The environmentalist style of warfare is to stall the enemy into submission. Climb up in a tree, stand in front of feller bunchers, block traffic, throw stink bombs on whaling ships, etc. It's worked, and it hasn't. Last January, environmentalists claimed a victory when the State Department denied construction of the Keystone XL pipeline pending further review. I recently talked with Corey Goulet, vice president of the Keystone XL project for TransCanada, though, and he spoke confidently, saying that the opposition will not only be overcome, but that it's a predictable and manageable part of construction.
“We have been building pipelines for more than 60 years and are very experienced in planning out how these activities will take place. That said, there are activities that are beyond our control and we respond to those as they occur,” said Goulet.
TransCanada’s proposed pipeline expansion runs through Montana to Oklahoma, where it meets up with one of their existing pipelines. That line, which runs directly south from North Dakota to Cushing, Oklahoma, carries 500,000 barrels per day of bitumen and light crude from the Canadian tar sands or "oil sands", as the industry prefers.
“We have been shipping millions of barrels of bitumen to the midwestern United States for a decade,” says Goulet. Of the 3 million barrels per day of oil products that Canada exports, 2 million is bitumen and 99 percent goes to the U.S.
Bitumen is often accessed through strip mining, and then refined into oil. Environmental opponents say the process further exacerbates human-caused global warming, because just getting the oil from the oil sands is energy intensive, which adds to overall emissions and uses large quantities of water.
“This is a debate about fossil fuel consumption and the professional activists and lawyers behind the opposition to Keystone XL are using this particular pipeline as a platform,” said Goulet
Rob Seifert, spokesperson for the environmental group Tar Sands Blockade, which opposes the pipeline in Texas, disagrees.
“Sure, there are those involved that would like to see the fossil fuel paradigm shifted, but this is about stopping abuse by this one particular company on this one particular pipeline,” said Seifert.
Stalling pipeline construction, says Seifert, buys his group time to grow and persuade the right people in the right positions. Six months ago, he says, locals largely ignored Tar Sands Blockade and their efforts to protest the pipeline, which is gaining passage in the Gulf Coast states through use of eminent domain. Eminent domain is a touchy subject in all states, but particularly in Texas where private land constitutes 97 percent of the state. Tar Sands Blockade has supported landowners in their efforts to tie TransCanada's eminent domain claims up in court. They’re also working to gain support from bigger nonprofit organizations opposing the pipeline.
The delay of Keystone XL has not halted the flow of oil. But it has allowed railroads to gain a larger share of the crude transport market than they would historically have. In September, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad announced their capacity to carry one million bpd of crude from the Bakken after investing $197 million in infrastructure and expansions.
The enviros that are fighting Keystone XL in hopes of a fossil fuel paradigm shift may want to take heed. Even though TransCanada's Goulet sees his railroad competitors as a short-term solution to the lack of a pipeline, (refiners generally prefer their crude by pipeline because it’s $10/barrel cheaper) he did concede that due to pipeline construction delays, the railroads have been able to grab a greater percentage of the market than he expected. From an environmental perspective, though, the problem with the rise of rail as a crude transport mechanism is that pipelines are exponentially safer for the environment and people, according to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The State Department also noted in Keystone XL's environmental impact statement that transport of crude by rail adds greater carbon emissions to the atmosphere than the pipeline would.
In that case, even if enviros win the pipeline battle, their protest signs and human chains may not have the chance to gather dust before they’re enlisted to besiege the railways. Meanwhile, the great consumers of fossil fuels never had to be bothered.
Neil LaRubbio is the High Country News editorial fellow. His Twitter handle is @VictorAntonin