Farmers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and South Dakota are overexploiting the aquifer beneath an American breadbasket, threatening an estimated $35 billion in annual crops. Agricultural wells are pulling out water faster than rainfall can recharge it—federal data shows the aquifer shrank twice as fast in the past six years as compared to the previous 60.
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Until recently, pipeline safety wasn’t an issue that consumed a lot of oxygen on Capitol Hill. But the nationwide storm over the Keystone XL pipeline has thrust this subject front and center, with a tremendous amount riding on the outcome.
The Ogallala Aquifer—America’s Reservoir
In its original application for a Presidential permit, TransCanada Corp. (the company behind the KXL pipeline) planned a route that would have cut through the sensitive Sandhills region of Nebraska. Fierce opposition from farmers, ranchers and citizens of every political stripe forced the company to scrap that idea, and now TransCanada is trying to identify a new route.
But though the oil industry was forced to make this concession to public health, a much vaster resource is still threatened—the Ogallala aquifer, which provides 30 percent of the water used for irrigation in the U.S., and drinking water for 2 million people. Almost any feasible pipeline route through Nebraska will still run over this aquifer.
It would be hard to overemphasize how vital the Ogallala is to our national economy. As Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman stressed in a letter to the White House, “This resource is the lifeblood of Nebraska’s agriculture industry.” The aquifer’s enormous stores of fresh water are the only reason the “Breadbasket of America” can exist—it irrigates farms that harvest nearly 20 percent of our wheat and cotton, and 15 percent of the U.S. corn—and makes possible a booming cattle industry across the plains states.
Tar Sands Pipelines—A Disaster in Waiting
Oil spills happen all the time—a dirty secret that’s not so secret anymore, thanks to the scrutiny faced by the industry the last few years. And tar sands pipelines in particular have been in the news for all the wrong reasons—a 1.1 million gallon spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River; a 42,000 gallon spill in the pristine Yellowstone River in Montana; a 21,000 gallon eruption in North Dakota on TransCanada’s first Keystone 1 pipeline—which has been plagued by at least twelve spills since it was completed in 2010.
TransCanada is doing its best to hide these risks, even going so far as to manipulate data submitted to the U.S. State Department. An independent analysis by the University of Nebraska found that the worst-case spill scenarios were much higher than TransCanada’s estimates, with up to “91 major spills over a 50 year design life of the pipeline” and even the potential for benzene contamination of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. A study after the Kalamazoo spill found that nearly 60 percent of area residents experienced gastrointestinal, respiratory or neurological symptoms from exposure.
An Easy Choice
It’s obvious that tar sands pose an enormous risk to the Ogallala aquifer and the crops that feed Americans from coast to coast. Public polling on the issue reflects this concern—According to a Feb. 3 poll conducted by Hart Research Associates, 64 percent of voters think that the risk of a toxic oil spill in the Ogallala aquifer was a “very convincing” or “somewhat convincing” reason to block construction of Keystone XL. And after hearing pro and con arguments, a wide plurality of voters supported the White House’s decision to deny the permit (47 percent support, 36 percent oppose, and 17 percent undecided or no opinion).
Randy Thompson, a rancher whose land KXL would cut through, put it in plain terms—"Perhaps it’s just my Nebraska logic, but from my perspective it appears that the United States is getting the short end of the stick on this deal. Canada and the big oil companies are reaping the rewards while Americans are being left to fix the fence."
When you hear it like that, you realize that this debate boils down to a pretty simple question—Do we decide to protect Americans’ food supply and drinking water, or pad the profits of foreign oil companies that want to cut through our farmland on the way to overseas markets? It should be an easy choice.
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By Erik Hoffner
Reprinted with permission from Grist.org
Tom Weis, the “renewable rider,” biked the 2,150 miles of the U.S. portion of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route over two months late this fall, from the U.S./Canada border to Port Arthur, Texas. He steered his “rocket trike” through many small towns along the way, raising awareness, talking to reporters, and recording scores of interviews with a wide variety of people. He’s just returned to his home in Colorado with a good sense of the prevailing opinions of the project in America’s rural West.
