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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.


Months before activists started locking their bodies to pipe-laying machines, Crawford joined a lawsuit against TransCanada. He fears the pipeline, which crosses the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer that provides all of Reklaw's water and portions of it to several other nearby towns, would endanger the region.

"I mean, you heard what happened in Kalamazoo, right?" Crawford says.

In July 2010, a pipeline owned by Enbridge, another Canadian company, saw a sudden pressure drop. Repeat calls to a 911 dispatcher in Marshal, Michigan, reported a noxious petroleum smell. By the time a utility worker spotted oil in a creek the next day, more than a million gallons of diluted bitumen had gushed out, flowing downstream to taint some 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

The Enbridge cleanup has already cost some $725 million and counting. Among the largest onshore oil spills in U.S. history, the case got little immediate attention, eclipsed by the Deepwater Horizon explosion months prior that sent crude spewing into the Gulf.

TransCanada's own Keystone I, Keystone XL's predecessor currently connecting Albertan oil sands to Illinois refineries, had a tough first year in operation. It saw 21 spills in Canada and the U.S., most of them small, and was temporarily shut down by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The pipeline spilled 500 barrels, or some 21,000 gallons, in Brampton, North Dakota in May, 2011.

"Bottom line: this is going to be the safest pipeline ever built," company spokesman David Dodson says of Keystone XL. Operators monitoring the flow can control valves along the pipeline's path to quickly isolate any sections, should they rupture. Dodson says Keystone XL will be the most advanced pipeline ever constructed.

But some are still wary of TransCanada's spill estimate for Keystone XL, which amounts to 11 spills of 50 barrels or more over its 50-year lifespan. Dr. John Stansbury, a University of Nebraska researcher who consults for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in 2011 released his own study of the proposed line.

Looking at historical data, known information about this type of pipeline, and the type of oil it would carry, Stansbury concluded that Keystone XL would likely see 91 significant spills. Stansbury also suggested it could take TransCanada as long as two hours to shut the pipeline down in the event of a spill; TransCanada estimates it could shut down the flow of diluted bitumen in less than 12 minutes.

Against this backdrop, Reklaw's Crawford took his case to nearby town leaders and convinced them to join forces, forming a sub-regional planning commission that would demand the attention of state and federal leaders. They eventually joined the Sierra Club in seeking an injunction against the Army Corps of Engineers, which would issue permits for the southern section of the Keystone XL pipeline through Oklahoma and through East Texas. The Sierra Club sued in an Oklahoma federal court, saying the streamlined approval of the pipeline would not account for East Texas wetlands that would be permanently altered.

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