Gloom for Keystone XL: Is Arkansas Oil Spill a Taste of Things to Come?

Photo: Howl Arts Collective

On March 26, Exxon-Mobil’s “Pegasus” pipeline ruptured in an Arkansas neighborhood, spilling thousands of barrels of Canadian tar sands oil meant to be delivered to Texas refineries. Categorized as a major spill by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the incident forced 22 families out of their homes, as crews recovered 12,000 barrels of water and oil.

The cleanup continues with attempts to retrieve the oil before it penetrates Lake Conway, the water source for hundreds of thousands of Little Rock residents.

Far from an anomaly, the spill has been described by environmentalists as one of many disasters to come with the expansion of tar sands pipelines. Critics of expanding the controversial Keystone XL pipeline – which would carry ten times the amount of tar sands oil than the Pegasus – note that Mayflower, Arkansas is far from the first locale to be accidentally drenched in tar sands oil.

TransCanada’s Keystone I Pipeline system, which began construction in 2010, was shut down after 14 spills. While most of the spills were minor, one of them released more than 20,000 gallons of oil in a North Dakota pump station. 210 gallons seeped out of the station to adjacent land.


More dramatically, in 2011, Exxon-Mobil’s Silvertip pipeline spilled 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. While it threatened residents with dangerous fumes, and sabotaged irrigation procedures of farms and ranches, the spill may have also impacted the ecology of the river. According to Anthony Swift of the National Resources Defense Council, “Very little of the spilled oil is likely to be recovered. Exxon has positively spun this to say that river conditions are ‘dispersing’ the oil. What this really means is that they are not able to clean the oil up as it contaminates stretches of the Yellowstone River far downstream of the spill site.”

Initially, Exxon-Mobil claimed the oil rushing through the Silvertip pipeline was sweet, low sulfur crude, and not from Alberta, Canada. Later, in an email to Reuters, the company revised its statement and said, “The pipeline carries a variety of different production fields in the US and Canada,” meaning that the heavier and more toxic tar sands oil from Canada may have been implicated in the spill. According to Swift, the public’s growing awareness of the safety risks of tar sands oil may have been behind the reluctant disclosure.

The dirtiest oil on the planet

According to energy experts and environmentalists, the difference between tar sands oil and other varieties are not negligible. In the Huffington Post, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote that tar sands oil is both more likely to spill, and harder to clean up, than conventional oil. This is due to the transportation method by which chemicals are added to the oil, forming a corrosive, acidic blend known as diluted bitumen or “dilbit.” This, along with the higher pressures and temperatures needed to transport the oil, corrode pipes at a faster rate. According to a National Resources Defense Council report, this may explain why in the same time period, the internal corrosion spill rate from Alberta pipelines carrying tar sands oil was 16 times greater than that of the hazardous liquid pipelines in the United States.


When a pipeline leaks on land or water, the thick raw bitumen forms a dense, sticky layer over rocks and sediments and sinks into wetland sediments. This is why, as Brune notes, the 2010 Enbridge spill of bitumen in the Kalamazoo River has left 38 miles of the river contaminated after $1 billion was spent in cleanup procedures.

For this reason and others, the expansion of TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline into the Keystone XL – bringing 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas – is a highly controversial project.

In the Hill, Bill McKibben, one of the head organizers of anti-Keystone protests, noted the pipeline “spawned the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years in [the United States], when 1,253 people went to jail in opposition in the summer of 2011. It gave rise to the biggest one-day communications push in congressional history, when 800,000 Americans flooded D.C. offices with e-mails and faxes.”

The protests aimed to influence US President Obama, who has yet to make a decision on whether the Keystone XL will be permitted to cross the Canadian border into the United States.

Protesters were galvanized after the Keystone XL was severely criticized by NASA climatologist James Hanson. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Hanson wrote that burning tar sands fuel would mean “game over for the planet.” Composed of the viscous tar bitumen, the tar sands contain far more carbon than other fuels. In a 2011 report, the State Department found that the annual greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil are 17 percent higher than those of conventional crude oil.

According to Hanson, the fantastic amount of oil in Canada’s tar sands, contain “twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history.” Burning these “dirtiest of fuels,” Hanson notes, would raise atmospheric carbon concentrations to more than 500 parts per million, a level shown by the earth’s history to be inhospitable. Such a level, Hanson writes, would be higher “than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Alex Pourbaix, president of energy at TransCanada, has denied the Keystone XL would impact climate change. At a forum organized by the National Association of Manufacturers, Pourbaix asserted, “You could shut down oil sands production tomorrow and it would have absolutely no measurable impact on climate change.” Noting Canada produces only 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, Pourbaix claimed the Keystone XL would yield 5 percent of this total, equaling only “one-tenth of 1% of global greenhouse emissions.”

Pourbaix’s claims were challenged by Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. While Pourbaix failed to consider the energy cost of refining and transporting the oil, his more essential failure, according to Mann, was ignoring the dangerous precedent set by the Keystone XL. By developing the tar sands, the Keystone project would open and encourage access to the vast quantity of dirty oil, mentioned by Hanson. In The Associated Press, Mann warned that by endorsing the pipeline, “we may be insuring that a much larger amount [of the oil reserves] will be economically viable.”

Economic value?

While denying the pipeline’s harm to the climate, the oil industry and business groups continue to lobby President Obama, citing the pipeline’s significant economic advantages.

After a recent report on the Keystone XL by the State Department – garnering some approval from environmentalists, but mostly criticized as too lenient – House speaker John Boehner said, “[The] report again makes clear there is no reason for this critical pipeline to be blocked one more day. After four years of needless delays, it is time for President Obama to stand up for middle-class jobs and energy security and approve the Keystone pipeline.”

Job creation and energy security – or decreasing dependence on foreign oil – are two slogans that have been frequently used by supporters of the pipeline. The State Department report, however, complicates these claims, estimating that the pipeline will create roughly 3,900 contract jobs lasting one year, and 35 permanent jobs. This finding widely diverges from claims of Keystone supporters, such as Rep. Greg Walden, who tweeted the pipeline would create 20,000 jobs.

The State Department also found that the Keystone project would not increase energy security for the United States, because its primary purpose is to export oil after it is refined.

Similarly, a report from Oil Change International found that 60 percent of the oil would be exported. Based on documents from the US Energy Information Administration and the Canadian National Energy Board, as well as corporate meetings with investors, the report concludes that the oil refineries plan to expand exports to Europe and Latin America, while taking advantage of the tax-free Foreign Trade Zone in Port Arthur, Texas.

Noting the exaggerated economic benefits of the pipeline, environmental groups, National Resource Defense Council and Bold Nebraska stated “this is not a pipeline for US economic or energy security, but a project to spur tar sands expansion…and help the oil industry.”

While President Obama drew wide acclaim when he vowed to battle climate change in his State of the Union Address, his decision on the Keystone XL is eagerly awaited by environmentalists as the core benchmark which will decide not only Obama’s true stance on the environment, but also the future of the world’s dependence on the dirtiest of fuels.

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