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Pipelines create profits, perils

Published Jan 8, 2012 10:59 AM

Not so hidden in the late December “tax deal” was a provision to force a quick decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which would stretch from the Tar Sands oil extraction project in Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. While first threatening to veto any bill that included the project, President Barack Obama ended up approving the final package with no mention of this environmental threat.

The proposed 1,700-mile pipeline threatens a vital aquifer for millions of people and undermines the rights of many Indigenous nations on whose land it would run. Thousands of people circled the White House in early November to oppose the pipeline.

Trillions of dollars are at stake for U.S. and Canadian companies, including the $100 billion Koch Industries, one of Canada’s largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters. The Koch brothers also operate Koch Exploration Canada, L.P. devoted to exploring and refining 25 percent of tar sands oil. (Guardian U.K., Sept. 8)

Pipeline promoters claim the project would add 20,000 new jobs. However, an independent Cornell University assessment stated the project might produce between 2,500 to 4,650 temporary jobs lasting two years at best.

Because the project would divert a huge volume of tar sands oil away from Midwest refineries to be sold at higher prices to Gulf Coast and export markets, it would increase prices consumers pay for gasoline and diesel fuel, adding up to $5 billion to the annual U.S. fuel bill. (U.S. News & World Report, Dec.16)

Lack of safety regulations

As drilling for new sources of natural gas and oil expands around the U.S. and across the globe, construction of new pipelines is sure to follow. Along with this expansion comes growing concern over potential environmental damage and deadly pipeline accidents due to weak oversight and lack of safety rules.

In Pennsylvania, the rapid expansion of drilling for natural gas has spurred pipeline construction, often with no safety rules. In many rural areas — common when it comes to hydraulic fracturing or fracking and moving gas from Marcellus Shale wells — no safety regulations, state or federal, apply. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec.11)

Yet federal data indicate that deaths from pipeline accidents are increasing. In 2010 there were 230 gas-line accidents in the U.S., resulting in 21 deaths and 105 injuries. From 1990 to 2009, there were 5,625 accidents resulting in 365 deaths, 1,553 injuries, more than $4.3 billion in property damage and spillage of over 2.5 million barrels of gas.

As of March 2011, there were 2.4 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. While mainly in rural areas, many pass through cities. According to Carl Weiner, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, “On average … there’s a significant incident somewhere about every other day, and someone ends up in the hospital or dead about every nine or 10 days.” (NPR, March 1)

Pipelines are key to the expanding production of shale gas, which now accounts for 34 percent of U.S. production of natural gas, resulting in billions of dollars in profits. Many of these pipelines require clearing hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, resulting in erosion, damage to streams and clogged water wells. Pipeline corporations can build with few if any restrictions from local governments.

Fracking generates a huge volume of gas that is transported in big pipes, running at pressures far greater than traditional lines. The Marcellus Shale region alone, which encompasses large parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, is estimated to contain 410 trillion cubic feet of gas, over 50 percent of the U.S. total.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett and other politicians are pushing for legislation that would bar local officials from imposing restrictions on gas wells and pipelines in their communities.

The natural gas industry argues that they are bringing jobs to local communities. This sounds similar to promises made by the coal industry. Hundreds of years of coal mining in Pennsylvania have left more than 2,400 miles of streams polluted by abandoned mines and much of the land deforested. While industry owners got rich, more than 31,000 workers died.

Pipeline problems widespread globally

The potential threat posed by the rapidly expanding natural gas industry is being felt round the globe. U.S. companies including Halliburton, Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Exxon Mobil stand to profit at the expense of local residents and environments.

Puerto Rico’s Gov. Luis Fortuno is promoting a $450 billion project to build a 92-mile natural gas pipeline, dubbed Vía Verde or the Green Way. The island of Puerto Rico is just 110 miles long.

Opponents call it the Vía de la Muerte — Death Route — because it goes through the center of the island, crossing forests and more than 235 rivers and impacting 32 endangered species. It also presents a risk to over 200,000 people because much of the area is seismically active. Plans call for a 150-foot right of way to be cleared through the forests in the interior mountains. (Democracy Now, June 9) Demonstrations against the pipeline have rocked Puerto Rico.

In South Africa, large energy companies want to drill thousands of natural gas wells using fracking, which requires millions of gallons of water for each gas well, in an area that “sees less rain in some parts than the Mojave Desert.” (New York Times, Dec. 30)

Drilling for shale gas in Indonesia in 2006 led to the eruption of a mud volcano that killed 13 people and left more than 30,000 homeless. In Peru, a U.S.-funded project to export gas from the Amazon rainforest has been plagued by spills.

Back in Pennsylvania, many landowners signed leases to allow drilling on their properties hoping for lucrative royalties, which frequently have not come through. They didn’t realize that pits for holding waste water from drilling would be constructed on their land or that these pits would leak, spilling contaminated liquids that would kill crops and animals.

Drilling is often done within sight of residential areas. Multiple wells are drilled on one site, covering more than one square mile, and some well pads involve compressors running 24/7. Sites may be packed with trucks and industrial equipment. Pipelines are dug across farmland and through areas that were previously forested.

The promise that drilling would bring jobs to the state has also not meant more jobs for local residents. “More than 70 percent of the people working at Marcellus Shale drilling sites come from out of state.” (Centre Daily Times, Feb. 6)