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Koch Industries, Keystone XL Pipeline … a BP on the Prairie?

In a provocative demonstration against the tar sands, clean energy advocates poured "oil" onto a female model draped with the Canadian flag on Parliament Hill. Those pouring the oil were dressed as executives of TransCanada, the company proposing to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will run from the Alberta tar sands to the US Gulf Coast. (Photo: Ben Powless / Rainforest Action Network)

TransCanada, the Keystone XL Pipeline and Koch Industries

As the race to develop domestically produced fuels hits a fevered pitch, especially as a reaction to the tensions in the Middle East, politicians from the president on down are seeking a “magic pill” that will solve our energy problems. President Obama promised a “green revolution,” with hints at promising wind and solar energy sources during the campaign, but has now done one of his famous backtracks as he pushes the idea of “clean coal.” One of the alleged “clean coal” sources his administration has placed under serious consideration is “bituminous coal” (aka “unconventional petroleum deposit'), or simply put … “tar sands.” Tar sands are plentiful in the US and Canada, but environmentally treacherous to mine and transport – yet, this is the “green energy” the Obama administration has leaned toward – with heavy prodding from its most threatening political enemy, Koch Industries – disputed founders of the Tea Party movement.

TransCanada and Koch Industries

Project developer TransCanada seeks approval from US government agencies to build the new tar sands pipeline from Alberta, Canada, through the Midwest United States to Texas as part of a proposed fossil fuel super highway. (Source.)

Koch Industries would be a big winner if this pipeline were approved. Presently, Koch imports to the US close to 25 percent of all oil sands crude. Koch Industries includes a facility in Calgary, Alberta, called the Flint Hills Resources Canada LP, which supplies roughly 250,000 barrels of tar sands crude daily to the “heavy oil” refinery Koch owns in Minnesota. Additionally, Flint Hills operates a “crude oil terminal” situated right at the Keystone XL Pipeline starting point in Hardisty, Alberta. The Koch brothers have been busy – and thanks to the Citizens United decision, are able to flood political campaigns with unlimited cash. The Los Angeles Times reported that Koch Industries and its “employees” constituted the largest single donor to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including the coffers of Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), the new committee chair. (Source.)

The Keystone XL Pipeline

Better known as the Keystone XL, this project would travel through South Dakota, NEBRASKA, Oklahoma, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas on to Texas – while slicing through the northeastern quadrant of the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. The plan is to build that section of the Keystone UNDER the aquifer. TransCanada is confident that history won't repeat itself and the Keystone won't suffer the same fate as the British Petroleum Corp. (BP) Deepwater Horizon disaster of last year. The stakes are high – as the Ogallala aquifer is considered one of the largest sources of fresh groundwater on earth – cutting through eight Midwestern states. Additionally, various parts of Ogallala in Nebraska are part of an active earthquake zone – with the last quake reported at 4.3 magnitude in 2002. It gets worse – a report from the Nebraska Wildlife Federation cited the fact:

“… some portions of the aquifer are so close to the surface that ANY pipeline leak would almost immediately contaminate a large portion of the water.” [Source.]

Some of the major issues with this pipeline fossil super highway include the fact that the Keystone XL will be transporting tar sands oil, which is considered the most toxic of all petroleum products. Tar sands oil contains the following heavy metals : nickel, vanadium, LEAD, CHROMIUM, MERCURY, ARSENIC, SELENIUM, BENZENE and other toxic elements. Tar sands oil also creates three times the amount of carbon emissions as conventional oil and the act of extraction destroys forests and other viable land resources.

Tar Sands Producers Seek “Safety Procedure Waivers – Same Waivers BP Received

Tar sands producers are pushing for the type of “safety procedure waivers” provided to BP, prior to the Gulf disaster of last year. Additionally, TransCanada – the Keystone XL producer is seeking permission to pump tar sands oil at pressures EXCEEDING normal safety limits, while using pipes made from thinner steel than are the industry standard. (Source.) Tar sands crude oil often causes “false pressure warnings in pipelines” making the identification of a true leak almost impossible. Tar sands oil is also thicker than conventional oil and has higher concentrations of heavy metals, which require higher concentrations of energy and water to separate the oil from the sands. According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) report tar sands contain:

“15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crude oil, five to 10 times as much sulfur, high concentrations of chloride salts and higher concentrations of abrasive quartz sand particles.” [Source.].

