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Story Behind Keystone XL Pipeline Amendments

Food & Water Watch’s Sam Schabacker and journalist Steve Horn discuss the interests behind the amendments and discuss how another Enbridge pipeline is being planned under the radar .

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill getting the Keystone XL pipeline closer to becoming a reality. During their three-week-long amendment marathon, there were some pipeline disasters, leaving many people questioning the safety and environmental impact of this cross-country pipeline.

Take a look at some of his footage captured on Monday in West Virginia, where an oil pipeline exploded.

Now joining us to discuss pipelines and politics are our two guests.

Joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, is Steve Horn. Steve is a research fellow for DeSmogBlog and a freelance investigative journalist.

Also joining us is Sam Schabacker. He is the Western region director for Food & Water Watch.

Thank you both for joining us.

So, Sam, let’s start out with you. As I mentioned, there were two oil pipeline disasters, one in West Virginia. The other actually was in Montana. What was the impact of these types of oil pipeline disasters, and what is the rate of occurrence that these things actually happen?

SAM SCHABACKER, WESTERN REGION DIRECTOR, FOOD & WATER WATCH: These pipeline disasters are emblematic of the inherent dangers associated with fossil fuel and oil and gas development in the United States. Although the Keystone XL Pipeline is perhaps the most infamous of all the pipelines that come up in the news regularly, there are a myriad of pipelines crisscrossing the United States, a spider’s web of dangerous industrial activity, that are really being pushed forward by the fracking industry and the fracking boom in the United States.

So, for example, there is a proposed pipeline that would go through sensitive ranching and farming community to take Bakken oil that’s been fracked from North Dakota through Illinois to Iowa. There’s a proposal to take fracked oil and gas through BLM land next to Chaco Canyon, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site in New Mexico. There are proposals to take pipelines to export oil and gas that has been fracked along the coast of Oregon.

And what we’re seeing is that across the board, these pipelines, they fail, they leak, they contaminate drinking water, which is what happened to the community and Glendive. They imperil worker safety, they contaminate pristine waterways, and they really endanger so much of the important things in many of these communities across United States.

DESVARIEUX: Sam, do you have, like, a percentage? What rate of occurrence do these types of accidents occur?

SCHABACKER: I don’t have a percentage offhand, but as we’re seeing, they’re more and more common as we are increasingly putting in hundreds if not thousands of miles of pipeline to transport this dirty and dangerous fracked oil and gas across the United States.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s dig a little deeper and talk about the amendments that were proposed. There were 18 actually get voted on and 16–I’m sorry–and six passed. Steve, tell us about this petroleum, coke, or petcoke (as some people call it) amendment that was proposed by two Michigan senators. Why was it so significant?

STEVE HORN, RESEARCH FELLOW, DESMOGBLOG: Well, that amendment was significant because petroleum coke or petcoke is a byproduct of producing and refining the tar sands. And so one of–the original senator bringing this up to the floor was actually Dick Durbin in Illinois, and also the other one in Michigan was Gary Peters. Both of them have seen the impact of petroleum coke, Gary Peters in Detroit and Dick Durbin on the south side of Chicago, both in working-class areas that basically have become sacrifice zones for petcoke.

Petcoke is kind of like coal dust, except it’s even more fine-grained. And if you breathe it in, there’s all kinds of impacts that are still unknown, understudied, because tar sands is still pretty new, and petcoke is definitely something that health experts still need to study. But early indications show that it’s definitely not safe to breathe in.

There’s class-action lawsuits right now in Chicago over the fact that Koch Industries owns a huge pile there that they refuse to even cover. That’s what the lawsuit is about. It’s not even stopping petcoke from being stored there; it’s just that when they store it, they refuse to even pay for something to cover up the petcoke.

And so what this amendment would have done is said, look, when you transport this petcoke around the country (you being the oil industry), it needs to be covered. And this amendment didn’t pass.

