The Absurd Call for Obama to Save Keystone XL by Regulating It

Freelance journalist Jonathan Waldman, writing in an op-ed in The New York Times, thinks he sees a way around the Keystone XL pipeline impasse – we might best call it an “obsession” – in Congress. Mr. Waldman says, using the Trans-Alaska Pipeline as a model, “Don’t kill Keystone XL. Regulate it.”

Oh yes. Let’s regulate it. This leaves you wondering where Mr. Waldman has been these past six years. The Republican Party now in control of both houses of Congress loves nothing more than regulating the oil industry. They love even more President Obama working around them by issuing executive orders. Not like they’re going to sue him or anything, right?

If Mr. Waldman had just awoken from a log nap, he might be excused for making what might otherwise be called a poor joke at our expense. Instead, his suggestion is inexplicable. He himself admits a “sad pattern” of “calls for reform and powerful resistance.” The oil companies are now proud owners of the 114th Congress. How likely is it we will see increased regulation?

The Heritage Foundation, in late 2014 compared opposition to Keystone XL and that once offered to the Trans-Canada Pipeline System, or TAPS. Authors Stephen Moore and Joel Griffith claimed that “environmental groups opposed to the Keystone XL Pipeline are repeating, almost verbatim, nearly every discredited argument against building the Alaska Pipeline,” and that “empirical evidence from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline demonstrates that pipelines can be built and operated in ways that protect the environment and economically benefit the nation.”

Right. But TAPS, operated by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company (whose principal owner is BP) has a history of catastrophic leaks and maintenance problems. The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2006 that, “In recent years, about 500 oil spills have occurred in the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and along the 800-mile pipeline each year, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.”

And as ProPublica reported in 2011 of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, “The pipeline system has had a long history of maintenance problems and worker safety complaints.” Without additional regulations and enforcement of those regulations, does anyone seriously believe these problems will not continue?

How was environmental opposition then “discredited” you ask? For the simple reason that, ideologically speaking, such leaks are impossible, and therefore cannot have occurred.

Yet Mr. Waldman praises TAPS and its use of five-ton, $2 million dollar “smart pigs” or rust-detecting robots, through the pipelines to “hunt for metal loss.” The pig, he says, is “capable of scanning the pipe inch by inch, and the company wanted data on every one of the pipeline’s seven billion square inches.”

Perhaps the reason this type of hype might sell is that as industry analyst Richard Feinberg wrote at Truthout back in 2013, “Chronic problems with pigs on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) seldom make headlines in the 49th state.” So true.

Mr. Feinberg relates that,

On two occasions since late 2010, TAPS operators were unaware that pigs had gone astray on their watch. In both cases, several days later pig pieces were found, broken and stuck in damaged pressure relief piping. These incidents occurred at Pump Station 5 in northern Alaska on November 25, 2010 and at the pipeline’s southern terminal at Valdez on May 14, 2012.

Feinberg notes other issues with pigs, including a January 1, 2011 incident where, during an emergency shutdown, “two pigs were stranded in southern stretch of TAPS,” contributing to “the havoc of the shutdown.”

Waldman assures us that “unlike other pipelines, it (TAPS) has never, in nearly 40 years, suffered a leak induced by corrosion – a major threat to aging pipelines. That’s because threats like pits, dents and weld misalignments have been discovered and quickly repaired.”

Quickly, did he say? According to Mr. Feinberg,

The January 2011 emergency shutdown at Pump Station 1 and the relief tank overflow at Pump Station 9 eight months before shared an important common denominator: Failure to mitigate identified risks in a timely manner. According to an assessment report by the State Pipeline Coordinator’s Office (SPCO), potential for corrosion leaks in piping at Pump Station 1 was identified in 2008, but no immediate action was taken. That piping, which had been encased in concrete nearly two decades earlier, was not easily reached for inspection and repair. In 2008, Alyeska had assigned the highest risk rating to one stretch of buried, corrosion-prone pipe, while a zero-risk rating was assigned to a smaller segment. But instead of fixing the high-risk problem, Alyeska repaired the more accessible, low-risk portion. Three years later, in January 2011, the unrepaired buried stretch deemed highest risk started leaking.

