Keystone pipeline will spill, study predicts

Members of the "chain gang" assemble a pipeline near Burlington, Ill.  (Credit: AP)

Members of the "chain gang" assemble a pipeline near Burlington, Ill. (Credit: AP)

Originally published at Salon.com

BY ALYSSA BATTISTONI

It’s a matter of when, not if, say Cornell economists

Republicans have sought to frame the Keystone XL pipeline as a job-creating project being thwarted by “radical environmentalists.” Is it? A new Cornell University study claims that the pipeline could actually have a negative impact on the economies of the states it would pass through.

“In the national debate, job creation has been set alongside environmental concerns in a rigid either-or fashion,” says Sean Sweeney, one of the study’s authors, “But oil spills also kill jobs, they consume resources, they have an impact on health, and can also lead to a lower quality of life.”

The range of estimates of jobs vary widely. TransCanada claims the pipeline will create 20,000 jobs. A State Department report estimates that only 20 permanent operating jobs would be created in the six states along the pipeline route. By comparison, those same states are home to robust agricultural, ranching and tourist industries that are dependent on water and vulnerable to environmental contamination. Across the six states agriculture employs 571,000 workers and tourism 780,000; the total revenue from those sectors, respectively, is $76.3 billion and $67 billion.

Sludge not crude

Tar sands oil — known in energy circles as diluted bitumen — may be more damaging to environments and communities than regular crude. Said Sweeney, “Diluted bitumen is an irregular substance — it runs thick and thin, hot and cold. It’s basically a sludge, not like regular crude — it behaves differently.” Tar sands also seem more likely to spill than conventional crude: The spill rate for diluted bitumen in the northern Midwest between 2007-2010 was three times the national average for conventional oil. This may be because the heavy, corrosive material puts greater stress on pipelines.

The already existing Keystone I pipeline, which runs 2,100 miles from Alberta to Illinois, began operating in 2010; in the two years since, 35 spills have occurred. In the pipeline’s first year of operation alone, its spill rate was 100 times TransCanada’s projection. All told the amount of tar sands oil being transported through the United States has more than tripled in the past decade to 600,000 barrels in 2010. Keystone XL, if built, would add another 830,000 barrels per day.

John Stansbury, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska,analyzed spill data from the Keystone I pipeline to estimate that 91 spills would occur over the course of 50 years of Keystone XL’s operation — close to two spills each year.  In a worst-case scenario, he says, a spill could contaminate 4.9 billion gallons of groundwater in Nebraska’s Sand Hills with benzene, a known carcinogen.

The threat the pipeline poses to Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer, which provides 30 percent of the irrigation water in the U.S., has been much-discussed, but the pipeline would also cross another 1,747 bodies of water, including the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers and the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, the third largest aquifer in Texas.

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