Keystone XL pipeline pits jobs against the environment

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico. Supporters say it would mean 20,000 jobs. Opponents worry about the impact on the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to eight states.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted October 1, 2011 at 2:42 pm EDT

Chicago – Clashes over the proposed extension of the Keystone XL pipeline took place throughout the Great Plains states this week as public hearings allowed supporters and opponents to make their case for or against what is proposed as the longest oil pipeline in North America.

The US State Department held public hearings in Texas, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma – all states that will be impacted if the Obama administration approves the $7 billion, 36-inch pipeline that is designed to travel nearly 2,000 miles delivering Canadian oil to markets in the Gulf of Mexico.

A State Department environmental impact statement released in late August said the pipeline, operated by TransCanada, would cause minimal impact on the environment. Union organizations and business interests say the pipeline will reduce the nation’s dependence on overseas oil and create jobs while environmentalists, local farmers and some state government leaders question the company’s safety record.

Opponents of Keystone XL also say the government has been lax in regulating oil companies. Two examples from last year that were frequently referenced at the hearings: the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and another, smaller, spill in Michigan that polluted a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River.

At particular risk, they say, is the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water supply that is the greatest irrigation source to the nation’s farmland, supplying eight states. Because 65 percent of the aquifer is in Nebraska, the national fight is focused there.

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman (R), who is against the pipeline, is asking the State Department to require TransCanada to reroute the pipeline away from the aquifer if it eventually wins approval.

According to reports, the hearings drew more supporters than opponents, in many cases due to union workers who were bused in from other states to provide testimony.

In Atkinson, Neb. Thursday, Ron Kaminski, a business manager of Laborers’ Local 1140 in Omaha, told the Associated Press his organization “believes deeply in the jobs [the pipeline] will create.”

Union representatives and workers who traveled long distances to attend the meetings expressed the same sentiment: that the US should not dismiss an opportunity to create jobs, especially in a troubled economy. TransCanada says the pipeline will create 20,000 jobs and add $20 billion to the US economy.

Detractors raised anxieties about the coarse mixture the pipelines will carry.

Oil sands are crude, they say, more corrosive than crude oil, which not only will make it more susceptible to damaging a pipeline but make it more difficult to mitigate the damage following a spill. TransCanada officials dismiss those claims, saying the Keystone XL will be thicker in construction, making it more durable, and will be monitored by sensors to ensure safety.

In testimony Tuesday in Lincoln, Neb., Mark Whitehead, president of the Nebraska Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association defended his industry, saying that Americans “don’t have the luxury of taking philosophical stances on visions of what things would be like if oil and gasoline weren’t interwoven so tightly in our daily lives.

“The fact is, petroleum has done more to improve our standard of living over the last century than any single innovation,” he said.

Opponents criticized the Obama administration for siding with corporate power and neglecting public health threats they say will be pervasive if the pipeline moves forward.

“If this administration cares about the health of these people, then it must stop this pipeline. We cannot afford to spill this toxic tar sands oil into our soil or groundwater,” said Amanda McKinney Tuesday in Nebraska.

Terry Blevins of Wolf Point, Montana, testified that “the pipeline is for the purpose of generating profit for a private company … it will generate few, if any, local jobs and the oil is likely to be destined for export markets. This is not in the national interest.”

In its environmental impact statement, the US State Department said the existing pipeline experienced 14 spills since June 2010. Seven were 10 gallons or less, two were between 300 and 500 gallons while one was 21,000 gallons. The State Department is involved in the process because the pipeline originates in a foreign country.

President Obama must approve the project by December. A final public hearing is scheduled Friday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. If approved, operations will start in 2013.

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