There was another lost pig on New Year’s Day 2013, which was found at Valdez on January 8, and Feinberg puts all these mishaps down to “fundamental operating problems such as lack of situational awareness and failure to learn from past mistakes.”

Most of all, Mr. Waldman fails to provide us with a reason to build Keystone XL in the first place. Pipelines may be the safest way to move oil, but why move it at all through the United States? He writes that “even foes of the pipeline…have begun to concede that blocking it won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil.” Fine, extract it. Ship it somewhere else.

After all, it is going somewhere else.

Even if you set aside Mr. Waldman’s failure to mention the violation of Native American treaty rights, his argument that Obama “should ensure that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is properly funded” is laughable at a time when Republicans are barely keeping the government itself funded, let alone the highly critical Department of Homeland Safety.

And Mr. Waldman’s call for “increased enforcement powers” has to be placed against Republicans calls for the disbanding the EPA, and its attempts to strip it of its regulatory powers. Does he really think any of these proposals have any chance at all of seeing the light of day?

Waldman grandly says, “Getting behind a law holding pipelines to higher standards seems an executive act far more courageous than a veto.”

Mr. Waldman says “we’ve got it all backward,” but I am afraid he is the one who has got it all backward.

He is wrong.

There is something more courageous yet. If we are talking about tougher regulations, then why not support some really tough regulations? Let’s have the courage to protect ourselves, our children, and the entire human species?

As Waldman says, we are an “energy-thirsty world,” but there are other forms of energy. And if we had these tougher new regulations, the tar sands oil would stay where it is and we would look elsewhere for that energy. We would find the means of powering our world without destroying those who depend on it for survival.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. We have proved it before, Mr. Waldman. Let’s prove it again.
Trans-Alaska Pipeline photo from Alaska in Pictures.

29 Replies to “The Absurd Call for Obama to Save Keystone XL by Regulating It”

  1. Because shipping oil by Warren Buffet’s rail cars are so much safer:

    Dramatic Explosion Footage: Warren Buffett-Owned Oil Freight Train Derails, Bursts Into Flames:

    Your dear leader Obama is bought and paid for b(u)y Uncle Warren’s big train bucks, oh but wait, isn’t he a tax policy adviser to the Obama administration.

    Oh great wind power will save us from that dirty oil. You are all a bunch of hypocrites and fools.


  2. I did not argue that trains are safer, Bob. Did you even read the article? Of course not. In fact, I agreed with Waldman that pipelines are the safest means to transport oil – which is not to say that they are safe. They are not.

    When you can return with a cogent argument, we’ll talk.

  3. bob, you ignorance is showing. obviously you know nothing of the rail situation….

    I say this as a former rail employee and longtime observer. the bakken crude oil trains caught the rail industry by surrise, going from nothing to a tidal wave in a few years. most tank cars are owned or leased by the shippers themselves, not the railroads. the shippers have pressed into service whatever cars were available in crude service, while the carbuilders are running at or near capacity building stronger cars. that situation, due to sheer number of cars, will not change overnight. the big problem with bakken crude is that the producers are not removing the volatile compounds like butane and propane that are dissolved in the oil, before loading it. these gasses separate in transit giving a layer of combustable gas on top of the oil. crude oil by itself doesn’t explode. the same problem will happen in a pipeline as well, if the volatiles are not removed beforehand. only the oil cos can do this…

  4. Yes I did see your concession that pipelines are safer. My point is that they will continue to use rail cars, that add $20 dollars a barrel to the cost, to move the oil. By your admission pipelines are safer. If this pipeline is not the way to achieve this then we should be actively seeking another way. To think that other you are going to be able to replace existing use of oil for energy with how our current infrastructure is set up and the energy density of oil being what it is, is a pipe(line) dream. By Warren’s own admission the only reason he is investing in wind farms is for the tax credits, otherwise they would not be economically feasible.

  5. Jeff,
    I am well aware of what is happening in the rail industry with regards to the massive increase of the rail transport of oil and the number of oil tanker cars Uncle Warren has pressed into service. My main point is that these are political decisions made by this bought and paid for administration. If the pipeline was more politically expeditious for the President he would be out there cutting the ribbon on its completion already, but he gets more money from Buffet than whomever is backing the pipeline.


