Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tar Sands Pipeline: Don’t Worry, It’s Safe!

It’s been more than a year since I visited the People’s Republic of China. Among many things that struck me was this: It appears as though people don’t expect to be told the truth by officials. Remember the dead pigs in the Shanghai River last month?  16,000 bloated corpses rotting in the drinking water for Shanghai’s 23 million citizens.  But the government assured the people that their tap water was safe to drink

Or how about the toxic smog in Beijing? Government officials insisted that there were 286 “blue sky” days in 2011, until private citizens (and the U.S. embassy) began measuring air quality on their own and posting the results. It turns out that nine of China’s 13 largest cities failed more than half the time to meet even the lowest WHO standards for air pollution.
But who expected to be told the truth?

Perhaps things are different, however, here in the U.S. For the most part, we expect our officials to level with us, don’t we?  Two months ago, the State Department produced its environmental impact statement (EIS) on TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and gave it a clean bill of health. I admit, this shook my faith in our officials a bit, especially since I come from a State Department family. I have already reviewed the EIS briefly, focusing on its highly-suspect treatment of the pipeline’s risks related to climate change. But I hardly looked at what they said about contamination from oil spills. I figured that was the least of our worries.

Then came the tar sands pipeline spill last week in Arkansas, releasing 84,000 gallons of Canadian heavy tar sands crude laced with toxic benzene into the small town of Mayflower. You’ve seen the pictures on the news, and it’s a remarkable sight. But it turns out that it’s not nearly as rare as we might have imagined:

  • Oil Change International reports that there were 364 pipeline spills in the U.S. last year, releasing 54,000 barrels of crude into our soils and waterways. That's 2.3 million gallons of oil spilled from pipelines in America in a single year.
  • Just last week, a train carrying tar sands crude derailed in Minnesota, spilling 15,000 gallons.
  • A week before that, a Chevron pipeline leaked more than 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel into a Utah wetlands area about 50 miles from Salt Lake City. That followed two other Chevron spills totaling of 54,000 gallons of crude near Salt Lake City in 2010 and 2011. (Note: Chevron was fined less than $13 per gallon.)
  • In 2011, Exxon fouled the once-pristine Yellowstone River, leaking 1,500 barrels – that’s 63,000 gallons – of tar sands crude from a pipeline in Montana.  (Note: Exxon ultimately paid a token fine equal to $26 per gallon spilled into the Yellowstone.)
  • In 2010, another Canadian pipeline operator spilled whopping 819,000 gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, polluting it over a 39-mile stretch and into Lake Michigan.

But the Keystone XL folks are totally unfazed. Their website pronounces all oil pipelines to be “safe and environmentally favorable.”  Moreover, theirs is the best, newest and most technologically advanced. They have even voluntarily – voluntarily, mind you – agreed to 57 special conditions to enhance safety even more.

We’d expect a rosy picture like this from them, of course. No point in advertising all those dirty spills on the website they’re paying for. But what about the U.S. State Department – our country’s protector in all this? 
Well, I’m afraid that the Chinese would know just how we feel. First the EIS tells us that only 4% of all pipeline spills release more than 42,000 gallons into the surrounding habitat.  And sure enough, TransCanada has agreed to those 57 special conditions that result in a “reduction in the likelihood of a release occurring.”

So cheer up, American friends: there are 96% odds your Canadian tar sands pipeline spill will be less than 42,000 gallons of crude. And just like the website tells you, there are 57 items in their operating manual that will reduce your risks even further.  So don’t worry!

Sometimes, it does a world of good to see things with your own eyes. Our Chinese friends watch those pigs floating slowly by, and they’ll stick with bottled water for the present. And now you’ve seen what tar sands oil looks like when it’s flowing through the back yard.

I suspect that our Chinese brothers and sisters don’t have an easy time telling President Xi Jinping just exactly how they feel about rotting pigs and toxic air. But for you, it’s easy to tell President Obama what you think about the tar sands pipeline. Why not do it? Just click here.  In sixty seconds, you can make a real difference.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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