If there were a single red flag signaling either the End of the Oil Age or us: the mining of the Canadian tar sands — where massive strip mines must excavate up to four tons of oily sand and rock to wrest a single barrel of oil from the ground — may be that flag. As calls for the world to get off carbon-based energy intensify, none other than NASA climatologist James Hansen has suggested that if the tar sands are ever brought to market, our chances of ever stopping or reversing the quickening clip of global warming are over.
And yet despite their election-year grandstanding for clean energy, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear to be supporting a pipeline to move those oil-sands out of Alberta all the way to Houston-area refineries. While the EPA has taken issue with the potential impact of adding more toxic air emissions to an already well-toxified population in Port Arthur, it’s unlikely to stop the pipeline.
As federal officials line up for final approvals this summer and activists call for civil disobedience in D.C., a report by an environmental engineer at the University of Nebraska released this week should raise eyebrows. In an analysis of worst-case spills from the Keystone XL pipeline, John Stansbury repeatedly challenges the findings of would-be pipeline operator TransCanada Corp, which he blamed for “flawed and inappropriate assumptions.” The pipeline, he wrote, would not have 11 “significant” spills of more than 50 barrels in 50 years, as TransCanada suggested to federal regulators, but 91 — nearly two every year in keeping with the track records of similar pipelines.
Part of the problem is that the oil itself, a heavier product rich in bitumen, hydrogen sulfide, and a range of benzene compounds, makes spills more likely, Stansbury wrote.
Since January 1, 2010, the federal National Response Center has logged 145 calls related to pipeline spills of oil, gas, or sewage in Texas.
A proposed U.S. House bill targeting border security essentially gives unprecedented authority to a single federal agency to destroy wildlife habitat and wetlands along U.S. borders and coastline, according to the Pew Environment Group. The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, discussed Thursday by the House Natural Resources Committee, would give the U.S. Department of Homeland Security authority to bypass 36 environmental laws governing the management of federal, state, and private lands within 100 miles of the U.S. border and coastline.
“While we strongly support making America’s borders more secure, this sweeping waiver of the nation’s bedrock environmental and land management laws has little to do with accomplishing that goal,” said Jane Danowitz, the Pew Environment Group’s director of U.S. public lands.
The bill, Danowitz says, gives “unprecedented authority to a single federal agency to destroy wildlife habitat and wetlands, impair downstream water quality and restrict activities such as hunting, fishing and grazing.” Under the banner of border security, the law would allow DHS to ignore protections like the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.