute TransCanada released in early September, 55 miles of the pipeline still run through Holt County, an area that sits above the aquifer and is especially vulnerable to oil spills due to its permeable soils and high water table. Despite a few small adjustments, the route through the county is nearly identical to the route TransCanada, the pipeline operator, proposed in April.
The project's opponents blame the sudden drop in activism on the fact that local environmental groups that organized much of the anti-pipeline publicity are now focused on the November elections. They also say that TransCanada blunted the opposition by moving the pipeline off of land owned by some of the pipeline's most vocal opponents, including Karl Connell, Calvin Dobias, Richard Miles, Joe Moller, Randy Thompson, and Kurt and Laura Meusch.
"When you look at a map, when you know the landowners, [you see] they've avoided the landowners who've gone to the press," said Ben Gotschall, energy director for the advocacy group Bold Nebraska. "They're just figuring out the easiest way to get their pipeline built."
Nebraska landowners who helped doom TransCanada's plan to build its Keystone XL pipeline through the Sandhills say their state is trying to rubber-stamp the project by using a law that loosens environmental and eminent domain protections.
So they're taking legal action.
Randy Thompson, Susan Luebbe and Susan Dunavan challenged Nebraska's controversial "pipeline siting" law in a lawsuit, claiming that it violates the state Constitution. The suit, filed in May, is against Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, the state treasurer and the director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Although the State Department has final say on whether to approve the Keystone XL's northern leg because it crosses a national border, Nebraska regulators are largely responsible for determining whether the pipeline's route through the state is safe to people and the environment. TransCanada's revised path avoids the fragile Sandhills, but it still crosses the Ogallala aquifer, a crucial water source for Nebraskans.
For years, TransCanada, the Canadian company that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline, has assured the project's opponents that the line will be equipped with sensors that can quickly detect oil spills.
In recent newspaper ads in Nebraska, for instance, TransCanada promised that the pipeline will be "monitored through a state-of-the-art oil control center 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 21,000 sensors along the pipeline route relay information via satellite to the control center every five seconds."
Other companies make similar claims about their remote sensing technology, sometimes promising they can detect and isolate large spills within minutes.
But an InsideClimate News examination of 10 years of federal data shows that leak detection systems do not provide as much protection as the public has been led to believe.
Between 2002 and July 2012, remote sensors detected only 5 percent of the nation's pipeline spills, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
The general public reported 22 percent of the spills during that period. Pipeline company employees at the scenes of accidents reported 62 percent.
The oil industry has often said that dilbit, a heavy crude oil from Canada's tar sands, isn't much different from conventional crude oil. But when it comes to paying into a federal fund used to clean up oil spills, it's different enough to deserve a sizeable tax break.
Dilbit is exempt from the tax, because the 1980 legislation that created the tax states that "the term crude oil does not include synthetic petroleum, e.g., shale oil, liquids from coal, tar sands, or biomass..."
The Internal Revenue Service cited that 1980 text in a 2011 memo that confirmed the exemption for at least one company.
The tax helps support the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, whose primary funding comes from an 8-cent-per-barrel excise tax on domestically produced and imported crude oil and on imported refined products such as gasoline.
Money from the fund is helping to clean up the 2010 oil spill in Michigan, where a ruptured pipeline spewed more than 1 million barrels of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, into the Kalamazoo River. Unlike conventional crude oil, which floats on water, much of the dilbit sank into the river. Removing it has been so difficult that cleanup crews are still struggling to mop it up, making the Michigan disaster the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history.
When emergency responders rushed to Marshall, Mich. on July 26, 2010, they found that the Kalamazoo River had been blackened by more than one million gallons of oil. They didn't discover until more than a week later that the ruptured pipeline had been carrying diluted bitumen, also known as dilbit, from Canada's tar sands region. Cleaning it up would challenge them in ways they had never imagined. Instead of taking a couple of months, as they originally expected, nearly two years later the job still isn't complete.
Dilbit is harder to remove from waterways than the typical light crude oil—often called conventional crude—that has historically been used as an energy source.
While most conventional oils float on water, much of the dilbit sank beneath the surface. Submerged oil is significantly harder to clean up than floating oil: A large amount of oil remains in the riverbed near Marshall, and the cleanup is expected to continue through the end of 2012.
InsideClimate News spent seven months investigating what made the Marshall spill different from conventional oil spills. Part of the challenge was that there has been little scientific research on dilbit; most of the studies that have been done were conducted by industry and considered proprietary information.
An EPA letter that was once a mere blip on the radar for the Keystone XL oil pipeline may now be the last federal regulatory obstacle facing the controversial project.
Seven months ago, EPA scientist Jane Watson wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging a more thorough review of the pipeline's water crossings. TransCanada had applied to the Corps for a blanket nationwide permit, the kind granted to projects with minimal impacts on waterways. But Watson identified 61 crossings in southern Texas alone that weren't eligible for these general permits.
Watson's letter, sent on Nov. 8, attracted little attention. The Army Corps' role was minor compared to the State Department, the agency that was then in charge of the pipeline review, and the Corps didn't respond to the letter.
But everything changed after the Obama administration denied the pipeline permit in January. TransCanada split the project in two, and the Army Corps is now the main agency in charge of the southern segment (dubbed the Gulf Coast Project), which would help relieve the glut of oil in Cushing, Okla. by shipping it to refineries and ports along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Approval from the Army Corps is virtually all that stands between TransCanada and pipeline construction.
The debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline heated up again last week after the Congressional Research Service issued a report saying the project could raise U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 21 million metric tons a year—the equivalent of adding 4 million cars to the road.
The Congressional Research Service is a branch of the Library of Congress that conducts policy analysis for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Released last Tuesday—less than two weeks after TransCanada re-applied for a permit to build the Keystone XL—the report found that crude oil produced from Canadian oil sands (also known as tar sands) emits 14 to 20 percent more planet-warming gases than the conventional oil that is typically found in U.S. refineries.
The report analyzed a number of studies, including a 2011 report by Stanford University professor Adam Brandt, who spoke with InsideClimate News this week about his research.
Brandt is an expert on the greenhouse gas impacts of transportation fuels. His report was commissioned by the European Union, which will decide next year whether to adopt a fuel-quality directive to reduce the transportation sector's carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020. The directive would encourage the use of less carbon-intensive fuels by labeling tar sands oil more polluting than other fuels.
In his interview with InsideClimate News, Brandt said that the Canadian oil sands industry opposes the EU directive because it could set a precedent for other countries. Though stuck in legal limbo, regulators in California have already approved a low-carbon fuel standard, and Northeastern states are considering a similar measure. The debate over oil sands will only intensify as the industry seeks to expand.