TransCanada expects your stall tactic


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

Photos provided by Flickr user Rambynas and the Tar Sands Blockade Facebook page.

Noel D Newnam
Noel D Newnam
Oct 15, 2012 11:58 AM
One of the tar sands oils producers has an established pipeline already running to Commerce City (Denver metro). It runs through Montana and Wyoming. I've not heard of any problems with the pipeline, just with the company on the receiving end having a benzene storage tank leak, which may or may not be related.
Quin Ourada
Quin Ourada
Oct 16, 2012 02:31 PM
Since the economics of oil shale development are shaky, at best, I wouldn't consider increased cost of $10/bbl trivial. Question: Did Mr. Goulet speak "confidently" or arrogantly?
Neil LaRubbio
Neil LaRubbio Subscriber
Oct 16, 2012 02:56 PM
Goulet spoke confidently. Would you have preferred a word edit?
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Oct 16, 2012 03:23 PM
All in all a good article. I feel more informed than before I started reading. I've been wondering about the XL ever since it became a cause celeb. I assumed there must be another side of the issue I was missing.
Quin Ourada
Quin Ourada
Oct 16, 2012 03:39 PM
Yes, a good article that certainly raises some interesting questions. It should be noted that a quick search on the Manhattan Institute indicates it is a conservative think tank promoting limited government, receives funding from extractive industries and denies the scientific consensus on the causal link between carbon dioxide and global temperature. It seems, therefore, there may be an agenda at play.

I don't recommend any edits. You conducted the interview and know the story best. I only asked because the subsequent quotes "very experienced in planning out how these activities will take place" and “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,” suggest, to me anyway, an attitude beyond simple confidence.
Neil LaRubbio
Neil LaRubbio Subscriber
Oct 16, 2012 05:02 PM
Absolutely Quin. All reports from any think tank should be scrutinized, but their sources for the report I cite are government agencies, and they're comparing one midstream industry to another - not exactly ideological loggerheads.

The government statistics they present show twice as many Hazmat incidents per year for railroads than for pipelines. One could argue that no regulation body is more lax than the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates rail. A recent AP article revealed design flaws of railcars transporting hazard liquids[…]r-has-dangerous-design-flaw
So it's difficult to say that that report has an ill-informed bias.

In my opinion, TransCanada believes the pipeline opposition is propped up by well-funded transnational environmental groups, but that federal politics, industry prerogative and consumer demand will ultimately win out. I think that's rational to be confident about, however painful to some people.

Even if they're wrong and TransCanada loses, bitumen extraction will continue. It'll be shipped by existing pipelines or freight trains running off of diesel.

So, is there a wiser appropriation of time and money for environmentalists to take on this matter?
Evan Ravitz
Evan Ravitz
Oct 16, 2012 05:15 PM
The only use I have for bitumen tar is to tar and feather those who are making this happen instead of a fast transition to renewable energies. We should have started decades ago. I wrote about how cheap solar heating was in the 1979 HCN:
Quin Ourada
Quin Ourada
Oct 17, 2012 07:51 AM
There may be a better approach, but that depends on resources threatened by the pipeline and the extent to which stakeholders value those resources, their own resolve and the extent to which they can garner support from the greater community.
It may be true that shipping by rail involves more risk along those rail corridors. But the fact remains, those rail corridors already exist. Response protocols for rail accidents exist and we generally know when a rail accident takes place. It may be the case that shipping a dangerous product like bitumen overland should ALSO involve closer scrutiny. The evidence seems to suggest as much. Therefore it is extremely important for us to know, in absence of a pipeline, rail shipment is the preferred alternative. Thank you for reporting this!

The pipeline corridor is certainly a different animal. In many locations it follows a new route involving new disturbances. In some locations this route impacts sensitive public or private lands and puts new/more resources at risk. There are certainly stakeholders justified in their opposition to the routing and construction of a new transnational corridor and all the myriad environmental disturbances that come along with that construction. On top of construction damages, the product delivered is controversial and dangerous, so you might well expect those impacted by the pipeline route to have legitimate concerns about that too.

We, as a greater community, have a right AND responsibility to scrutinize not only pipeline construction but pipeline routing, risk potential and disaster response/mitigation plans. On top of that we have a right and responsibility to scrutinize the extraction process itself, especially when public resources are involved.

Ultimately a product is being sold by a company. The manufacture and transport of this product will have tremendous impact on public and private resources. It is imperative the company selling the product be responsible for full cost of product manufacture and transport and that we shed light on the manners in which the costs of their product development are being socialized and borne by the community at large, be via environmental degradation or otherwise. I think we've given the extraction industries enough free passes.
Neil LaRubbio
Neil LaRubbio Subscriber
Oct 17, 2012 08:39 AM
"It is imperative the company selling the product be responsible for full cost of product manufacture and transport and that we shed light on the manners in which the costs of their product development are being socialized and borne by the community at large."

A dismal foreshadow cast on us creatures of consequence. I don't look forward to the epilogue. Well written, Quin.