Obama Takes Dangerous Wrong Turn on “Keystone Lite” Pipeline

As President Obama works to end oil subsidies and promote renewable energy, he has taken a dangerous wrong turn by rushing to build the risky Keystone Lite pipeline, the southern leg of the controversial Keystone XL system that would carry toxic tar sands oil from Canada to Gulf coast refineries.

In light of his otherwise sensible policies to reduce our dependence on dirty energy, we are extremely disappointed in his decision to promote Keystone Lite. Several times the President has emphasized the need for a rigorous review of Keystone XL’s consequences for the environment, public health, and our economy: In January, after a failed attempt by Congress to expedite construction, he criticized Republicans for trying to prevent “a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment.”  He recognizes what’s at stake, having argued that “folks all across the country aren’t going to say to themselves, ‘We’re going to take a few thousand jobs if it means our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health.’”

Is President Obama's pipeline policy about to take a wrong turn? (photo: Flickr/voxeros)
But his appearance at a TransCanada facility in Cushing, Oklahoma—coupled with recent statements that the Administration will rush the permitting process for the project—raises questions about his commitment to a review process that is crucial to protect clean drinking water and the rights of families along the route.

Three unanswered questions loom large as the President steps to the podium:

Will president Obama protect drinking water from toxic tar sands spills?

Keystone Lite extends an existing pipeline network that is already capable of carrying abundant toxic tar sands oil to Cushing for transport to Gulf coast refineries that have been upgraded to handle the heavy, dirty crude.

Cleanup crews are still working to scoop tar sands sludge off the Kalamazoo riverbed (photo: Mic Stolz)
The last two years have proven that the oil industry is incapable of ensuring infrastructure safety without regulatory oversight that keeps pace with new threats such as ultra deepwater drilling and toxic tar sands. 2010’s million-gallon spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River proved that tar sands oil is a fundamentally different beast than conventional crude–for example, responders initially tried skimming the oil before realizing that the dense tar sands oil simply sinks to the riverbed. EPA cleanup crews are still on site and the ecosystem may never recover.

Like the Deepwater Horizon disaster preceding it, the Kalamazoo spill showed us what happens when regulators aren’t allowed or equipped to do their jobs, and the situation is largely unchanged since then. Tthe Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is working on an important study on tar sands pipelines; at the very least, President Obama should ensure that no tar sands flows through Keystone Lite until the study is complete and acted upon to ensure the safety of communities, farmland and water supplies.

Will President Obama stop the bullying of American landowners?

TransCanada has constantly used thuggish tactics to seize private land from American ranchers, farmers, and other landowners along the proposed pipeline route, including lawsuits and threatening letters. Eminent domain is intended for projects that serve the public interest, but Keystone XL and Keystone Lite would only enrich foreign corporations like TransCanada at the expense of US citizens. This pipeline extends to refineries owned by the Saudis and other foreign interests, and its oil will be shipped overseas to feed global demand. And while Big Oil complains about the “glut” of oil in Cushing, if Keystone Lite is built, the only effect would be to raise prices for Midwestern consumers.

Will a foreign oil company get better treatment than Tribes?

Tribal representatives at an anti-Keystone XL protest last fall (photo: Clayton Thomas-Muller)
So far the answer has been a resounding YES. Tribes, as sovereign nations, have treaty rights with the United States, meaning the federal government is required to consult with them regarding any project that impacts their cultural or environmental resources. During the permitting process for Keystone XL the Administration failed to meaningfully engage tribes along the pipeline route, and despite strenuous objections from tribes like the Oglala Sioux, TransCanada has turned a deaf ear and moved forward with its plans – they have even filed lawsuits in order to build Keystone Lite directly through land sacred to the Caddo Nation. Tribes must be a part of any process moving forward, so that TransCanada can’t steamroll Tribal objections like they have in the past.

Fast-tracking dangerous and dirty tar sands pipelines like Keystone Lite is the wrong thing to do. If President Obama is serious about protecting our natural resources and public health, he should renew his call for a thorough review that factors in the enormous harm these pipelines would do to American interests, as well as the Canadian boreal forest and our global climate.

Take ActionWe need your help to stop tar sands development and protect our wildlife, health, and the global climate! Visit NWF’s Choose Your Cause to learn more.