A planned pipeline connecting Canada to Texas could pose a real threat, unlike the mythological NAFTA Superhighway
In the mid-2000s, a conspiracy began to take hold about the so-called NAFTA Superhighway. This giant construction project — one involving huge multi-lane highways, rail lines and oil pipelines snaking through the heartland and connecting the U.S., Mexico and Canada — was supposed to represent a major blow to American sovereignty and presage the creation of a transnational “North American Union.”
The whole thing, of course, was bunk. But I thought of the NAFTA Superhighway, when I read this past week about Keystone XL, a very real proposal to build a 1,700-mile pipeline to transport oil from Canada’s tar sands region to the Gulf Coast. This is the illustration that was circulating on the Web of the supposed NAFTA Superhighway:
And this is TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline project (the dotted lines represent the planned new pipeline):
Unlike the NAFTA Superhighway, Keystone XL could represent a real threat to America, according to environmentalists.
Since Keystone XL would cross an international border, it requires State Department approval. Critics have been trying to convince the administration to reject the proposal on the grounds that extracting oil from Alberta’s tar sands is extremely destructive to the land, that tar sands oil produces more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil, and that potential pipeline leaks could threaten water supplies relied upon by hundreds of thousands of Americans. Proponents argue the pipeline would offer economic benefits and provide energy from a nearby and friendly nation.
To find out what’s at stake in this fight, I spoke with Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which fiercely opposes the Keystone XL project. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you describe what the proposed project is?
All of the major oil companies are up in Canada going after an unconventional fossil fuel called tar sand. It gets changed into gasoline and diesel eventually but it starts out as this heavy, thick, almost coal-like substance that goes through a lot of processes that use up a lot of energy and water. What the oil companies want to do is pipe it down to the U.S. Gulf Coast. So they want it to travel through a brand-new pipeline called Keystone XL. It would go from Alberta, Canada, down through Montana, and all the way to the heartland of the United States across the Ogallala Aquifer — which is a major source of freshwater for eight states — and down to the Gulf Coast refineries.
Why do they want to do this?
Canada has reached the limit on how much tar sand oil its own operators can process. So the oil companies have been looking to U.S. refineries to provide capacity for upgrading and refining tar sands.
Describe the tar sands. How is extracting oil from the sands different from getting conventional oil out of the ground?
To get conventional oil you basically stick a pump in a well, and a relatively liquid substance comes out that you then refine into gasoline, diesel and other fuels. Tar sand is a different animal. It’s a very heavy, thick substance, deep underneath forest and wetland wilderness in Canada. You get at it by either strip-mining and then washing with hot water the sand that you dig out from under the forest; or you get it by drilling down and pumping steam under the earth to heat the earth for months at a time in order to melt the sand enough that you can pump it back up. Even once you’ve done this, it’s still really heavy, really thick. We’ve found that it’s often much more corrosive and more dangerous to have in a pipe than conventional oil — more likely to cause a leak.
What is NRDC’s take on the proposal?
We think we don’t need an expansion of tar sand. Tar sand is getting way beyond the environmental capacity and the social capacity of the region where it’s being strip-mined and drilled. Not only does it require so much energy to produce, but it has much higher greenhouse gas emissions. And the fact that we’re continuing to go after these very dirty fossil fuels at a time when we’re trying to switch to cleaner energy — it seems like the wrong direction for the United States to be taking.
Are the environmental concerns then primarily on the extraction end? Or is there danger on the pipeline itself?
There are a number of concerns. Extraction itself is very damaging. It rips up forest wilderness, hurts migratory birds, it causes much higher greenhouse gas emissions, and there are big problems from the huge toxic waste dams that they build. But in addition, when you build a pipeline to carry this more corrosive material, you also have a much higher risk of leaks. We don’t have adequate safety regulations to take care of it, especially when you have a pipeline over a water source like the Ogallala Aquifer, which serves over 2 million people in America’s heartland. You’re sort of asking for another disaster on the scale of the BP oil spill.
What is the argument that the company is making?
What the industry is saying is that we need additional oil for our energy security in the U.S., so we want to get it from places like Canada. What we in the environmental community say is that real energy security is going to come from clean energy sources. It’s not going to come from continuing this addiction we have to fossil fuel. That only ties us into the global oil market, which we can see right now is not very good for our pocketbook.
Are there signs from the Obama administration on which way it’s leaning right now?
It’s too early to tell. The administration has a duty to go through the process without prejudging it. They have been careful not to make statements that would indicate whether they are for or against the pipeline. They’re doing the environmental review process; we’ll see how much longer that needs to take. After that, there’s another process where they have to decide if the pipeline is actually in the national interest. We don’t think it is. Only after that will they be making a decision, so I think the earliest we would see a decision on the pipeline itself is at the end of this year.
What do you say to the argument that even if the U.S. rejects the pipeline, it won’t affect the level of tar sands production because it will just be sold to other markets?
Right now Canada only has the United States and its own market. There is no other market for tar sands oil. There is no pipeline to get it to a port from which it could go to other parts of the world. There’s a proposed pipeline to take it out to the Pacific Coast, but there’s huge opposition in Canada to that pipeline, so I don’t see that being built any time soon. Really the U.S. is the market. And so what the U.S. decides to do, that will have a big impact on what the Canadians do.
More Related Stories
- Is the Environmental Defense Fund ruining environmentalism?
- Top 5 investigative videos of the week: "Winning" Afghanistan
- Jester clowns Westboro Baptist Church
- GOP: Party of crybabies
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11