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Environment, Economy at Heart of Keystone XL Pipeline Debate

October 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A Canadian company wants to build a $13 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline to carry crude oil from the so-called tar sands region in Alberta through six states and a major aquifer to Texas for refining. Correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Nebraska on the high-stakes environmental and economic battle over the Keystone XL project.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now, the high-stakes battle over whether the Obama administration should approve a major oil pipeline bisecting the U.S.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden updates the story from Nebraska.

MAN: Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming. Just a quick announcement.

TOM BEARDEN: Hundreds of landowners, environmentalists and union members jammed into high school gyms, community hall and rec centers in six states last week. They were trying to persuade State Department officials that a proposed pipeline will either create thousands of jobs or will destroy the life and livelihoods of family farmers throughout the Midwest.

MAN: Creating jobs, enhancing energy independence, improving national security, the Keystone pipeline will do all of these and more.

MAN: All this is good for is big oil, and at our expense, with our lifeblood at stake.

TOM BEARDEN: A Canadian company called TransCanada wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The $13 billion system would carry crude oil from the so-called tar sands region in Alberta to Houston, Texas, for refining. The 1,700-mile-long pipeline would cross six states and go through the heart of Nebraska farm country.

One of the largest aquifers in the world, the Ogallala, lies just beneath the Sand Hills of Nebraska. It provides the water for about 30 percent of all the irrigated cropland in the United States. People who run those farms around here are deeply concerned that a pipeline accident might seriously damage that resource.

Susan Luebbe runs a ranch near Stuart, Neb. TransCanada mapped out a route that would cross about a quarter-mile of her property. Last spring, she added political activism to her regular chores, trying to convince anybody who will listen that the pipeline is just too risky.

SUSAN LUEBBE, landowner: We don’t know why we have to put up with this kind of crap and why we work so hard out here and why we can get run over by a foreign company. I think we’re going to let them know that they have picked on the wrong people.

TOM BEARDEN: Jane Kleeb says the pipeline won’t just cross the aquifer, that, by being buried four feet deep, it will actually be in it.

JANE KLEEB, Bold Nebraska: That Ogallala aquifer is really close to the surface, so a rancher can literally stick a pipe in the ground and water will come out of it. And that’s how they water their cattle.

TOM BEARDEN: Kleeb runs a citizen advocacy group called Bold Nebraska. She says the company has had problems with other pipelines it operates in the U.S. and Canada.

JANE KLEEB: So, TransCanada has already had 14 leaks in the United States, over 30, if you combine the leaks that have happened in Canada as well. There has been one leak here in Nebraska. They have also actually had to dug up the pipeline in three different areas in Nebraska for pipeline anomalies.

TOM BEARDEN: Kleeb and others claim the type of oil the pipeline would carry is far more toxic than the lighter crude carried by other pipelines.

JANE KLEEB: Tar sands oil is 16 times more corrosive than traditional oil, which means that there will be more pipeline ruptures, more leaks. And it also produces three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. And so not only is the oil not guaranteed for the United States. It’s also a dirtier form of oil than traditional oil.

TOM BEARDEN: Robert Jones is vice president of the Keystone XL project. He says the past spills were all minor and that extraordinary safety systems will be in place to prevent any large spill from ever happening.

ROBERT JONES, Keystone XL project: There’s 16,000 sensors on the pipeline. And those sensors send data via satellite every five seconds. And we have a backup satellite and we have backup landlines. So we have got to make sure those signals are always going back to the control center. If there is a pressure drop, the sensors pick that up and automatically shut down the pipeline.

TOM BEARDEN: And Jones says there’s nothing special about the oil either.

ROBERT JONES: The oil we move is a natural product, or the oil that comes out of the sands has to match the specification of this natural product, the same oil that the industry has been moving for decades, the same oil that goes through pipelines through Nebraska for decades.

TOM BEARDEN: In August, anti-pipeline activists staged a two-week-long protest at the White House, hoping to persuade the administration to reject the permit request. About 1,000 people were arrested.

