The Nebraska state legislature on Wednesday approved a bill (LB1161) that will allow Nebraska to proceed with a $2 million study to find a route for TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline through the state. Gov. Dave Heineman is expected to sign the measure into law. But what does this mean?
It means a couple of things. First, it means that the global “people power” movement against the Keystone XL pipeline beat back the energy and oil industry in January when President Obama and the State Department denied TransCanada’s transnational permit. Our “united we stand” organizing strategy was effective. It forced the TransCanada to switch tactics. Now the oil industry is pushing a “divide and conquer” tactic. Its strategy is to break the pipeline up into state-sized parts and negotiate on each section. In Nebraska, new proposals to route the pipeline away from the environmentally sensitive Sandhills has removed a key political organizing tool from those of us who are working against the pipeline, especially in the Midwest.
Second, it means that Nebraska needs cash and will move forward to get it. Since the oil industry lobbyists have convinced the Obama administration to allow new routes to be proposed, Nebraska has leapt into the maneuvering space – in part to keep filling the state’s depleted coffers with funds from the TransCanada cash cow. The bill approved today will re-start the pipeline “review” process on the state level. And, the bill requires TransCanada to reimburse the state for the route study.
Gov. Dave Heineman (Republican), the Nebraska governor, has been walking a fine line between the pressure for “jobs” in his depressed Midwestern state and environmental concerns about running an oil pipeline through “America’s well,” the Oglala aquifer. Earlier this year Heineman was strongly against the pipeline because the effects of an oil spill in the Sandhills, where water tables -- including those of the massive Ogallala Aquifer – would be devastating for drinking water and for agricultural water. In 2011, TransCanada had 12 oil spills in the U.S. So fears are well-founded.
Third, Nebraskans need to turn up the heat on their governor and legislators. The re-ignited review will likely fast-track eminent domain powers by the state. Anyone along the proposed route is going to be offered pretty money up front by TransCanada to sell their inheritance for pottage. If they don’t jump at that, then the state will start exercising its right to take land and homes and pay bottom dollar for the property.
Finally, a reminder. It’s misleading for news reports to call the Keystone XL a “crude-oil pipeline.” It’s not—at least not in any common understanding of the phrase. It is a “synthetic oil and bitumen” or “tar sands oil” pipeline. This is a non-standard petroleum product that cannot be transported safely through traditional pipelines. It’s even more toxic than traditional crude oil.
The political shenanigans around the Keystone XL pipeline will no doubt continue through the election season. President Obama is fearful of alienating his Big Oil funders. States are in desperate need of money and will look to private industry to get it – even if it means cutting off your nose to spite their face.
But let’s keep the big picture in mind. The Canadian tar sands are the second largest carbon reserve in the world. Mining these reserves already involves clear-cutting boreal forests, breaking indigenous treaties, irreversibly damaging water quality, and introducing toxic waste into the food chain affecting human health, especially the health of pregnant women and their developing babies. And it takes 8,800 pounds of earth and tar sands, plus an average of 155 gallons of fresh water, to produce one barrel of tar sands oil, which will fill half a tank of a Chevy Suburban. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points out that Canadian tar sands carbon emissions are “82 percent greater than the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-tank basis.”
This pipeline is a climate killer – no matter what route it takes.
Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners associate editor, was an organizer for the Tar Sands religious witness.