“I was planting soybeans and my wife came out and got me and said there was a lady from TransCanada here. We had read in the paper that the route had been changed and they didn’t have very precise maps in the media – we could just tell that it was someplace close to us…”
In 2010, Art Tanderup and his wife moved to her family’s farm in Neligh, Nebraksa. After 35 years of teaching, Art was looking forward to a “happy retirement.”
“Y’know,” he said to me over the phone, “farm, travel, grandkids, family, church, etc. Do some things that we hadn’t had time before to do because of our careers…we had no idea we were in for something like this.”
Most farmers, said Art, have at least 1,000 acres. The Tanderup farm is “tiny in today’s world,” just 160 acres for the corn and soybeans they sell on the open market.
“Everything that we had read, we thought it was an oil pipeline. We didn’t know anything about tar sands at that time. And this lady came and she told us how wonderful it was that they were gonna put their oil pipeline through Nebraska and through the county and through our farm and, y’know, it was going to do all these things, reduce fuel prices, our dependence on foreign oil, put people to work, taxes for the community and all these wonderful things – and then they’d pay us some money, too…”
Mr. Tanderup and his wife were born and raised in the heartland of America. Art openly admits that he had no intention of becoming an environmental activist, or of turning his farm into a rallying point for opponents of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline. But when a representative from TransCanada came to the farm and asked the Tanderups if they’d sign paperwork that would allow the company to build a section of pipeline over their land…
“You know, you felt almost un-American if you didn’t just sign this thing. You kind of got that feeling. But obviously we said, ‘We need to look into things.’”
The Keystone and the Keystone XL
The Keystone XL is a proposed expansion to the Keystone pipeline, which starts at the oil sand fields in Alberta, Canada and ends in Cushing, Oklahoma. The XL would add 1,700 new miles to the pipeline and be divided into two legs: One that would connect Cushing to the refineries that border the Gulf Coast of Texas, and one that would run from Alberta through the Bakken Shale region of Montana and North Dakota.
At peak capacity, the XL (extra-large) pipeline would pump 830,000 barrels of oil per day. The process of extracting and moving this oil would generate significant carbon emissions, but environmentalists are actually more concerned by the potential for a spill, and this is due to the unique nature of the KXL’s payload.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), oil types are distinguished from each other by their viscosity (resistance to flow), volatility (evaporation index) and toxicity (how poisonous the oil is to organic life). By these metrics, NOAA separates oil into four types:
- Very Light Oils (e.g. Jet fuels, gasoline)
- Light Oils (e.g. Diesel, fuel oil, light crudes)
- Medium Oils (e.g. Most crude oils)
- Heavy Oils (e.g. Heavy crude oils)
As the oil types progress from very light to heavy, they become more toxic to humans and wildlife, are harder to clean up and pose greater contamination risks to the environment. Based on these metrics, how do Canada’s oil sands stack up?
To give you an idea, oil sands were once commonly referred to as tar sands. They’re thick: A mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen.
According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “Bitumen is oil that is too heavy or thick to flow or be pumped without being diluted or heated – at 11 degrees Celsius bitumen is as hard as a hockey puck.”
According to historian David Finch, “Technically the product from the bituminous sands deposits is neither tar nor oil.”
According to Historica Canada,
“One of the easiest ways to understand bitumen is to compare it to its cousin, conventional crude oil. Whereas conventional crude oil flows freely, bitumen does not. At room temperature it looks like cold molasses, and must be either heated or diluted before it flows. Like all petroleum, both conventional crude and bitumen are made up of hydrocarbons (i.e., organic compounds containing only carbon and hydrogen). However, compared to conventional crude oil, bitumen contains more carbon than hydrogen, as well as many more impurities, such as nitrogen, sulphur and heavy metals. In order to produce synthetic crude, these impurities must be removed and the carbon-hydrogen imbalance corrected.”
Commercially-mined oil sands contain an average of 10-12 percent bitumen, 83-85 percent mineral matter and four to six percent water. The oil is extracted from this mix in a processing drum or pipeline, which turns the oil sands into a slurry of 65 percent oil, 25 percent water and 10 percent solids. After the bitumen is skimmed from this slurry, the wastewater byproduct is dumped into tailings ponds (more on those later).
After the bitumen is extracted, it requires further processing (also known as “upgrading”) before it is sold to refineries, which involves either thermally cracking the heavy fractions to produce lighter fractions (such as gasoline) or adding hydrogen.
