Energy & Environmental Policy

Cleaning Our Hands of Dirty Pipelines


This article was co-written by Marcus Denton, a second year master's candidate at the LBJ School for Public Affairs, studying social and economic policy.

President Obama generates controversy with nearly every one of his decisions. But if he gives in on the most important environmental decision in years, we’re all going to feel the heat.

By December 31, 2011 the president must decide whether a 1,700-mile pipeline carrying the dirtiest oil on the planet from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas is in the best national interest. This Keystone XL pipeline is not only an environmental disaster waiting to happen, but potentially a political one as well.

The strip mining and drilling that will be employed to extract crude oil from the tar sands will have devastating implications for Alberta’s sensitive boreal forests, ecosystems and aquatic life. Furthermore, tar sands crude is mixed with highly volatile natural gas liquids and pumped at high temperatures to flow through the pipelines. This mixture is extremely corrosive.

John S. Stansbury, a University of Nebraska professor and environmental engineer, predicts 91 major spills over the 50-year design life of the pipeline. One such leak could spill an estimated 7.9 million gallons of toxic crude into aquifers such as the Ogallala, which supplies drinking water to millions of Americans as well as supports 30 percent of the country’s irrigation needs. An existing Keystone pipeline has already failed 12 times in its first year of operations.

More importantly, the Keystone XL pipeline has potentially catastrophic implications for our planet’s climatic stability. The tar sands crude is the Earth’s second largest pool of carbon. According to the consultancy IHS-Cera, carbon dioxide emissions from the oil sands are greater than from many Saudi, Mexican and Venezuelan types of crude. This is why NASA climatologist James Hansen has pronounced the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline as “essentially game over for the climate”.

Supporters of the pipeline most frequently cite job creation and energy independence as the main reasons to build it. Although reasonable, the U.S. State Department and outside experts heavily dispute whether the pipeline will accomplish these goals. And it’s easy to forget that there is another option: to pour our collective human energies into developing sustainable clean energy alternatives for ourselves and future generations.

In the meantime, citizens are fighting to stop the pipeline. Plans for Keystone XL have prompted what writer and activist Bill McKibben recently called “the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement for many years”. Over the past few weeks thousands of demonstrators have congregated outside the White House to urge President Obama to stop the pipeline, with more than twelve hundred voluntarily being arrested.

Since the pipeline will cross the U.S. border, it requires the approval of the president. The increasing controversy has led White House officials to begin worrying that signing off on the project will dissuade many youth and environmental voters from joining the president’s re-election campaign. It’s also spurred the State Department to hold open hearings to gather public opinion.

One such hearing is happening at the Lyndon B. Johnson Auditorium on Wednesday, September 28, 2011. This is a unique opportunity to directly impact a policy that has implications for the country and the planet. Among the groups taking part in the forum and associated activities are LBJ and UT student groups, environmental and public health organizations, faith-based groups and Texas landowners. The LBJ Nation shouldn’t miss this chance to raise its voice – even if it means raising the temperature a little.

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