Keystone XL Pipeline stirs up environmental controversy

By Andrew Shull

The weekend before the fall semester started, Pitt students Nikki Luke and Eva Resnick-Day were… The weekend before the fall semester started, Pitt students Nikki Luke and Eva Resnick-Day were in the back of a paddy wagon. They were waiting to be processed after committing a premeditated offense in direct defiance of police orders. Their crimes were the same: sitting in the designated “Picture and Postcard Area” in front of the White House and refusing to move after receiving two verbal warnings.

Luke and Resnick-Day are co-presidents of Free the Planet, an environmental advocacy group at Pitt, and went to Washington, D.C., to protest a proposed 1,700-mile pipeline that would carry unprocessed oil sands from Alberta, Canada, to Texas to be refined. The construction project is highly controversial because of its environmental impacts, which include potential oil spills. On the other hand, the pipeline can potentially create thousands of jobs.

Seth Bush, a past president and board member of Free the Planet, was arrested for the same offense in the same demonstration a week after Luke and Resnick-Day. His opposition to the pipeline comes from his goal of breaking the United States’ dependence on oil.

“It’s like a heroin addict who constantly talks about getting clean, and he has a plan to get clean, but there’s always one more hit. This is one more hit,” Bush said. “If Obama passed this pipeline, it would be a blunt and clear statement that we aren’t willing to break our addiction on oil.”

On Dec. 22, Congress passed an extension to the Payroll Tax Cut, a popular measure signed by President Barack Obama. But tacked onto the bill was a rider that would force the president’s hand on the Keystone XL Pipeline. He has until Feb. 21 to approve or deny the pipeline.

Like many energy projects, estimates of the costs and benefits vary depending on whom you ask. TransCanada, the company leading the project, proposed the pipeline in 2008 and claims it will provide a supply of crude oil to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and provide more jobs. But environmentalists want Obama to break the country’s dependency on oil in the hope of preventing oil spills.

Jennifer Victor, a Pitt political science professor, said that while Obama threatened to veto the bill if the pipeline came attached to it, the Republicans called his bluff.

While this might seem like a setback for the environmentalists, Luke said that she felt “confident” Obama would reject the plan without additional environmental oversight.

“If we said no, it would be the first time — at least in my studies of environmental studies — that we said no to oil,” said Luke, an environmental science major.

The president isn’t just facing pressure from the oil industry and congressional Republicans on the issue. Several important unions, including the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, expressed their support for the bill. The oil industry promises that the pipeline will create thousands of jobs during a time when unemployment is a hot button issue in the presidential election.

TransCanada promises 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs in addition to 118,000 “spin-off jobs” created as a result of the project, according to its website.

Others say the actual figures will be much lower. The State Department report estimated that the construction jobs would be closer to 5,000 to 6,000 temporary jobs, and a study done by Cornell University noted that half of the manufacturing would be outside of the United States.

Much of the environmental controversy arises from the underground pipeline’s threat to an important aquifer in Nebraska. Groundwater contamination expert and Pitt professor Daniel Bain said there are increased risks with an underground pipeline.

“The problem with underground pipeline is that you can’t see problems when they arise,” Bain said. “Once the contamination is there, it will be there for a long, long time.”

Bain said that if the pipeline spills, which he said was likely without perfect engineering and perfect maintenance, the oil is very hard to remove from the aquifer. Although some contamination wouldn’t necessarily upset agriculture, it would ruin the aquifer for human consumption, he said.

While the president still has another month and a half to respond, the environmentalists are claiming a small victory in the fight that started in August.

Bush said that without the continued advocacy, which included the August action and a massive protest that surrounded the White House one year to the day before election day, the pipeline might have been approved without much public attention.

“We wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he said.

Victor agrees. While she qualified that it is impossible to know exactly what made this issue unfold the way it did, the environmentalists were able to bring a lot of attention to the pipeline.

“A few months ago, Canadian oil sands were a brand new idea,” she said. “I’m not sure if the protests were the definitive event, but I certainly think their efforts were effective.”

Resnick-Day was not ready to declare victory. She described herself as cautiously optimistic but said she would consider withholding support from President Obama this year if he approved the pipeline.

“We just want him to be the president he said he would be — the president we thought he would be,” she said.

Here are three plausible scenarios that President Barack Obama could make by Feb. 21

1. Obama could veto the payroll tax legislation because it has the policy rider for the pipeline. This would be the ideal scenario for anti-pipeline activists.

2. Obama could sign the legislation and hope the pipeline is not approved because it doesn’t get approval after an environmental review to assess legal requirements in 60 days. National Wildlife Federation’s Jeremy Symons wrote on his blog that this scenario shortens the review process, almost ensuring that the pipeline will not be approved.

3. Obama could sign the legislation and work with TransCanada to map out a new route for the pipeline. This would not only please his labor voting constituency but also the oil industry.

4. Obama could sign the legislation, and the pipeline could pass the environmental review in time and be constructed. This would be the ideal scenario for people in support of the pipeline.