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4 Reasons the Keystone XL Pipeline May Never Be Built

Climate
4 Reasons the Keystone XL Pipeline May Never Be Built

Back in 2005, when Calgary-based energy infrastructure company TransCanada first proposed to build the Keystone XL pipeline to carry Alberta tar sands crude oil from the western Canadian province to processing and export facilities in the southern U.S., it kicked off years of controversy. Environmental and grassroots citizen groups drew a line in the sand, creating a storm of protest that made Keystone XL a symbol of the threat of climate change. Meanwhile, politicians in Congress made pushing the pipeline a top priority, with votes in Congress to demonstrate their loyalty to fossil fuel interests such as the Koch Brothers, Exxon and Chevron. President Obama vetoed their latest effort.

Things aren't looking so rosy for Canadian tar sands production—or the Keystone XL pipeline.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

But where it once seemed like a slam dunk that the pipeline would eventually be built, despite foot-dragging by the Obama administration on the required international border crossing approval, there are indications that things might not be looking good for the pipeline or for the companies extracting the heavily polluting tar sands oil. Here are four indications that Keystone XL may never become a reality:

1. The May election in Alberta had an unexpected result that caused a big shift in its government. New provincial premier Rachel Notley's left-wing New Democratic Party ended 44 years of Conservative Party control of the province, along with its limitless embrace of the fossil fuel industry.

According to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, the new government is "making oil and gas executives and investors nervous and cutting off their access to decision makers." It speculated that one oil company's attempt to apply pressure by saying it can't provide a business plan until it gets more information from the new government "could backfire."

“It is okay to be a bit afraid of change,” Melanee Thomas, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, told The Globe and Mail. “But being afraid of democratic change, and then being derisive about it as a result, is not an effective strategy. It doesn’t strike me as a savvy government relations. The solution is to go out and build good, respectful contacts with government.”

Notley campaigned on tougher environmental standards and a review of province's energy royalty rates. And while she has not expressed opposition to pipelines such as Keystone XL, she has said she won't make trips to Washington D.C. to lobby for it. During her campaign, she said she would not continue to push for another pipeline, Enbridge's Northern Gateway, as previous premiers have, reflecting her openness to the concerns of community and environmental groups.

“Gateway is not the right decision," said Notley. "I think that there’s just too much environmental sensitivity there and I think there’s a genuine concern by the indigenous communities. It’s not going to go ahead. I think most people know that.”

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2. The proliferation of natural gas has caused tar sands prices to plummet. And because tar sands extraction is an expensive process, this has put the expansion of tar sands production on hold, according to Oil Change International (OCI), a group devoted to exposing the environmental cost of fossil fuels.

"Over 1.6 million barrels per day of planned expansion in tar sands production is currently delayed or ‘on hold’ as industry struggles to identify a profitable path forward for 39 projects," says OCI.

“The case for the tar sands is crumbling,” says Hannah McKinnon, OCI's senior campaigner on private finance. “The tar sands are bad for the climate, the environment, impacted communities and now the sector itself is struggling to justify many new projects.”

With less oil to ship, there's less need to build pipelines to transport it.

Most of the tar sands region of northeastern Alberta in currently under the two highest categories of drought. Image credit: Province of Alberta

3. Wildfires are currently engulfing huge areas of northern Alberta close to tar sands extraction facilities. With fires raging for more than a week and staff being evacuated, 10 percent of Alberta's tar sands production—about 233,000 barrels a day—is currently offline.

The wildfires themselves won't cause a permanent shut down of mining operations, but they provide dramatic photos that call attention to the destructive nature of tar sands operations. Northeastern Alberta, where most of the tar sands operations are located, has been hard hit by drought in the last 15 years. Currently, most of that area is in the two highest drought categories. That opens up conversations about the connection of drought to climate change and whether tar sands oil, which fuels Alberta's economy, is also sowing the seeds of its destruction.

4. John Podesta, the former Obama White house official who is now Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, told The Guardian that Canada needs to deal with the heavy greenhouse gas emissions produced by tar sands mining, which make the country the world's third largest carbon polluter per capita. While Podesta, like Clinton, would not comment on Keystone XL, he lambasted Canada's weak climate goal.

"I think that there is a C02 premium on oil that is coming out of the oil sands and I think that has to be offset through other policies that they need to implement, or else that is a strategy that is likely to result in excessive emissions," he said.

With Clinton a huge favorite to follow Obama into the White House, that's at least an indication that the thinking in her circles is going against tar sands production, and potentially against green-lighting Keystone XL.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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