As steam rose from the stacks of the nearby Valero Energy refinery, environmental activists on Thursday described the dangers they say a proposed crude oil pipeline and its product pose to residents of east Houston’s Manchester neighborhood.
The activists were there to lead a group of reporters, bloggers and concerned citizens on a tour of neighborhoods near industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel to raise awareness about the pipeline, which would transport an unconventional form of crude oil from Canada to refineries in the Houston and Port Arthur areas. [See photos of the tour and press conference by photographer Pin Lim here.]
TransCanada, a company based in Calgary, seeks to construct the 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline (also called the Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project) from Alberta through seven U.S. states before reaching a terminus in Nederland in southeast Texas. It would pump “tar sands” crude oil (also known as “oil sands“) extracted from Canadian strip mines into the United States.
Kate Colarulli, dirty fuels director for the national Sierra Club, said that communities such as Manchester and similar ones in the Port Arthur area are determined by the federal government to be already “extremely burdened” by the harmful effects of pollution from refineries and petrochemical plants.
Colarulli said the “carbon footprint” of the tar sands oil expected to be shipped through the proposed pipeline would be the equivalent of “putting 6.5 million new cars on the roads” or 12 new coal-fired power plants.
The tar sands oil that would be refined after transport through the Keystone pipeline is heavier than conventional forms of crude oil and much higher concentrations of harmful substances, many of them carcinogenic, she said. Tar sands oil is also much more corrosive than conventional crude, posing an increased danger of pipeline spills, she said. In Texas along, Colarulli said, the Keystone pipeline would cross 16 major rivers that feed into 21 municipal reservoirs.
Since the pipeline would cross the international border, the company requires a presidential permit that first must be vetted through a regulatory arm of the State Department. The company has asked for the permit to be “fast-tracked,” she said, adding that a primary business reason might be that there is strong opposition in Canada to building pipelines that would ship the oil sands to Canadian seaports.
TransCanada currently seeks to transport 700,000 barrels per day through the pipeline, after having withdrawn a request for a special permit to ship 900,000 barrels per day. That would be done by pumping the oil at a much higher than normal operating pressure, Colarulli said, adding that the company could later seek the special permit without public participation. (Click on the links to read the company’s stated positions on environmental protection and pipeline safety.)
“There are no federal rules or guidelines in place for pumping tar sands,” Colarulli said.
And even though TransCanada has not yet secured a presidential permit for the project, she said, the company has sent letters to landowners in Texas and other states (including Nebraska and North and South Dakota) pressuring them to sell their properties or risk having them taken through eminent domain. (Read the company’s stated position toward landowner relations here.)
Colarulli was later joined by Juan Parras, director of the Houston environmental group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services ( t.e.j.a.s.) and Neil Carman, clean air director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, in asking that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton require the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration undertake a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the project.
But, Colarulli told a member of the public who attended a seminar at the park’s community center that the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations want to “stop the pipeline altogether.”
“It’s time for our country to make a choice,” she said, to move away from refining petroleum products and toward “clean, green technologies,” especially in a time of recession when developing those technologies could create more jobs.
UPDATE: On Nov. 10, the Obama Administration, citing environmental concerns, pushed back a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for at least a year, after the 2012 elections. After Congressional Republicans tied a vote on extending payroll tax deductions to a Feb. 21 deadline for Obama to make a decision, the adminitration rejected TransCanada’s application, but said it could reapply after coming up with a new route. On Feb. 14, as Congressional Republicans continued efforts to have the project approved, TransCanada announced it was delaying a possible startup date until 2015 in order to review alternative routes.
On March 1, 2013, after President Obama put off a decision until after the 2012 election, the State Department released a draft environmental impact assessment suggesting the project would have little impact on climate change.
See photos of the Houston Frontlines Tour and press conference by photographer Pin Lim here. To see his photo essay on his blog, “The EastEnder Notes,” click here. Perry Dorrell, author of the “Brains and Eggs” blog, offers his take here.
Read about energy industry reaction to the controversy over oil sands here.
Copyright © 2010 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.