Signed, sealed, delivered: Environmental concerns plague fast-tracked oil pipeline

Published in Indian Country Today in April 2008.

In March 2008, the U.S. Department of State issued a federal permit for the 2,000-mile TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from the oil sands of northern Alberta across seven U.S. states to Oklahoma. The document was signed, even though mandated government-to-government consultations with concerned Native nations were described as “ongoing” by the State Department.

            Issues of importance to tribes that are still unsettled include environmental concerns, as well as protection of sacred sites, employment opportunities and other economic benefits.

Why the rush?
The problem the State Department needed to solve was surging production in the oil sands region. Output will rise from 2.4 million barrels of oil per day in 2006 to as many as 5.3 million barrels per day in 2020, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). This is occurring just as other reserves of oil are depleting worldwide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

            Once extracted, the raw product must be sent to refineries. However, Canada can’t expand refinery capacity fast enough to cope with the increase — a situation Canada’s National Energy Board has described as “urgent.” As a result, major oil companies working in Alberta have to get the oil someplace that can deal with it, said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Canada Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Washington, D.C.

            And that’s where the United States and the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline come in.

            However, this one pipeline isn’t all the oil companies need, said Casey-Lefkowitz. She pointed to more pipelines planned or under construction and proposed increases of U.S. refinery capacity.

            “Concurrent with the Keystone proposal, U.S. refineries have expansion plans, including a new plant that [Dallas-based] Hyperion Resources is proposing in South Dakota,” she said, adding that this, in turn, means more local pollution and increased U.S. contribution to global warming.

A look at the oil sands
“If you’ve never seen an oil sands mining operation, it’s hard to fathom,” said elder Patrick Marcel, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. “They strip all the trees and earth to get at the bitumen [a heavy oil that’s mixed with clay, sand and water]. It’s a terrible thing, 100-percent devastation.”

            The oil sands are not the wasteland the name implies. Rather, they are a region of once-pristine boreal forest, lakes and abundant wildlife. The area includes the aboriginal homelands of several Canadian First Nations, including Marcel’s community.

            These days, the tract is also home to immense tailing ponds of polluted water left over from extraction, which requires two tons of the bitumen-rich earth, several barrels of water and 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas for every barrel of oil. The extraction process also releases tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases — enough to “challenge Canada’s fulfillment of its Kyoto [treaty] commitment,” according to a U.S. Department of Energy study.

            The devastation isn’t just local. As the oil sands are processed, toxins are pumped into the Athabasca River, whose giant delta is a World Heritage Site and home to North America’s largest wild bison population. Some fish and game in the area are no longer safe to eat, and people are being diagnosed with rare cancers, said Marcel. “If it’s this bad after 40 years of oil sands production, what will it be like in 100 years?” he asked.

            Social problems have arisen along with the environmental damage. “There’s no push to train First Nations people for meaningful work,” said Marcel. “Instead, they import thousands of workers from places like China and the Philippines, house them, clothe them and teach them English. When you bring in all those people and so much money, bad habits ensue that our people get swept up in. We’re seeing more bad than good, and we’d like to reverse that.”


Are we importing trouble? 

In the State Department’s rush to sign off on the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, it gave short shrift to environmental concerns in the United States.

            “We have serious concerns about water,” said Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Dianne Desrosiers, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, in Agency, South Dakota. “No one has really addressed that.” Her community lies in the eastern part of the state, where the pipeline would pass through waterways of various sizes and shallow aquifers.

             “You can’t dig a post hole without hitting water around here,” said a South Dakota landowner whose property is on the line’s proposed route. The situation is similar in North Dakota, where the Dakota Resource Council (DRC) and six landowners filed suit in early April, appealing the North Dakota Public Service Commission’s approval of the pipeline and asking the court to prevent construction from getting underway until the suit has been settled.

            “Because the aquifers are so close to the surface, they interact with lots of small streams and rivers,” explained DRC’s lawyer, Jana Linderman, staff attorney with Plains Justice, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “A spill would affect many people, including those who rely on wells and have no other water source.”

            And if a leak occurs? “You can’t clean up groundwater,” said Desrosiers.

            That’s right, says TransCanada’s June 2006 risk assessment for the project. The study explains that cleaning up wetlands can cause even more damage, so it’s preferable to let the oil disperse over decades. The document says that “mobile animals and birds” would move on, thus “mortality would be limited.” In some areas, TransCanada’s plans offered tough choices. For example, in the federally- and state-designated Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway, the alternatives were clear-cutting portions of the byway’s forest or burying the line beneath it, meaning leaks would be harder to detect.

            “The federal permit was granted prematurely,” said Casey-Lefkowitz. “Lots of issues along the pipeline route need to be settled. We also need to think about whether this kind of energy is really in our national interest.”

c. Stephanie Woodard.