House Passes Pipeline Oversight Bill, First Nations Reps “Educate” D.C.

Fourth in a series exploring the plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas

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Editor’s Note: In late September, SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Nebraska to find out more about the Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada plans to build to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. This is the fourth in a series. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

LINCOLN, Neb.—Even though TransCanada is vowing that its Alberta–to-Gulf Coast Keystone XL oil pipeline will be unparalleled on the safety front, that promise still makes opponents wince after reviewing the arithmetic.

How can anybody guarantee that a 36-inch diameter, 1,702-mile pipeline buried four feet deep and delivering up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude per day won’t leak, environmental organizations keep asking?

And they are not alone.

Although Congress doesn’t have ultimate “yea” or “nay” power on this particular $7 billion tar sands project, Keystone XL is on their radar screens as federal legislators try to figure out if and how they should strengthen the pipeline regulatory agency. Officially, congressional authorization over the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) expired Sept. 30.

A series of summertime, headline-grabbing ruptures along the nation’s 2.3 million-mile network of oil and gas pipelines—most notably in California and Michigan—has prompted legislators such as Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Mich., and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats, to promote pipeline safety measures. The House passed Schauer’s bipartisan bill Sept. 28, just before representatives adjourned to return home to campaign for the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

PHMSA was created in 2004. In 2006, Congress granted it greater oversight powers and the authority to hand out stricter penalties after an oil pipeline spill on Alaska’s North Slope.

The agency’s administrator is Cynthia Quarterman. Before being appointed to head up PHMSA in November 2009, she directed the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) from 1995 to 1999. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reorganized and renamed the scandal-plagued MMS earlier this year after the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. For PHMSA, Quarterman manages a staff of about 400 in Washington, D.C., and regional offices.

Due to the Keystone XL’s international nature, the fate of the controversial pipeline is in the hands of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Landowners, environmental organizations and several legislators, including Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., have questioned the State Department’s ability to execute environmental oversight and asked why PHMSA doesn’t have primary authority.

The Keystone XL pipeline will stretch close to 300 miles through 14 counties of Johanns’s home state.

Even the State Department’s draft environmental impact statement (EIA) on the Keystone XL notes that “transportation of crude oil by pipeline involves risk to the public and the environment in the event of an accident or an unauthorized action, and subsequent release of oil” and that “releases of crude oil from the project…could occur.” However, the document also recognizes that “there would be a very limited potential for an operational pipeline spill of sufficient magnitude to significantly affect natural resources and human uses of the environment.”

Anti-pipeline activists are expecting significant revisions to that environmental impact statement ever since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called the document “inadequate” in July. EPA officials cited shortcomings that included accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, safety and spill-response planning and the impact on indigenous communities.

Speaking Up on Capitol Hill

“For the environmental community, this is one pipeline too many,” Marty Cobenais, a member of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa, told reporters during a late September news conference in Washington, D.C. “Tar sands don’t fit in a clean-energy economy.”

Cobenais is a Minnesota-based organizer with the nonprofit Indigenous Environmental Network, an advocacy group with offices in the United States and Canada. For several days, he joined two First Nations leaders from Canada in making the rounds among decision-makers in the nation’s capital to talk about the harm tar sands have caused.

One of their most enlightening visits happened in the office of first-term Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Cobenais explained. “We educated her. We wanted her to know that this isn’t all bright and rosy like they make it seem to be.”

Recently, she and Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina spoke glowingly of tar sands after a visit to the Albertan source.

George Poitras is a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Alberta, lives in a community in Fort Chipewyan. Francois Paulette, a member of the Smith’s Landing Treaty 8 First Nation in the Northwest Territories, is a former chief of the Dene Nation.

In addition to the EPA, the State Department and members of Congress, the trio visited the Interior Department, the Department of Energy, the Canadian Embassy, several legislators and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which has jurisdiction over the 40-year-old National Environmental Policy Act.

“What we wanted to bring is the big picture of how tar sands development is impacting a vast territory in the North, from climate change to chemicals in our water, to the caribou herds that are becoming endangered,” Paulette said.

Canada is among the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases globally, and the tar sands represent the fastest-growing source of heat-trapping gases in the country, according to Indigenous Environmental Network research. U.S. access to the Keystone XL would almost double this country’s imports from a crude oil reserve ranked No. 2 globally.

Paulette and Poitras talked with reporters about how tar sands mining operations are scarring boreal forests, sullying waterways, poisoning fish and harming the health of community residents. Recent studies on the downstream impacts of tar sands operations, they said, have revived concerns about high levels of toxins in the Athabasca River, elevated cancer rates among residents and a growing number of deformed fish.

“It’s extremely frustrating that we have to come to the United States to make our concerns heard at home,” Poitras said. “But we’ll do what we have to until the situation changes.”

Decision by Spring or Summer?

The timeline on a State Department decision isn’t clear. Now that the EPA and other agencies have questioned the State Department’s draft EIA and forced officials to revisit the Keystone XL issue, a thumbs up or down on a presidential permit isn’t expected until the spring or summer of 2011.

In an interview with SolveClimate News, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international program director with the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, said it wasn’t clear if the State Department would issue a new draft document or proceed to a final document. The draft environmental impact statement generated thousands of public comments and producing a new document could include another call for such input.

“The option of litigation is there if a presidential permit is granted,” Casey-Lefkowitz said.

Under the “Oil Spill Risk” section of the draft document, the State Department notes: “Although leak detection systems would be in place, some leaks might not be detected by the system. A pinhole leak, for example, could potentially be undetectable for days or weeks. If the proposed pipeline is subsurface within a wetland, the crude oil would float and could be detected during a regular patrol of the Project (right of way). Soil impacts from floating oil would likely be minor, although active cleanup of the floating oil would likely produce high impacts to the wetland system.”

Aware that the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the oil sands industry have spent significant time on Capitol Hill, Cobenais is skeptical how far and wide the voices of First Nations and Native American leaders will resonate.

“We had a good visit and we educated a lot of people,” Cobenais said in a follow-up telephone interview. “I know you always get this when you’re in Washington. Everybody tells you they are going to listen to you. And then they do whatever it is they are going to do.”