Members of Congress on Wednesday implored the State Department to scrutinize the "significant" environmental impacts of a proposed massive pipeline that would carry Canadian tar sands oil 2,000 miles — from northern Alberta, across U.S. states to refineries in Texas and tankers off the Gulf coast.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, nearly 50 members of the House of Representatives said the agency "must determine whether the project is in the national interest" in terms of "clean energy and climate change priorities" before rubberstamping it.
Tar sands mining emits three times more greenhouse gas pollution than traditional oil, the letter stated. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), one of the lead signatories, further said the pipeline, which is slated to pass over the nation's largest underground aquifer, would leave "irreparable" environmental scars in its wake.
"This poses a direct threat to America's heartland," Cohen told reporters. "It cuts through sensitive ecosystems, crosses rivers, invades ranches and farms and could scar this land forever."
TransCanada, the country's biggest power company, has been pressing for presidential approval of its $12 billion Keystone XL Pipeline, which would import up to 900,000 barrels a day and double U.S. consumption of the controversial fuel source.
Two other pipelines have already been okayed by the State Department — Keystone 1, which will eventually carry crude into Cushing, Okla., and the Alberta Clipper that will run from Canada to Superior, Wis.
If all three get built, tar sands would make up 15 percent of U.S. fuel supply, up from four percent today.
Turning tar sands into usable oil involves mining bitumen, a tar-like petroleum that's buried beneath the boreal forests in Alberta. Extraction requires substantial energy and water and creates sprawling tailing ponds that some analysts estimate are leaking three million gallons of contaminated waste into the ground each day, endangering wildlife and perhaps public health.
In the case of Keystone XL, refining the sticky crude would happen in Houston, in a process that would spew higher levels of dangerous pollutants than conventional oil production, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and heavy metals, the House members said.
Because of that, the letter calls on Secretary Clinton to demand from the Environmental Protection Agency a "full lifecycle assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions" involved in the project from Alberta to the Texas coast.
For Now, State Department Delays
The State Department must greenlight the pipeline because it crosses an international border. The sole criteria for approval is whether the project offers value to the national interest.
Even opponents concede that tar sands oil may have national security advantages over importing oil from Middle Eastern regimes. And not too long ago the pipeline was seen as a done deal.
But last week, in a small sign of uncertainty, the State Department added two weeks to the public comment period on its draft environmental impact statement, pushing it from June 16 to July 2. The move delays approval of the project by at least two weeks.
Observers suggest the calamitous BP oil spill was likely the culprit. In response to the delay, however, TransCanada said it is confident the project will get the go-ahead this year, allowing construction to begin in 2011.
Still, some members of Congress are hoping the hold-up turns into cancellation.
"Endorsing tar sands pipelines is a step in the wrong direction," Cohen said. "It's counter to what President Obama has stood for ... in getting us away from oil."
Indeed, in a speech to the nation on June 15 amid the oil gusher, President Obama said "as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude." He called it "the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now."
And while the State Department declares that tar sands pipelines advance a number of strategic interests, some influential White House insiders clearly see things differently.
Podesta a Skunk at Canadian Event
John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress who headed the Obama transition team and is considered part of the president's inner circle on energy, surprised an audience of tar sands supporters this week when he denounced the fuel source as "inherently dirty," saying it "cannot be our energy future."
In a keynote speech at an event sponsored by Canada 2020 that was designed to shore up support for "greening" the oil source, Podesta admitted he was "skeptical about the 'green' vision for the tar sands."
"If the 'greening' in the title of this morning's program was conjured up to evoke a garden party in the oil sands, I'll try not to play the part of the skunk," Podesta said.
However, he added bluntly: "Oil extraction from tar sands is polluting, destructive, expensive and energy-intensive. These things are facts. I think suggesting this process can come close to approximating being 'greened' is largely misleading, or far too optimistic, or perhaps both. It stands alongside clean coal and error-free deepwater drilling as more PR than reality."
Podesta further questioned "the hurry with which the State Department has chosen to decide whether or not to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline." As the Gulf spill reminds us, he said, "rushing to complete oil projects invites disaster."
Another BP Disaster Waiting to Happen
In their letter, members of Congress called the pipeline another BP oil crisis waiting to happen due to poor safety protocols that TransCanada is proposing in the design.
Most worryingly, the company has applied for a safety waiver from the Department of Transportation to use thinner steel and higher pressure in the pipeline than standard operating procedure. Critics say this makes the line vulnerable to leaks, given the mass amounts of gooey crude that would pump through it each day. They also claim the pipeline would not be properly monitored due to a lack of federal agency inspectors.
"That's a scary proposition," said Cohen. "Just like the Deepwater situation where BP cut corners on safety, so is the situation with this XL Pipeline."
He continued, "As oil continues to pour into the Gulf, we should take a step back and reconsider the wisdom of trusting these oil companies out to make a profit and with no thoughts about anything but oil, oil, oil."
Making the economic case for cleaner fuels, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), another signatory, said investing in clean energy and not relying on the "dirty fuels of the 19th century" is necessary to build a stronger economy. "It's where the jobs of the future reside," he said. In building the pipeline, Welch added, the State Department would be "embracing the past."
Earlier this month, 250 members of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a group of environmentally conscious business leaders that collectively manages $82 billion in venture capital and private equity, made a similar plea.
In a letter to Secretary Clinton, the coalition called on the State Department to suspend the permitting process for Keystone XL and rethink its long-term commitment to tar sands. Citing a study by Goldman Sachs, the group said tar sands projects require long-term oil prices greater than $80 per barrel just to break even.
"Given the costs and liabilities of tar sands oil, we question whether it is in the national economic interest to diverge off the path toward clean energy by committing massive resources to a project that will prolong America's oil dependence and greatly increase our carbon emissions," the letter said.
In recent years, slowing tar sands oil development has climbed up the agenda in government policy discussions and in boardrooms, as carbon-intensive activities become the prime target in the fight against global warming. In particular, the shareholder season this past spring saw an increasing number of investor revolts, including motions against oil giants BP, Shell and ExxonMobil. While some efforts sought to get energy firms to scrap their tar sands ties completely, others aimed merely to shine a light on the financial costs of the environmental damage caused by oil sands extraction.
With pressure mounting against conventional fuels, it's up to the U.S. government to "send the right signals" to the industry "at this point in time," Podesta said.
"It's important that the U.S. .. does its part to direct investment to the right places as we attempt to make the transition to clean energy," he said. Currently, "industry is plowing capital into unconventional sources of oil, while making only superficial investments in clean technologies that would serve the public good."
"Policymakers should make careful, long-view decisions," Podesta added. "The U.S. and Canada should join in partnership to put in place clean energy policies that will help us harness sources of energy that will never run out and can't risk catastrophe."