TransCanada, developer of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, may have received a Christmas present last month as the U.S. Senate voted to force the Obama administration to either approve or deny the company's controversial project within the next 60 days. All parties involved know that two months is not nearly enough time to conduct a reasonable review of the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline. Consequently, the Senate's vote forces the president to determine the fate of this project without a proper assessment of environmental impacts.
The pipeline's supporters contend that a thorough environmental analysis has already been conducted. David Wilkins, a former S.C. House speaker, U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2005-2009, and partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, argued in a Nov. 29 column in The Post and Courier that the U.S. State Department has studied the pipeline project and concluded that it will not cause environmental harm. This judgment ignores disturbing conflicts of interest underlying the State Department's handling of the pipeline's environmental review.
The State Department selected consulting firm Cardno Entrix to perform an impartial environmental assessment of Keystone XL despite the fact that Cardno Entrix refers to TransCanada as a "major client." To make matters worse, the State Department selected the firm on the direct recommendation of TransCanada. Let's not forget that a similarly cozy relationship between offshore drilling companies and the now defunct federal Minerals Management Service fostered the fast-and-loose mentality which ultimately led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and the release of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet less than two years after the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the federal government is once again placating a powerful corporate interest, TransCanada, while disregarding serious environmental concerns about a major oil development project.
In defense of some senators who voted to force Obama's hand, TransCanada and its legislative allies successfully held the payroll tax cut hostage with the rider that ordered a rushed decision on Keystone XL. The payroll tax cut took priority and was passed, the pipeline avoided a real environmental review and, once again, reasonable public policy fell victim to bullying by a special interest.
If this cautionary tale fails to raise a red flag, let's examine some of the arguments used to support the pipeline's accelerated development. Instead of creating 20,000 jobs as Mr. Wilkins contends, a Cornell University report found that the pipeline will create no more than 4,650 temporary construction jobs. These new jobs would have no perceivable effect on the national unemployment rate, and few, if any of the jobs would be in South Carolina.
Pipeline supporters also wrongly attest that tar sands oil from Canada would reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. In reality, the Keystone XL pipeline would merely transport tar sands oil to refineries along the Gulf Coast where existing contracts and market realities all but predetermine that these resources will be exported ... to China. Another disturbing reality about this "privately developed" project is that TransCanada, a foreign company, is reliant on eminent domain, the forceful taking of private property from U.S. citizens, in order to clear a path for the pipeline. Keystone XL is about profits, not about creating jobs or improving our energy independence.
Additionally, regional water resources as well as farming and ranching operations in the Midwest would be put at risk from pipeline oil spills. The first TransCanada Keystone pipeline has already had over 30 spills in the United States and Canada during its first year of operation. That's why the pipeline opposition includes conservative ranchers from the Midwest, the Republican governor of Nebraska, as well as conservationists from across the country.
The Obama administration's original decision to take a closer look at the pipeline's potential impacts to agriculture, water resources and private property rights was the right one. Needless to say, if our legislators could provide us with a clear, comprehensive approach to energy at the national level, we wouldn't have to endure the sight of our federal government bending over backwards to appease special interests like TransCanada who don't have the public's best interest in mind. Let's hope the recent horse trading on Capitol Hill and the rush to tap Canada's tar sands do not leave us with an oil slick covering the amber waves of America's heartland, or worse -- continued dependence on imported energy, while our country's own alternative energy resources remain woefully underdeveloped.
Ryan Black is climate and energy project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.