In North America, bitumen is commonly used to make asphalt.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that bitumen is heavier than heavy oil. It is in fact heavier than extra-heavy oil, which has an API gravity of less than 10 degrees (which simply means it is extremely dense).
As the U.S. Geological Survey puts it, “Natural bitumen, also called tar sands or oil sands, shares the attributes of heavy oil but is yet more dense and viscous.”
So oil sands produce the densest crude on the market. Meanwhile, the wastewater that accumulates from extracting bitumen from oil sands? It kills birds.
A June report from the National Wildlife Federation and Natural Resources Council of Maine found that clearing Canada’s boreal forest has destroyed the habitats of more than 292 species of protected birds. Many of these birds, looking for places to rest in their traditional territory, will fly down to the tailings ponds and be either sucked down by the oily water or poisoned by the toxins it contains. Over 120 birds died the week of November 2nd after landing in such ponds.
A Danger to the Ogallala Aquifer
As the Tanderups researched oil sands and what the KXL would actually be pumping over their farm, they became increasingly concerned.
The Tanderup farm is located above the Ogallala aquifer, the leading geologic formation in the High Plains Aquifer System. The system is spread over 174,000 square miles and eight states, extending from South Dakota to west Texas and spreading throughout almost the entirety of Nebraska on the way. The Ogallala is what is known as an “unconfined aquifer,” meaning that water seeps into it directly from the surface.
If the KXL were built over the Tanderups’ land, any leakage of its super-dense oil would contaminate the local water table.
“My irrigation well’s 120 feet deep,” said Tanderup. “So, any type of leak in that pipeline, whether it be a crack or seep or a full-blown break, that thing is gonna leak. The chemicals and the tar sands will work down through the soil into that water and contaminate the Ogallala aquifer.”
That aquifer supplies most of Nebraska and parts of several other states. “It’s the water we drink, it’s the water that feeds the livestock, it’s the water that irrigates the crops,” said Tanderup. “That water is everything to us here.”
And the likelihood of a leak is high.
Despite such pipelines’ numerous sensor-triggered automatic shut-offs and other advanced infrastructure features, leaks are inevitable. In 2013, the Exxon Pegasus pipeline inundated an Arkansas neighborhood with almost 100,000 gallons of heavy crude. And this was after Exxon installed new leak detection technology in 2009.
“It’s not that these pipelines and rigs can’t be run safely,” writes James Conca in Forbes, “it’s that they aren’t.”
Any assurances that the KXL will be different simply can’t be substantiated. There are decades of evidence to the contrary.
“So, you know, they say it’s safe,” says Tanderup, “just like the Titanic was supposed to be safe. They can’t guarantee it.”
Nothing the Tanderups learned about KXL made them any less reluctant to sign TransCanada’s paper. For them, it’s a matter of their livelihood, their health and their safety.
“We’re in a situation here,” said Tanderup. “If it’s in that water it destroys us all. The volume, the pressure, the heat, all those things lend themselves to a potential leak and spill into that aquifer.”
Resisting the KXL
The Tanderups are now part of a small coalition of farmers that are resisting the KXL encroachment. Their struggle has drawn the attentions of celebrities like Neil Young and Willie Nelson, who headlined the Harvest the Hope festival at the Tanderup farm this past September to raise awareness of the pipeline’s danger. Planet Expert and Associate Professor at CSU Northridge Erica Wohldmann was there, writing about the 8,000 who flocked to Nebraska in support of the cause, including farmers, ranchers and Native Americans. Various organizations spoke out against the pipeline, including the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, BOLD Nebraska and the Indigenous Environmental Network.
Despite this outpouring of support, the Tanderups’ refusal to sign over their land to TransCanada puts them in the local minority.
“In Nebraska we’re kind of a trusting people,” Tanderup said with a rueful laugh. “And with the easement [TransCanada’s] also been offering signing bonuses and all this extra money and people say, ‘Oh wow, well they say it’s safe, we don’t have to worry.’
“Most of them still believe it’s a crude oil pipeline. They think, ‘Oil floats, so they’ll be able to skim it out.’ They don’t know what tar sand is. So consequently, in this county for example, two-thirds of the landowners have signed. Right now I have to go five or six miles to find a neighbor that has not signed.”
The battle to retain land rights hasn’t been an easy one. The governor of Nebraska and TransCanada had hoped to pass a law (LB 1161) that would have given the Canadian company the power to seize private lands along the 300 miles between Cushing and Steele City, Nebraska. A Nebraska judge struck down the law in February, saying the power of eminent domain belongs to the state’s Public Service Commission and not to the governor.