Like in Chicago–it’s kind of symbolic what’s happening in Chicago right now. It’s now taken a couple of years to move this along and still stalling in Chicago. And so a couple of years later, after it became an issue still in City Council–and it may be years until this stuff is even covered up. And it’s already happened once in California.

And, one, I’ll say if you look at the Senate level, [Lisa Murkowski]* is one of the people who took this–was instrumental in taking this off the floor, the head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. Well, one of her former chief of staffs until recently was the head lobbyist for Oxbow Carbon, which is owned by Bill Koch, the brother of David and Charles Koch. And they are one of the biggest marketers of petcoke in the world. So you see the revolving door in action, you see how important kis this petcoke is as a byproduct. They don’t want to pay to cover it up, but after it’s–it would be an expensive they don’t want to pay for [incompr.] will be moved to market and shipped, predominantly to Asia and China.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s move on and talk about another man amendment. Senator Ted Cruz, Senator from Texas, he also had an amendment about oil exports and the LNG amendment, so to speak. What did that actually entail? And did it pass, Sam?

SCHABACKER: So this was an amendment that was proposed to lift the long-standing historical ban on crude oil exports that the United States has maintained for several decades.

Steve, you should weigh in on to whether the amendment passed. But the impact of this will be pretty dire in a couple of ways. First and foremost, this would be a sweetheart giveaway to the oil and gas industry. A lot of people in the industry have been salivating over the prospect of getting to take the fracked oil that has been increasingly in abundance in the United States and ship it overseas to countries like China or India or continents like Europe. And we can be certain that if this bill goes forward to fast-track the export of oil, fracked oil, or even fracked natural gas, we’re going to see thousands more fracking wells next to homes and schools, as we have seen in Texas, in New Mexico, in Pennsylvania, in my home state of Colorado.

The second concern is, of course, if you start exporting this resource overseas, there is a question of what that will do to the cost of getting that resource in the United States. For many consumers, folks that are working, that are just barely able to make ends meet, the prospect of seeing their home heating costs go up because of this export bill, that’s not a satisfactory one, that’s not one that they’re looking and excited to have to add to the long list of costs that they’re already trying to take and make ends meet with.

So we’re really concerned about this. And I think, if anything, this shows that this push to export oil is not about energy independence; it’s about trying to line the pockets of a few of the wealthiest oil and gas companies, and their friends in Congress and the U.S. Senate are only so happy to help them do that.

HORN: Yeah. And this bill, this amendment, did not pass. But there’s two things to note. One, another bill, while the Keystone XL was being debated in the Senate, passed in the House to expedite permitting for liquefied natural gas exports. And this will be brought to the Senate later on this year. [Lisa Murkowski] has already announced that she will be bringing it to the floor. So it’s only a matter of months until the Senate begins debating whether or not to make this a reality.

Second of all, although that amendment did not past, mostly because Ted Cruz–some Republicans decided, do not think that doing what Ted Cruz thought was politically smart is smart, because the industry doesn’t want 100 percent all-out exports right now, mostly due to the concerns about the price of oil.

That said, the industry is quietly, through the Obama Department of Commerce, gotten permits to export condensate, oil condensate, and they’re allowed to do something called self-classify, which is they have the say over whether or not this is actually condensate or not. And we really don’t know how much oil is being exported as condensate, but there’s been really influential rulings by the Department of Commerce that have happened since the middle of 2014 through today. Companies like Shell are now exporting condensate, enterprise products, and then several others. We don’t know the extent of it. But this is something that the Obama administration announced on New Year’s Eve going into the new year. So although that amendment did not pass in the Senate, it doesn’t mean that exports of some sort of oil, meaning condensate right now, according to their self-classification, is not happening. It definitely is, and it is increasingly so.

DESVARIEUX: Speaking of amendments that didn’t pass, there was also an amendment to close the so-called Halliburton loophole. Steve, can you just talk about that a little bit? What is that loophole, and why did it pass?

