A tipping-point for Keystone XL, and possibly the climate

Inside the University of Texas' LBJ library Wednesday, the tame, sleepy nature of the public hearing betrayed the enormity of ideas floating around: property rights, indigenous rights, energy security, risks to water and air quality, worries over unemployment, and fear of an impending climate disaster. A near endless feed of concerned landowners, students, environmental activists, and businessmen from across the state each had 3 minutes to make their case as the State Department wrapped up its last Texas hearing to determine whether the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, set to pump Canadian tar-sands crude down to Houston-area refineries, should march forward. Unlike a massive showing of industry reps and local workers welcoming the new pipeline at the Port Arthur hearing earlier this week, Austin's gathering was decidedly more mixed. What's clear is that the Obama administration's decision to approve or deny the proposed $7 billion pipeline will have a lasting impact, both tangible and symbolic. Supporters of the new TransCanada pipeline routinely claim its construction will pump sorely needed jobs and cash into local economies along the route, all the while helping ween the U.S. off oil from dangerous foreign partners (like OPEC) by supplying us with friendly Canadian oil from the Alberta tar sands. Midway through Wednesday afternoon's hearing, Barry Smitherman, recently appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the Texas Railroad Commission (the state body regulating the oil and gas industry), waltzed into the auditorium, and, to the ire of many, skipped past the long line of those waiting to speak to deliver his own glowing praise for the project. Smitherman quickly tied together the pieces pipeline supporters have touted all along, namely promises of job growth and increased energy security. After naming a select few OPEC countries (the scary ones like Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia), Smitherman ended with, “If you believe in democracy and human rights and freedom, you will take whatever necessary step we can to facilitate the development of this project,” drawing cheers from some in the crowd. Still, a blunt report released this week by the Cornell University Global Labor Institute largely challenges those assertions. Among other things, it says TransCanada's jobs claims are inflated and unsubstantiated. The authors take a swipe at the claims of energy security, saying Keystone XL is “driven by global interests” primed for the export market. “Clearly, Tar Sands oil and energy independence do not really belong in the same sentence,” the report states. Some who showed at the hearing were angered by TransCanada's use of eminent domain to force the pipeline on landowners, joining a protest outside Wednesday's hearing with the likes of East Texas landowner and pipeline opponent David Daniel. One Lamar County landowner approached this year by TransCanada, Julia Trigg Crawford, even questioned the company's own archaeological assessment approving a 30-acre stretch of her property for use – the site, she says, is widely known to be rich with indigenous artifacts. TransCanada's assessment, she claims, turned up nothing even though a subsequent test Crawford commissioned dug up stone tools and ceramics, items she's now having tested to confirm their origins. “Needless to say, we are very glad we took a second look,” she said. Crawford has since refused TransCanada's offers and is waiting to see if the company pushes back. In an odd marriage of hard-right conservatism with environmental activism, Tea Party favorite Debra Medina helped lead the protest outside with her own rallying cry to protect private property owners. “We've got a foreign company coming into Texas, doing what it wants to do over the protest of individual landowners in the path of that project. That's called trespassing,” she told the crowd. “Imminent domain is the club that is used to beat private property owners into submission.” But what has roused environmentalists isn't just the inherent risk that comes with building another TransCanada pipeline – the company's smaller Keystone line has already seen 12 spills within its first year of operation, including the 800,000 gallons of tar-sands sludge that spewed into the Kalamazoo River. They fear that by extracting more oil from the tar sands, a process where massive strip mines must excavate tons of oily sand and rock to squeeze out a single barrel, we're sealing our climate's fate, making a long-term commitment to some of the dirtiest fuel out there. Along with taking twice as much energy as conventional oil to extract, it's a heavier product, rich in bitumen, hydrogen sulfide, and a range of benzene compounds that, according to a recent study by a University of Nebraska engineer, could make spills all the more likely. With a wave of protest stretching weeks at the White House last month, bagging over 1,200 arrests, the State Department is now on the critical last leg of the approval process, finishing up hearings in the impacted states and culminating in a final forum in D.C. on October 7. Renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen, one of the loudest opponents of the pipeline, has claimed the world is at a tipping-point and that the decision over Keystone XL is a defining moment for U.S. energy policy and for the Obama presidency. But most of all, he says, the pipeline's approval could signal “game over” for the climate, a sign that the end of the oil age won't come in time to stop the worst predictions of the International Panel on Climate Change. — Michael Barajas, [email protected]  
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