Furthermore, the NRDC report explains, “This combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration.” (Source: Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks Report, February 2011) The Guardian Environmental Network explained further, “In order to get it to flow through pipelines, raw tar sands bitumen is diluted with natural gas condensate and then moved in heated pipelines under high pressure. The study (NRDC report) asserts that the higher temperatures and higher internal pipeline pressures can create gas bubbles within the pipelines, deform the metal and lead to ruptures caused by pressure spikes.” (Source.)

So, when you combine the more highly corrosive tar sands crude oil with thinner steel – you have a recipe for a blowout disaster. In fact … just another Canadian tar sands pipeline built by Enbridge, experienced such a rupture.

The Enbridge Lakehead 6B Pipeline Rupture

The Enbridge Lakehead Pipeline Rupture took place along what was been benignly labeled “Line 6B.” This line feeds into the Great Lakes in Michigan and the ramifications for additional water contamination are dire. The rupture wasn't a pinhole or a few inches in diameter – it was six and one-half feet long and has gushed in excess of 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan's Kalamazoo River system. Enbridge asked permission to use the same type of thinner steel that TransCanada is seeking permission to use. To make matters worse, Enbridge had begun applying for a permit to operate this pipeline at higher pressures than is scientifically advised. In terms of government oversight regarding the engineering and scientific safety questions – the agency charged with pipeline regulations, namely the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), fails to differentiate between crude oil and tar sands oil safety requirements. PHMSA law governing transport of these two compounds requiring different treatment – views them as identical. (Source.)

Ironic how the TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) frets more over a cancer patient sporting a colostomy bag being a danger to a plane of passengers than they do concerning inadequate pipeline safety of toxic tar sands oil – containing enormous amounts of known toxics and carcinogens.

The National Resource Defense Council Warning

The National Resource Defense Council explained that conventional crude oil pipelines transporting tar sands oil “appear to pose new and significant risks of pipeline leaks or ruptures due to corrosion.” The report added, “There are many indications that diluted bitumen (tar sands oil) is significantly more corrosive to pipeline systems than conventional crude.” (Source.)

Most US regulations on pipeline construction specifications are designed for conventional crude – with no provisions addressing additional “wear and tear” on pipelines from the more corrosive tar sands oil. Canada's Energy Resources Conservation Board disputes this finding claiming that tar sands oil poses no additional corrosion on pipelines. A Joint Report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Pipeline Safety Trust and the Sierra Club violently disputes this claim. (Source.) Furthermore, even our now politically anemic Environmental Protection Agency has posed serious concerns regarding the safety procedures of this project and this vendor, TransCanada. (Source.)

Possible Conflict of Interest by Secretary of State Clinton

Additionally, a possible conflict of interest has emerged due to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's former ties to TransCanada's Pipeline Lobbyist, Paul Elliott. Elliott was hired by TransCanada some two years ago as the key contact person to broker the special “safety waivers” from the State Department. The question of waivers goes through the State Department since this is an international deal. The State Department, in effect has the power to authorize the waivers also known as “Presidential Waivers.'

Elliott … qualified to defend this project?

Elliott is an inept choice for this type of project as he has no experience or education in sciences such as geology or engineering. He graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor's degree in English literature and previously worked in public relations. He has no qualifications for this type of work, except for the fact that he served as public affairs adviser to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin during the Clinton administration, and subsequently, served as the national deputy director and chief of staff for delegate selection during the 2008 presidential run by now Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. (Source.)

FOIA Request Denied

This potential conflict of interest would never have seen the light of day, except for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed mid-December 2010 by three advocacy groups: Friends of the Earth, The Center for International Environmental Law and Corporate Ethics International. The request specifically named Elliott as a subject of the search. On January 5, 2011, the State Department rejected the request. The reasons given by the State Department for the rejection are the following:

“You have not reasonably described the records you seek in a way that someone familiar with Department records and programs could locate them.” [The second reason reads:] “You have not agreed to pay the fees associated with the processing of your request.”