Q. Why didn’t you celebrate Obama’s delay of the Keystone XL pipeline back in the fall?
A. I saw nothing to celebrate. Delay doesn’t equal victory. It was disturbing to see environmental leaders, many of whom I consider friends, praising President Obama for his “leadership” and “courage” for what was in fact an act of political cowardice on his part. Kicking the Keystone XL can down the road until after the election was a transparent political ploy to appease his environmental base by throwing them a bone. Since when do we start giving presidents a pass on making tough decisions until after election day? I share Paul Hawken’s view that it is “dangerous” to allow a decision with such huge planetary ramifications to be delayed until political pressure no longer has any sway.
The pipeline fighters I met on the front lines of the Keystone XL Tour of Resistance certainly weren’t celebrating. It was like having the rug pulled out from under you. Just as the pressure was starting to build on the Obama campaign, all the air was let out of the room. This prompted me to write an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Now is the Time to Fight the Keystone Pipeline. Those with the most to lose—the farmers, ranchers, rural families, tribal communities, and fence-line communities living along the proposed pipeline route—will celebrate when this project is actually stopped.
Q. But isn’t TransCanada losing a ton of money from the delay? Doesn’t that doom the project?
A. Sure, they’re losing money, but that won’t stop them. When you have pockets as deep as TransCanada’s, you hire teams of people to create contingency plans for every possible scenario. But don’t just take it from me. Even as President Obama announced the delay, CNNMoney reported TransCanada’s CEO remained confident Keystone XL would ultimately be approved.
Q. What about this new directive from Congress for a 60-day consideration of the pipeline?
A. Aside from the crass political motivations behind it, I actually view the 60-day Keystone XL provision [requiring a presidential decision by Feb. 21] as an opportunity. The Republicans accomplished what the rest of us could not—They forced President Obama to take a stand. We’ll soon see if the president’s original rationale for a 12- to 18-month delay was truthful.
Subsequent statements by the White House and U.S. State Department certainly seem to point to Obama rejecting the pipeline and pinning the blame on Republicans for rushing the review process. But it would be foolish to underestimate the political influence of the oil lobby. Shortly after New Year's, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard threatened political retribution if Obama does not deliver them Keystone XL.
Those are fightin’ words. But they also give the president a chance to begin driving the narrative of the 2012 election by differentiating himself from Big Oil and their old-world economic views. Little would do more to reinvigorate his presidency than saying “no” to Keystone XL and “yes” to a U.S.-led green industrial revolution and the millions of good-paying jobs it will create. Did you know the green economy has already generated 2.7 million jobs in the U.S., more than everyone employed in the entire fossil-fuel sector?
I’m not a Democrat, or a Republican, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see Obama turning the tables on the oil lobby and his Republican opponent for backing this un-American pipeline scheme. He can start by using his upcoming State of the Union address to spell out to the American people why this foreign energy project violates our national interest, and our values. The preponderance of hard evidence shows this export pipeline may destroy more jobs than it creates, will raise fuel prices, and won’t make America more secure. Keystone XL is a dangerous threat to Americans, and our economy, and is the exact wrong direction for our country.
Q. Can you share one peak experience from your trek?
A. I was totally blown away by the solidarity march and rally we had courtesy of the Lakota Nation. I have never felt so warmly embraced by a community in my life. Rolling into downtown Pine Ridge, S.D., on my rocket trike, I was greeted by dozens of Oglala Sioux tribal members who had taken over the streets. It was a beautiful sight to behold … grandmothers holding banners, a youth drum group singing honor songs, men waving flags, and camo-clad youth providing security. It was an incredibly powerful experience. The horseback solidarity rides with indigenous leaders in Montana and South Dakota were also unforgettable. The Native wisdom of these people fills me with hope.