HORN: Well, Senator Gillibrand in New York, the Democrat, she brought this to the floor to close what is called the Halliburton loophole. That is a loophole that exempts the oil and gas industry when it does fracking from regulations under the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and other key things that would protect Americans’ drinking water when fracking happens. This was a clause in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. And there’s been something called the FRAC Act, which has been introduced several occasions, has never passed. And so what Gillibrand decided to do was try to get it through as an amendment in this Keystone XL bill. It did not pass. And, obviously, I don’t think that the fracking industry could exist at all if these things were regulated, because it really proves that they can’t do fracking without contaminating water or threatening people’s drinking water.

And so it’s just–I think the fact that this amendment lost is just more proof that fracking is dangerous and it’s a tacit admission by the United States Senate and the politicians funded by the oil and gas industry that it cannot be done safely.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Steve–. Oh. Jump in right quick, Sam.

SCHABACKER: Well, I was just going to say, I think that, just to pick up where Steve left off, the failure of this amendment demonstrates the power of the oil and gas industry and the influence they have on our elected officials at the highest level in the United States. I think it is really telling in a state like Colorado, where we have over 52,000 active fracking wells, many of which are located 500 feet from homes and schools and public reservoirs, the only reason that this is allowed to go forward in large part is because of this exemption, and yet there are still Democratic senators like Senator Bennett, who unfortunately decided it was more important to protect the interests of the oil and gas industry than his constituents. So I anticipate we’re going to see a lot more of these conversations with the new Congress and the oil and gas industry attempting to flex their muscle to kill anything that they don’t like and put forward many more proposals to penalize communities that are attempting to protect themselves from this dangerous industrial activity.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Steve, final question. You recently wrote about another approval of a tar sands crude pipeline owned by Enbridge. It sort of went under the radar, ’cause it got approved on January 16 in the shadow of this Keystone XL Pipeline debate. Just quickly, give us an update on what actually happened.

HORN: So this was Enbridge Line 78. It runs from north-central Illinois in the Flanagan, Illinois, area eastward towards the Chicagoland area to Griffith, Indiana, which is very close to the BP Whiting Refinery–it’s the same area around which that petcoke is piling up, in Chicago and on the South Side. And the long story short is that this was approved via something called the Nationwide Permit 12, through the United States Army Corps of Engineers. And it’s not the first one that they’ve done. They’ve also permitted the Flanagan South Pipeline, which is owned by Enbridge, which runs from Flanagan, Illinois, to Cushing, Oklahoma. And they’ve also permitted the Keystone XL Southern Half, which is from Cushing, Oklahoma, down again to the Gulf. And so the three of these pipelines, first of all, if you look at Enbridge’s system that’s going southwards, it’s created what I have called a Keystone XL clone–does the exact same thing is the Keystone pipeline system that brings that tar sands all the way down to the Gulf [incompr.] very same purpose: to feed into those Gulf refinery markets, also potentially for the global export market.

But why the Line 78 is important is not only because it has capacity of up to 800,000 barrels per day, but because it’s a key piece of infrastructure that now I think is sort of a clone of what TransCanada is trying to create in Canada, something called the Energy East Pipeline.

Enbridge, again, like they’ve done with their southward pipelines, has created, piece by piece, something that will bring tar sands now eastward, although TransCanada has made a tactical–I would say an error, almost, in doing one grand pipeline project. So what Enbridge has done is done it piece by piece, pipelines that connect to one another. And this is just another example.

Why is this Nationwide Permit 12 important? Well, basically there was no public input in this at all. It usurps the National Environmental Policy Act process, the NEPA process. And so, unlike the Keystone XL, which has seen robust debate in the past several years, including now–two weeks of debate again in the Senate–this pipeline received no public hearings, no public debate at all. And the United States Army Corps of Engineers permitted it under the radar ten days into the opening of debate of the Senate bill wanting to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Steve Horn and Sam Schabacker, thank you both for joining us.

HORN: Thank you.


DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

*Notice of correction: Horn referred to U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski as Mary Landrieu, fmr. U.S. senator from Louisiana; the transcript has been modified to reflect his intent.

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