Divide and Conquer: Oil Polluters Ambush the US

Divide and conquer. It’s an age-old strategy and one Big Oil is using to bring dirty tar sands oil through America to ports where it can be shipped overseas.

The latest example is in the Gulf Coast. After plans for building its massive 1,700 mile Keystone XL tar sands pipeline were denied, TransCanada came up with a new plan: divide the pipeline. So far, the plan seems to be working. Why? Because without comprehensive regulation of tar sands crude—which is dirtier, more corrosive, harder to clean up, and more harmful when spilled than conventional oil—Big Oil is betting they can escape meaningful review by quietly constructing these pipelines segment by segment. So far, the strategy seems to be paying off.

Tar sands pipelines sometimes seem like the Hydra of Greek mythology: cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

Big Oil’s Dash for the Border

Tar sands oil is pretty nasty stuff and needs to be diluted with natural gas condensates just to make it flow. But despite the fact that this hot sludge is corrosive and dangerous, the government treats tar sands pipelines just like pipelines carrying regular crude oil—meaning, they’re not regulated well at all.

I’m about to get a little wonky but stick with me here for a minute: Trans-boundary pipelines are reviewed by the U.S. State Department to determine if they are in the “national interest” and whether they should be issued a Presidential Permit. It was the need for a Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline that triggered a public review, and ultimately led to the denial of the original proposal.

Domestic pipelines, however, escape this Presidential Permit process. So after Keystone XL was rejected the first time, TransCanada decided to split off the “Gulf Coast segment” of the pipeline, which stretches through Oklahoma and Texas, as a stand-alone project. Because this route doesn’t cross the US border, it avoided the need for the Presidential Permit and the review it entails. But TransCanada still had to get permits for the approximately 900 streams, wetlands, and other waters the pipeline would cross for this segment. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues these permits.

Fortunately for TransCanada, the Army Corps process is quite friendly to the industry: in fact, Corps regulations for pipeline permitting contradict the Clean Water Act’s mandate that a project’s cumulative impacts be assessed. The Corps lets pipelines be permitted under a “Nationwide Permit,” allowing them to be built with no public input—even from directly impacted landowners—and a minimum level of environmental review. Ignoring the legal mandate to assess cumulative impacts, Corps regulations permit each separate crossing to be considered as an independent project separate from the rest. In other words, to avoid looking at the impacts of one single pipeline project disturbing 900 water bodies in Texas and Oklahoma, the Corps pretends there are 900 separate projects, each one unrelated to the next.

Spotted outside the US Army Corps office? (Photo: Zen Sutherland)
The process is thus a rubber stamp without sunlight. So without any public process or environmental analysis made available for public review, TransCanada got the green light from the Corps to move forward with a major part of the Keystone XL pipeline—even though the US Environmental Protection Agency objected to such approval for the original pipeline proposal. Meanwhile, TransCanada has also applied to construct the northern segment, hoping that this now-smaller segment will get less scrutiny than the larger, original proposal. The end result, if they get their way, is exactly what we’ve been fighting against for the past three years: a Canada-to-Texas tar sands pipeline that puts America’s heartland at risk.

A Threat to New England

Big Oil is using a similar tactic to attempt to ship tar sands east as well. Rather than overtly revive a stalled 2008 plan to pump tar sands oil to to Portland, ME, the industry is cutting the project into segments. Without admitting their intentions, Enbridge Inc. is separately pursuing almost all of the various reversals and upgrades needed to bring tar sands to the East Coast. If the company name sounds familiar, that’s because Enbridge was responsible for the devastating Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill in Michigan in 2010. Their current plans include expanding the same Michigan pipeline and reversing the flow of two other pipelines in the US and Canada. It is almost certain Enbridge’s hope is to have most of the project in place before any serious review takes place or public opposition builds.

The risks of tar sands to our climate, health, wildlife, and natural resources are enormous and becoming more alarming by the day, and building these pipelines without meaningful review is unconscionable. Comprehensive review and tough regulation of tar sands infrastructure is needed now. Otherwise, a dirty energy future will be piecemealed together for us.

Take ActionSpeak up for wildlife and communities in Big Oil’s path — tell the State Department not to rubber stamp Keystone XL and other dangerous tar sands projects!