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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.


A judge wouldn't grant an injunction, and the case now sits in a federal appeals court.

Meanwhile, the pipeline's construction marches along.

"Oil is Oil"

Far less attention has been paid to the refinery communities that would actually take in the diluted bitumen from Keystone XL. Canadian tar sands oil has faced stiff criticism from environmental groups, who say the stuff is far dirtier than what's coming in from the Middle East or South America, despite Canadian government and industry group claims to the contrary.

In the U.S., tar sands oil already fuels cars and trucking fleets, and it's used in producing anything from aluminum cans to asphalt.

In 2010, a San Francisco-based outfit called Forest Ethics launched a campaign encouraging American companies to boycott tar sands oil and, specifically, the refineries that process it. Using data from the federal Energy Information Administration, which tracks imports of unprocessed crude, Forest Ethics compiled a list of nearly 50 U.S. refineries that already handle tar sands oil. Included were ExxonMobil's Baytown refinery, BP's Texas City refinery, and Valero's Port Arthur refinery. Forest Ethics got 14 companies, including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, to stop fueling their trucking fleets from any of the refineries on their tar sands map.

Josh Mogerman tracks tar sands-related developments for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Industry likes to say, 'oil is oil,' and that's just not the case," Mogerman contends. "This stuff is heavier, dirtier, and nastier, and it comes with a significant increase in pollution." Mogerman points to BP's Whiting, Indiana refinery, where five years ago the company completed a nearly $4 billion expansion to process more heavy Canadian crude. NRDC staffers weren't convinced when the company claimed emissions of several pollutants would actually decrease following the expansion, so they got to digging through thousands of pages BP had filed with the state.

"The math wasn't right," Mogerman says. BP assumed new flares installed on site, which burn off waste gases and can be a major source of pollution, would produce no emissions. EPA eventually agreed with many of the complaints the NRDC filed with the agency and intervened in 2009, prodding BP to agree to pay an additional $400 million in increased pollution control measures.

Mogerman worries that the prospect of Keystone XL has and will push refiners to expand their capacity to handle tar sands in areas already hard hit by the petrochemical industry, like Texas' Gulf Coast. In 2011, Houston Mayor Annise Parker expressed that very same concern in a letter to the State Department, as did the EPA when it called the State Department's environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline "inadequate." EPA urged the department to "provide a clearer analysis of potential environmental and health impacts to communities from refinery air emissions and other environmental stressors."

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