Obama Administration Confused about Its Own Flawed Keystone XL Process
By Kim Huynh
Either Press Secretary Jay Carney was confused at the June 4 daily White House briefing and misspoke, or the Obama administration has abandoned any semblance of adhering to a legal review process for the southern segment of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, stretching from Cushing, Okla. to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
As part of a response to a question about President Obama’s approach to the Keystone XL pipeline, Carney answered:
“The portion that begins at Cushing and goes to the Gulf, as you know—and maybe you were on the trip—the president has not only—the administration not only has approved the various permits that needed to be approved at the federal level, but the president has urged that that process be expedited.”
It should be news to the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the permitting process for the southern segment, that President Obama has given TransCanada, the Canadian oil company backing Keystone XL, the green light on the “various permits…at the federal level” that it needs to begin construction. If true, it would definitely be news to landowners and community leaders along the path of the pipeline through Oklahoma and Texas who are fighting for a voice in the review process, let alone basic information from the Army Corps of Engineers about TransCanada’s permit applications.
By Carney’s account, the Obama administration isn’t even following the already weak and flawed process set out by the Army Corps of Engineers to consider TransCanada’s application for the southern leg of Keystone XL. Assuming he misspoke, Carney’s words nonetheless add to an alarming array of evidence that the Obama administration is paving the way for TransCanada to get a rubber stamp—and pre-judging the outcome—rather than pursuing the rigorous, science-based and transparent review that the public deserves.
Carney’s comments aside, where does the Keystone XL southern segment preview process stand?
TransCanada split the transboundary and southern legs of its Keystone XL pipeline project into two parts following President Obama’s rejection of its presidential permit in January 2012. All signs indicate that TransCanada split Keystone XL into pieces in order to get a head start on the southern leg and evade a thorough review of its environmental impacts while its reapplication for the northern leg is vetted.
Three Army Corps of Engineers district offices—in Tulsa, Okla., Ft. Worth and Galveston, Texas—are charged with reviewing TransCanada’s applications for the southern leg of Keystone XL. The Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed that TransCanada submitted its applications to the Corps district offices in Galveston and Tulsa for Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12) coverage on May 11, triggering a 45-day deadline by which the Corps must approve or deny the permits. The Corps can approve or reject the permits before the 45 days are over but if the agency does not respond within the 45 days, the permits are automatically approved by default, allowing TransCanada to proceed with construction.
In response to mounting media scrutiny from reporters like Elana Schor at E&E and Ramit Plushnick-Masti at the Associated Press, Corps officials recently confirmed that the 45 days will run out on June 26 for the Galveston office and on June 28 for the Tulsa office, while the Ft. Worth office is still evaluating TransCanada’s application materials for that district.
It’s become overwhelming clear that TransCanada pursued NWP 12 coverage to further evade a thorough, science-based review of its pipeline’s likely impacts—as NWP 12 allows for blanket approval of all pipeline water crossings without public review or input—and that the Army Corps is working alongside TransCanada to facilitate a rubber stamp for the southern segment pipeline permits.
In a November 2011 letter to the Galveston district office of the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA Region 6’s Associate Director in the Ecosystems Protection Division, Dr. Jane Watson, determined that at least 61 water crossings in the Galveston district alone were ineligible for NWP 12 coverage:
“[O]f the 101 crossings that require preconstruction notification to the Corps, it appears that approximately 60 crossings of waters of the U.S. would each result in greater than a ½ acre loss of waters of the U.S., and would therefore not be eligible for authorization under NWP 12.”
Dr. Watson’s letter further clarifies that individual Clean Water Act Section 404 permits are required for the southern segment of Keystone XL—a permitting process that would ensure a minimum requirement of environmental review and public input through the National Environmental Policy Act.
Yet, to inoculate Dr. Watson’s determination that the southern segment of Keystone XL is ineligible under NWP 12, TransCanada now claims to have changed the route of its pipeline and to be proposing different techniques to deal with stream and wetland crossings. Army Corps official Vicki Dixon has said, “There would not be a public hearing or notice that would go out as far as the route goes ... it certainly appears that [TransCanada has] minimized the impacts at this point."
What TransCanada and the Corps seem to be missing is that changing the route of the southern segment a few hundred feet or using a new technique—one that hasn’t been proven environmentally safer—doesn’t reduce the cumulative environmental impacts of the pipeline.
The tweaks referenced certainly do not respond to or account for the wide range of concerns repeatedly raised by citizens and landowners, who’ve been blithely stonewalled in their requests for basic information about the application, timeline and process for the permits. While Army Corps spokespeople have informed reporters calling them up that TransCanada has changed its southern segment route, landowners and other citizens have been told they’ll have to submit Freedom of Information Act requests and have been denied meetings. If TransCanada has changed its route, shouldn’t people in its path be the first to be informed?
On a phone briefing last Thursday, David Daniel, president of Stop Tarsands Oil Pipelines and a landowner in East Texas, joined an indigenous community leader from Oklahoma, environmental experts and grassroots groups in speaking to the opaque and furtive process overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers:
“We are the most impacted and we carry the primary burden and yet we have been left with being made invisible and feeling like lab rats on our own properties. We are fed up with the tactics, we demand transparency and an end to the stonewalling.”
The public has the right to know the particulars of a process through which a pipeline that would have massive impacts on land, water, public health and our shared climate may be approved any day now. Friends of the Earth and CREDO Action have together generated more than 115,000 signatures on a petition to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, urging her to intervene in the Corps’ handling of the southern segment to ensure a permitting process that is transparent and rigorous as required by bedrock environmental law.
As the clock ticks on TransCanada’s southern permit applications, one thing is very clear: The Obama administration’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will have far-ranging consequences for communities’ drinking water, public health and local economies all along its path as well as for our shared climate. The pipeline, in carrying the world’s dirtiest oil—tar sands oil—to the Gulf Coast for export, would help ignite the carbon bomb in Canada’s tar sands, further fueling climate disruption.
Carney’s statement on June 4 referred to the southern leg of Keystone XL as the “domestic” portion—which is accurate in terms of land area traversed, but misses the larger point. As the key segment of the Keystone XL pipeline, the southern leg of Keystone XL would provide the industry one of the crucial links to relieving the current glut of tar sands oil in the Midwest by piping it down to refineries and international shipping ports on the Gulf Coast for export. The project would inflate oil industry profits while threatening our heartland with costly spills, amplifying the already-debilitating air pollution in refinery communities on the Gulf Coast, and vastly drive the expansion of climate-destabilizing tar sands development and consumption.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>