A few days into the demonstrations, the State Department released the final environmental impact statement on the project, a study three years in the making. It says the pipeline would carry a blend of synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen and poses no significant impact to the environment.”

But Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones says it doesn’t mean the State Department will ultimately grant the final permit.

KERRI-ANN JONES, U.S. State Department: No, a decision has absolutely not been made. But we don’t plan to make any decision until we’re finished with the process. And we want to make sure it’s very rigorous, impartial and transparent.

WOMAN: Submit your comments via mail, fax….

TOM BEARDEN: As is often the case with these debates, it comes down to environmental concerns vs. economic ones. Supporters say Keystone XL will create an estimated 20,000 good-paying construction jobs.

So members of Local 1140 of the Laborers International Union showed up as a Lincoln, Neb., hearing to urge the State Department to approve the permit, workers like Jason Berringer.

JASON BERRINGER, Laborers International Union Local 1140: I have got a family. I have got a daughter in college. I have got a 14-year-old, 7-year-old and a 10-month-old. I want to take care of them. I worked with TransCanada before on another pipeline. And I have never had a company like them that took care of environmental issues like they have. They really care about the environment. And I — I appreciate that. I want to leave something for my kids, too.

TOM BEARDEN: Ron Kaminski is Local 1140′s business manager. He says opponents are pursuing an agenda that has little to do with Keystone XL.

RON KAMINSKI, Laborers International Union Local 1140: These environmentalists want to end our dependence on fossil fuels. That is not going to happen in our lifetimes. We need to be realistic about it. These guys should be more focused on the pipelines that have been in the aquifer for 20-plus years, instead of the safest, most technologically advanced pipeline in the state of Nebraska.

TOM BEARDEN: This time, however, the issue has created some unusual bedfellows. Republican state Sen. Tony Fulton finds it odd to be on the same side with groups he normally opposes.

TONY FULTON, R-Neb. state senator: I would be doing a bad job if I didn’t step up and say that I have some concern about the proposed route of this pipeline. If that puts me on the same side as environmentalists or folks that I don’t typically see eye to eye with, so be it.

TOM BEARDEN: Fulton wants TransCanada to reroute the pipeline. He’s promoting legislation he hopes would give state government the power to force the company to bypass the aquifer. He says building this pipeline without Nebraska’s input is a violation of states’ rights.

TONY FULTON: We ought to have some say as to how that pipeline makes its way through Nebraska. And, at this point, it’s been President Obama, Secretary Clinton and TransCanada who have chosen this route.

TOM BEARDEN: TransCanada vice president Robert Jones says, despite all the vocal opposition, the company has already secured easements from most of the landowners along the route.

ROBERT JONES: Very few utilities actually compensate landowners. We are going to compensate landowners. We, first of all, give them an easement value equivalent to the property land values. Ninety, 95 percent of the time, everybody agrees on these terms.

SUSAN LUEBBE: I don’t believe that’s true at all. There’s a ton of us up here in the Sand Hill region that have not signed.

TOM BEARDEN: Susan Luebbe says TransCanada made ridiculously low offers and, when she refused, tried to intimidate her and her neighbors into signing, telling them they would receive nothing if the company exercised the right of eminent domain.

Both sides accuse each other of playing fast and loose with the truth.

Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones.

Have you heard exaggerations, have you heard falsehoods, half-truths?

KERRI-ANN JONES: I think what we have heard is a lot of enthusiasm. Everyone is very enthusiastic.

TOM BEARDEN: Very diplomatic answer.

KERRI-ANN JONES: Well, you know, I do work for the State Department.

(LAUGHTER)

KERRI-ANN JONES: But, you know, everyone is very enthusiastic about their position. And I don’t mean that lightheartedly. They’re passionate about it.

And so I think people pick up the pieces of information that are important to them and their position, which is what we do. We’re humans. But we are — from the State Department, we’re trying to take all of this together and see what is really best in the national interest. It’s a very important project. And we’re trying to make sure we do it well.

TOM BEARDEN: Jones says the administration is on track to make a final decision by the end of the year.