For years, the status of the Keystone XL has remained up in the air, largely due to Democrats holding enough Congressional votes to prohibit binding resolutions from coming to the floor. However, following a sweeping Republican victory in this year’s midterm elections, pro-XL policymakers are already putting its approval to a vote.
“I think you’re going to see us bring up energy legislation right away and Keystone will be one of the first things we pass,” said North Dakota Senator John Hoeven.
On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 262 to 161 in support of the KXL. Tomorrow, the Senate will also vote on the bill, with all 45 Republicans and at least 13 Democrats likely to support it.
Obama’s Emissions Decision
If the bill to approve the Keystone XL makes it through both houses of Congress, it will fall to the president to either sign or veto the legislation.
In 2013, President Obama tied his approval to its environmental impact. “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests,” he told Georgetown University. “Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
The finding the President referred to was the State Department’s environmental impact report, which was released in January 2014. The department estimated that, if it were completed, the Keystone XL would increase global carbon dioxide emissions by up to 27 million tons. However, a study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute in the journal Nature Climate Change also factors in the lowered price of oil that would accompany the completion of the KXL. Their researchers estimate the true increase in CO2 emissions could be as high as 110 million tons per year.
A March 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service states that Canadian oil sands crudes are “generally more [greenhouse gas] emission-intensive than other crude they may displace in U.S. refineries, and emit an estimated 17 percent more GHGs on a life-cycle basis than the average barrel of crude oil refined in the United States.”
But for politicians who either don’t care how much carbon the U.S. puts into the air, or just don’t believe in man-made climate change, the atmospheric impact is a non-issue. The real issues are jobs and the price of oil. With that in mind…
How Many Jobs Will the Keystone XL Create?
If TransCanada is to be believed, the pipeline will create 42,000 direct and indirect “ongoing, enduring jobs,” according to Russ Girling, the company’s president and CEO.
However, Van Jones, an environmental activist and the host of CNN’s Crossfire, disputes this figure. He contends that the KXL will actually create 3,900 contract jobs over the course of its two-year construction and result in only 35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors. PolitiFact has verified this claim as true.
What Will the Keystone XL Do to the Price of Oil?
TransCanada wants to build the pipeline addition as soon as possible in order to make its oil sands cheaper to transport and, ostensibly, cheaper for customers to purchase. But the recent nosedive in the price of oil has made transporting it by truck or rail much less cost effective, simultaneously making the pipeline much more appealing to KXL and much more irrelevant to consumers.
According to the U.S. State Department’s analysis, if oil prices were to drop to $75 per barrel,
“higher transportation costs could have a substantial impact on oil sands production levels — possibly in excess of the capacity of the proposed Project— because many in situ projects are estimated to break even around these levels. Prices below this range would challenge the supply costs of many projects, regardless of pipeline constraints, but higher transport costs could further curtail production.”
“Tar sands only makes sense in a world of high oil prices,” Anthony Swift, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told InsideClimateNews. “We’re in a world where cheap transportation by pipeline makes or breaks even the cheapest tar sands project.”
Last month, analysts at Goldman Sachs estimated that oil will hit $75/bbl in 2015.
So What Will President Obama Do?
Climate change has become a key issue in the President’s second term. In June, Obama proposed cutting U.S. carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030, in itself a much more ambitious plan than vetoing the KXL could ever be.
In this year alone Obama has announced 50 public and private initiatives to grow solar power and improve energy efficiency throughout the U.S; proposed sweeping climate action strategies at the September UN climate summit; created the largest marine protected area in the world; partnered with America’s largest companies to phase out greenhouse gases; pledged $2.5 billion to the Green Climate Fund; and just last week announced a joint-pledge with China to reduce carbon emissions by 2030.
In 2012, Obama rejected the KXL’s initial proposal based on its route through Nebraska’s Sand Hills region, but he has refrained from taking any stronger position apart from extending the project’s environmental review indefinitely.
When I asked Art Tanderup what he thought Obama might do, the farmer replied, “I know that if this president is serious about making a statement on climate change, he will not approve this pipeline.”
On the ground, in the air, economically and agriculturally, the case for the KXL grows dimmer every year. There is little evidence that the pipeline will help America and every indication that it will hurt Americans in the heartland.
The U.S. Senate will put the matter to a vote on Tuesday. If you would like to petition your senators to vote no on the KXL, the Natural Resources Defense Council has created a page for you to do just that.
Photos courtesy of Art Tanderup