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Tarnation: Environmentalists, landowners and Valero await decision on the Keystone XL pipeline

Photo: Photos by Tar Sands Blockade / LauraBorealis, License: N/A

Photos by Tar Sands Blockade / LauraBorealis

A protester is arrested outside Wells, Texas.

Photo: , License: N/A

Protester sits in the trees above the Keystone XL pipeline construction outside Wells, Texas.

The town of Wells is easy to overlook, just a few blocks of homes and a school stretching along a busy state highway. Paths that shoot north from the main drag plunge you deep into a forest of towering East Texas pines. In November, construction crews here navigated bulldozers, feller bunchers, and excavators through rows of trees, laying the groundwork for a fight with global implications: the battle over a 1,700-mile pipeline connecting Texas oil refineries to Canada's vast deposits of tar sands.

The Keystone XL pipeline will transport as much as 830,000 barrels a day of bitumen, which has a thick consistency comparable to peanut butter. It's diluted with a cocktail of other petroleum compounds or synthetic crude in order to carry it through pipelines at pressures of up to 1,300 pounds per square inch, and at temperatures as high as 150 degrees.

This diluted bitumen, or "dilbit" in industry speak, was on the minds of many when President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address last week, warned that America needs to quickly respond to the threat posed by our changing climate, saying that "failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." Environmentalists collectively shouted that Obama should start by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.

The State Department must ultimately rule on the $7 billion project, owned by Canadian gas-line giant TransCanada, since it crosses international boundaries. Last year the GOP-controlled House handed the president a 60-day ultimatum to either approve or deny Keystone XL, before the State Department even had time to finish its own assessment of whether the project is in the national interest. Obama reacted by rejecting TransCanada's first application, urging the company to resubmit, and signing an executive order that fast-tracked Keystone XL's southern Oklahoma-Texas leg.

Pipeline construction crews have been buzzing across East Texas ever since. And there's mounting pressure for Obama to answer a question his administration has effectively dodged for much of his first term: yes or no to tar sands?

In the "yes" camp are those who say Keystone XL would create jobs and ensure lower prices at the pump by securing a steady supply of friendly oil. Among those urging "no" are environmentalists and some climatologists who fear that digging up and burning Canada's buried oil sands could pump so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that Keystone XL could render useless any human attempt to curb emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change.

Just as anti-tar sands activists anxiously await Obama's ruling on the Keystone XL pipeline, so does San Antonio's Valero. As the nation's largest independent refiner, analysts say Valero is perfectly poised to benefit from the increase in tar sands slated to flow into the state.

Valero's refinery in Port Arthur, where the pipeline will terminate, can suck up 310,000 barrels a day of some of the world's lowest-quality crude — like tar sands — and turn it into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Valero, which publicly supports the project, is expected to be among

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