Ironically, before news of Elliott's involvement and clear conflict of interest, seven green groups had urged Clinton to recuse herself from this decision due to earlier statements of support last fall. To quote Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law:

“It warrants our learning more and the public learning more. The fundamental purpose of FOIA is to find out how the government is making decisions. Keystone XL is a massive project with tremendous environmental implications.” [Source.]

The Corruption of CPAC … Foolish Greed of Charles and David Koch

As the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has become recent history, various stories ranging from Ann Coulter's shrill demand that more journalists should be sent to jail to Andrew Breitbart denouncing Code Pink activists as “… long on the tooth,” growling his usual acerbic sexism, to Donald Trump trying to speak sensibly to the politically rabid Tea Party aristocracy, one fact was never far from the surface – namely that the ruling Kings of the Tea Party movement, David and Charles Koch, were the “puppet-masters” guiding the events.

Aside from bankrolling the think tanks like FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity, the Koch brothers are the virtual sugar daddies for this erstwhile movement based on scapegoating any group or individual daring to disapprove of the marriage between unbridled corporatism to religious fundamentalism.

Everything from disbanding the Federal Reserve and resurrecting the gold standard to repealing the 14th amendment had been featured in the mainstream media, except for one small item: the proposed TransCanada Pipeline. Hidden from public sight like an illegitimate pregnancy on “The Brady Bunch,” the tar sands pipeline is in the process of gaining regulatory approval from the US government.

Keystone XL Safety Waivers … Another BP on the Prairie in the Making?

Since the BP Gulf disaster, government officials are eager to “cover their butts,” given the fact that whistleblower testimony to Congress proved that the Gulf disaster was a result of massive negligence married to “safety waivers.” (Source.) Just last summer (June 17,2010), former BP Manager Ken Abbott gave a damning testimony before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Hearing, citing overwhelming evidence of mass fraud and negligence. Far beyond what might constitute “acceptable risk,” BP and hired contractors not only failed to implement normal safety procedures, but they failed to create basic design documentation required for any structure (even a suburban house), before moving into production. Consequently, the production crew had no reasonable tool to monitor safety.

The disaster of the Gulf was only a matter of time. Now, we are being told to trust government officials once again, when they knowingly allow nonscientific personnel to make scientific decisions. Rather than rely on independent scientists and engineers to evaluate the safety of a new Keystone XL pipeline, we are to trust attorneys and lobbyists. It's like trusting a file clerk to perform brain surgery: cost effective and insane.


Since this piece was completed, there have been some new developments concerning this case. According to a six-page federal memo from the Congressional Research Service, released the last week of March, the ultimate power to decide the fate of this project actually lies with each individual state. More specifically, the power and the DUTY to ensure the safety of ecologically critical resources (ie. Land AND freshwater aquifers), public health and individual property rights has rested with each state's governor, attorney general and state legislators. (Souce.) Outrageously enough, this memo discovered by a local activist group named Bold Nebraska was somehow omitted from the national debate – ironically a debate involving high-powered attorneys including Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Clinton became involved due to the fact that Keystone would constitute importing oil from another nation, namely Canada, which requires State Department approval. Otherwise, the power rests with each individual state. The link to this memo titled “Information on Federal Law Related to Siting and Safety of Oil Pipelines” is here.)

According to this memo, “… the federal government does not have siting authority for oil pipelines, even interstate pipelines.” Furthermore the memo clearly states, “… in the absence of federal government sitting authority, state laws establish the primary siting authority for oil pipelines, including interstate oil pipelines.” Unfortunately, the memo continues to explain, “… In Nebraska, there do not appear to be any permitting requirements that apply specifically to the construction and operation of oil pipelines.” (Source.) I'm sure the lack of protective regulations regarding oil pipelines and public health did not escape the attention of Keystone proponents including Koch Industries.

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