The muck of it: Keystone pipeline politics

Colorado’s U.S. Senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner, joined with 60 of their colleagues last week to vote in favor of constructing TransCanada corporation’s KeystoneXL pipeline. President Obama plans to veto the bill.

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Supporters of the TransCanada project tout it as a “job creator” that would bolster North American energy independence. Democrats like Bennet who voted for it appear to be protecting themselves against Republican attacks come election season, surely because powerful interests favor the pipeline and attacks on opponents of the pipeline have been effective in the past. A main problem is that U.S. voters have been ill-informed and mis-informed about the pipeline and the Canadian tar sands project it would support.

The State Department says that, after construction is completed, the pipeline would sustain only an estimated total 35 permanent U.S. jobs. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin from Illinois put the number in perspective when he said during debate that most single McDonald’s franchises do more to create permanent U.S. jobs. There’s also no guarantee that the tar sands oil will not be shipped abroad. Indeed, supporters of the bill voted down an amendment seeking to specifically ensure that any oil pumped through the pipeline would be refined and sold for use in the United States.

A toxic, black peanutbutter-like substance

The pipeline would carry tar-sands oil from Canada through several northern Great Plains states and then through Oklahoma and Texas to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Tar-sands oil is a gummy-sandy substance that you can scoop up, something like peanut butter, and mold into forms that almost hold shape. You can hurl balls of it at one another. That means that, when it spills, it is “a whole new monster” to try and clean up. It doesn’t float, so you can’t skim the spill from the surface. Rather, it sinks, so that when you walk in a river or lake contaminated by the tar sands extract, “globs of black oil plop up,” as NPR put it while reporting from the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, which was polluted by a catastrophic 2010 pipeline spill.

TransCanada has told residents along the pipeline route that the pipeline will be built in a way that will prevent spills. But the company told the State Department it predicted two spills from the pipeline every ten years. A TransCanada pipeline that went online in 2010 was the source of 14 spills in the United States during only its first two years in service, according to NPR. And, on average, there are something like 300 pipeline spills per year in the United States. Pipeline “incidents” occur every day.

Where does this tar sands oil come from, exactly, and what does that look like?

In Capitol Hill hallways, some have said that it’s better to ship oil from Canada than to have to drill in sensitive environments here at home. But what is happening in Canada is happening to the world. The gargantuan tar sands project is reportedly the largest industrial project of its kind in history, and it is enormously destructive. It’s a double whammy: On the one hand, it is emitting enormous levels of carbon into the atmosphere and, on the other, it is devouring ancient forests that remove enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. It is the kind of heedless industrial enterprise that has made environmental thinkers reconsider nuclear power and to see it as a relatively safer transitional energy source.

It’s not clear that even a single one of the 62 senators who voted for the pipeline last week in Washington have ever visited the TransCanada tar sands sites in Alberta around Fort McMurray — that once-pristine hunting and fishing outpost at the heart of the sacrifice zone, roughly 600 miles from the U.S.-Canadian border, straight north from Great Falls, Montana.

Outside magazine went there last fall.

Canadian photographer Garth Lenz has been there, too, and he has documented the experience. Here’s a Ted Talk he gave on what he has witnessed and the impression it made upon him.

[ Top image: video still via Garth Lenz.]