Could We Win the Keystone XL Battle But Still Lose the Tar Sands War?
The Vietnam War might seem irrelevant to the environmental movement’s five-year effort to stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that, if approved by President Obama, would bring tar sands oil from Alberta to the Texas coast for refining and shipment overseas. But the more I look at the situation, the more I see worrisome similarities. Both American war planners and environmental movement leaders made the same strategic mistake: conceptualizing transportation as a single fixed conduit that could be readily shut down with decisive consequences for the entire conflict.
From 1965 to 1972 American civilian and military war managers launched a massive aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam’s transportation system. If the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” leading from North Vietnam into Laos and from there into South Vietnam could be severed, then Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army forces would run of supplies and replacement troops. For the American strategists, it was as if the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the Vietnamese equivalent of an interstate highway with complex entrances and exits, bridges, and other vulnerable choke points. Just as air strikes by jet fighter-bombers would surely cripple American highways and bring our economy to a halt, a few thousand bombing attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail would end the war. Or so the “thinking” went.
Although this image of the Ho Chi Minh trail resonated with American sensibilities, no single roadway by that name existed. Instead, a vast network of modest roads—some medium-sized, some small, some tiny—and many different river crossings, camouflaged fuel dumps and truck parks comprised the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This network could not be bombed out of existence, not by a few thousand air strikes or even a few hundred thousand. By the end of 1967 the Central Intelligence Agency quit making recommendations on bombing targets, convinced that no level of attack against the transportation system could stop supplies moving south.
Like the Americans’ image of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a single superhighway, the environmental movement has conceptualized Keystone XL as the single path for Alberta tar sands oil, a 1,179-mile conduit capable of shipping 830,000 barrels a day. If Keystone XL can be stopped, then the tar sands mines won’t be able to expand, avoiding tremendous CO2 emissions and keeping global warming within a two degree centigrade increase—thus maintaining the world as we know it. Climate change activist Bill McKibben and scientist James Hansen sent out the call to duty. First thousands, then tens of thousands of Americans have marched and rallied, staged sit-ins and been arrested outside the White House, chained themselves to construction equipment, and sent zillions of emails to politicians. The environmental movement has fought the good fight. It’s too early to tell, but it just might win.
But even if environmentalists win the battle against Keystone XL, they could lose the bigger war against exploitation of the Alberta tar sands. On March 20, reporter Katie Valentine and graphic designer Andrew Breiner posted a report at Climate Progress that calls into question the whole Keystone XL campaign. The headline says it all: “While America Spars Over Keystone XL, A Vast Network of Pipelines Is Quietly Being Approved.”
In their own way, Valentine and Breiner resemble Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo of Pentagon Papers fame: they both change the paradigm for viewing a protracted conflict. An additional 10 pipelines that can potentially ship tar sands oil west to British Columbia on the Pacific Coast, south to the Texas Gulf Coast, or east to Quebec and the Atlantic Coast are now under review. Many of these pipelines are already built and permitted; they simply need a need an additional new permit to change flow direction and/or change the type of petroleum being shipped. Collectively these 10 pipelines can carry far more oil than Keystone XL by itself.
The environmental movement appears not to have grasped that Keystone XL was but one possible pipeline among many. Like the American war planners, we envisioned a single conduit that could be stopped. Even if the Obama Administration denies Keystone XL the permits it needs, within a few years much more oil from the Alberta tar-sands will almost certainly move onto the global market.
Climate activists should have anticipated the oil industry’s efforts toward a work-around. Their apparent failure to do so represents a major strategic failure. Some have argued that the movement’s extensive opposition created new public awareness about the threat of climate change: Keystone XL became a readily understood icon—something concrete—that embodied a much more abstract idea, climate change. However, a February ABC News/Washington Post public opinion survey found that 65 percent of Americans favored construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, while only 22 percent opposed it, a three to one margin. That seems like a public education defeat to me.
What’s needed now is an autopsy, a look at why we could not imagine the possibility that Alberta oil would find other outlets, a look at why so many Americans did not find the stop-the-pipeline story compelling. What’s also needed is a consideration of other possible strategies, in particular a tax on all carbon fuels. The tar sands oil, once taxed on the basis of its carbon emissions, would cost more in comparison to other oil supplies. Given Republican and conservative Democrats’ hold on both the House and Senate, no such carbon tax is likely to become law in the near future. But in terms of environmental education and as a potential organizing tool, a carbon tax offers a simple lesson people might find valuable: the market price for fossil fuels does not capture its full total price. Instead, the public is forced to pay for environmental damages lasting indefinitely and that’s not fair.
In the meantime, it unfortunately appears that—no matter what happens with Keystone XL—there are other tar sands pipeline battles still to come. The question then becomes: How much movement energy should go into each of these pipeline struggles, and how much effort should go into building new, broader coalitions to push other approaches.
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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