Q. You taped a lot of interviews on the road. Have a favorite one to share?
A. There were so many profound interviews, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I was deeply touched by the words of Goldman Environmental Prize winner Hilton Kelley, who spilled his heart out into a poem called “My Toxic Reality.”
Q. Can you generalize about the views on the pipeline of people you’ve met?
A. The more people hear about Keystone XL, the less they like it. Most people I met during the six-state ride knew very little about it, other than the jobs and energy security propaganda they had heard from TransCanada. What struck me the most was how quickly people would turn against it after hearing just a few facts.
Of course, the landowners I met who would be most directly impacted had an almost uniformly negative opinion of the pipeline. Many had been on the receiving end of TransCanada’s bullying tactics and were very angry at how they had been mistreated by this foreign corporation. “Disrespect” is a word I heard a lot.
I discerned no party-line affiliation whatsoever. Keystone XL is bad for America on so many levels, it transcends political party. There’s something in it for everyone to oppose. I met Tea Party activists working side-by-side with environmentalists. I saw powerful alliances of “cowboys and Indians” being formed. By assaulting so many core American values, TransCanada has succeeded in uniting people against the project. What started out as a fight against a pipeline has morphed into a struggle for the future direction of our country, and world.
Q. What happened when you reached your destination in Texas?
A. After 2,150 miles of pedaling, the ride ended with a press conference in the shadow of polluting smokestacks at a playground in Port Arthur, Texas. I was joined by local resident Hilton Kelley. I chose the West Side of Port Arthur because the air of the people living in this fence-line community would be further poisoned by emissions from refining toxic tar-sands oil. I wanted to draw attention to the plight of the babies and elderly living in this community who are already suffering enough.
Going forward, the clock is ticking on a 60-day window for President Obama to make a “national interest” determination on this foreign pipeline scheme. Every day between now and Feb. 21 is critical. The president needs to hear from voters that if he rejects Keystone XL, and rolls out a green energy plan to put America back to work leading a worldwide green industrial revolution, the American people will have his back. We can turn the Rust Belt into the “Green Belt” by building the solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars needed to power the 21st century. It’s time for a green energy moon shot for America.
Erik Hoffner works for Orion magazine and is also a freelance photographer and writer whose recent investigative report for Yale Environment 360 on unsustainable logging in Sweden was picked up by National Geographic News Watch. See images from Sweden and links to those stories here.
by Jamie Henn
In news that will surprise just about no one, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue hosted a press conference Jan. 12 where he offered full-throated support for the Keystone XL pipeline, that 1,700 mile Big Oil scam that would take tar sands oil from Canada down to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Over the last few weeks, Keystone XL has become a major political fight as Congress and Big Oil (now there are two popular institutions) have tried to slam the project down the American people’s throats, despite the fact that President Obama already delayed the project for at least a year over environmental and safety concerns.
“There is no legitimate reason, none at all, to subject it to further delay,” Donohue said in his annual address on the state of business and the economy. “Real leaders understand that Americans can have big differences in philosophy but still find common ground. They wouldn’t tell us that solutions have to wait until after the election.”
No, Tom, real leaders stand up to Big Oil and protect the American people from scams like Keystone XL, a fuse to the “largest carbon bomb in North America,” the Canadian tar sands. But it’s no surprise, I guess, that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce isn’t concerned about the climate or the interests of everyday Americans.
As Bill McKibben wrote Jan. 12:
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two years ago, filed a legal brief arguing that if the planet warmed, humans could alter their physiology to cope with the heat. So I guess there’s no reason for them to worry about the climate impacts of opening up the second-biggest pool of carbon on the planet. For those of us who plan to keep our current anatomy, however, their assault on basic environmental review is one more sign they’re nothing but a front for the fossil fuel lobby.”
It’s no real surprise that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pushing Keystone XL, but it does help clarify what we’ve been saying all along—this pipeline is a scam and the only reason politicians are pushing it is because they’re on the payroll of Big Oil and front groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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