Massive oil pipeline project has Kansans and national environmental groups concerned

Kansas sits squarely in the middle of a debate that national environmental groups say will shape President Barack Obama’s legacy on fighting climate change.

This week, droves of protestors were arrested in front of the White House as part of a sit-in opposing TransCanda’s 1,700-mile, $7 billion pipeline system that would transport crude oil from what supporters call the oil sands of Canada all the way to the refineries on the Gulf Coast. A segment of the Keystone XL pipeline runs through Kansas.

On Monday more than a 100 people gathered at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene to hear a company spokesman and an angry Texas landowner debate the merits of the project.

All the activity preceded Friday’s release of the U.S. State Department’s environmental impact study of the pipeline, which is needed before a Presidential permit is issued.

In a conference call Thursday morning with national environmental groups opposing the project, Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica said the decision to allow the pipeline project to move forward has political implications.

“This decision to approve or disapprove the Keystone XL pipeline is squarely on (Obama’s) desk and is a bellwether on whether this president is committed to addressing global climate change and this nation’s as well as the world’s dependency on dirty fossil fuels,” Pica said.

Last summer, TransCanada laid pipeline through Kansas to connect Steele City, Neb., with Cushing, Okla. That pipeline travels through Washington, Clay, Dickinson, Marion, Butler and Cowley counties.

The current approval process is for two expansion projects. One starts in Hardisty, Alberta, and travels through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Another phase would take oil from Oklahoma south to Texas. As part of the expansion project, which would increase the amount of crude oil being carried from 591,000 barrels a day to 1.3 million, two pumping stations would be built in Kansas.

In Kansas, Marion County Commissioner Dan Holub’s main concerns are economic ones. Several years ago, the Kansas Legislature passed a tax exemption for pipelines in hopes of bringing employment opportunities and money to Kansas.

“We were told there would be jobs, camp sites, motels, trailer parks, all these construction crews coming through, a lot of restaurant businesses, more people, more fuel sales,” Holub said. “None of that materialized.”

Instead, Holub said, construction crews were made up of unionized laborers from outside the area and were housed about 100 miles apart from each other.

The state’s 10-year tax exemption means Marion County and its schools, townships and other government entities will miss out on about $30 million in tax revenue. In return, Holub said that when the pipeline was laid about $40,000 in sales tax was collected.

“It’s totally frustrating,” Holub said.

Jim Prescott, spokesman for the Keystone XL pipeline project, disagrees with Holub’s assessment and said plenty of businesses and companies in the state would as well. During last summer’s construction, the company and its contractors spent $481 million in Kansas and another $8 million in sales tax.

“We had a good experience in Kansas in terms of construction, in terms of local businesses and suppliers we worked with at the local level,” Prescott said. “We know that there was a substantial benefit.”

As Holub began following the project, his worries on the pipeline’s environmental effects grew. Holub, who lives about a mile and half from the pipeline, is concerned about the potential for spills and leaks and the company’s commitment to cleaning them up.

Environmental impacts have been the major motivating force for those opposing the project across the country.

On Thursday morning, opposing environmental groups said the method for extracting oil from oil sands produces higher levels of greenhouse gases than traditional oil reserves, threatens Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer and will increase pollution in communities surrounding the refineries.

“Americans have nothing to gain from this pipeline and everything to lose,” Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune said. “If the pipeline is built, it would be Americans that get the pollution and foreign corporations that get the profits.”

On the other hand, Prescott said the pipeline will be the most studied and analyzed pipeline in history.

“The Keystone pipeline is going above and beyond what is required when it comes to pipeline safety and integrity and operations,” Prescott said, and he noted that Canada has much more stringent environmental regulations than the other countries supplying the U.S. with oil, such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

Even if the permit is approved, the fight over the pipeline would be far from over.

“If we fail, there are quite a few people along the pipeline route that have already said, like the people in Washington this week, that they would sit in, that they would put their bodies on the line in front of bulldozers and pipes to prevent the construction,” said Kenny Bruno, campaign director for Corporate Ethics International.

By Christine Metz

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