  6. Rey,
    Lobster has been cheap this winter about $6 to $8 a pound, I will gladly treat you to a couple.

  7. ” most tank cars are owned or leased by the shippers themselves, not the railroads. ”

    How are they then your Uncle Warren’s rail cars. Also, how many rail cars have caused farmers to lose land by eminent domain by a foreign country? How many rail cars jeopardize the largest aquifer in the Midwest? How much of this dirtiest crude there is going to stay in the US? I’ll give you that answer, none. You want us to build a pipeline for a foreign country, so they can ship the oil overseas and have US responsible for the cleanup of any and all spills? Who’s the fool?

  8. Ricky, Ricky, Ricky,

    When you lease a car you don’t own it but you are responsible for it, aren’t you? The railways never took land by eminent domain? They certainly would never jeopardize someones drinking water, oh wait what just happened in Wast Virginia last month. The pipeline would be used to supply our refineries where our citizens would be working in high paying jobs. It would also leave us with an alternative supply for oil should there be an interruption of supply from the middle east, like that could never happen. SO sorry Ricky, nice try, thanks for playing.


  9. Deutsche Bank Report: Solar + Storage Will Dominate Worldwide Energy Market By 2030

    Deutsche Bank has produced a 175 page report that will have the Koch bros and their bought and paid for minions as well as every oil, coal and natural gas company weeping in their Chevas Regal or Glenfiddich.
    The report suggests that solar generated energy will be the dominant source of energy worldwide within the next 15 years. Not only that, but the solar industry will generate $5 trillion in revenue in that time while displacing fossil fuels.

  10. If the bloody pipeline is so bloody wonderful let Canada keep it in it’s own borders.

    Just because the Koch Brothers are sabotaging oil trains isn’t gonna make the substandard built Keystone pipeline look any sweeter.

  11. What Bostonbob wilfully doesn’t mention: That Keystone/Tar Sands oil isn’t meant for the United States.

    It’s all earmarked to be exported to China.

    Bostonbob- the Fail Whale.

  12. Moon,
    What I think is so funny is you think the oil should belong to one country. In this capitalist society commodities go to whomever is willing to pay the going rate. The US as of 2013 imports about 3.5 billion barrels of oil annually about 1/3 of that came from Canada. Quite naturally since the refineries are not owned by the government part of what is refined is exported as a value added to the commodity, much as China does with its imported commodities. These in lows and out flows are constantly changing, just ask Mexico who was exporting so much oil to the US only a decade ago, and they will continue to change. We would do well to shore up this supply as it may be needed in the future. The energy supply business is constantly evolving, it is best to leave open as many options as possible. Failing to do so only leaves the country open to more risks from future instability.


  13. DJ,
    I really believe that locally produced power is the way to go. Smaller local power plants with each household having some form of solar/wind/geo-thermal power as its main source. The problem is that much of how we have our society structured does not allow for this, nor is it in the best interest of the large utility and oil companies. They love that monthly check for heat, gas, electricity from hundred of millions of consumers. Also there is the tricky EROEI equation that solar and wind address so woefully. As it stands the energy concentration in oil is so high even with the current higher extraction costs, that it still much more attractive as an exploitable resource, and not to mention much how much of our infrastructure is built around the availability of these resources. This infrastructure is not easily replaced and it will be extraordinarily expensive to change out. The future will surely be interesting.

  14. Obama gives strongest hint yet that he may reject TransCanada’s application to build Keystone XL
    “The reason that a lot of environmentalists are concerned about it is the way that you get the oil out in Canada is an extraordinarily dirty way of extracting oil. And, obviously, there are always risks in piping a lot of oil through Nebraska farmland and other parts of the country,” Obama added. […]
    “I haven’t made a final determination on it, but what I’ve said is that not going to authorize a pipeline that goes to benefit largely a foreign company, if it can’t be shown that it is safe and if it can’t be shown overall that it would not contribute to climate change.”

    Obama invoked the decision when explaining the need to combat climate change and emphasized that young people should care about the future of the climate.

    “The pattern overall is that the climate is getting warmer. That’s undeniable,” Obama said. “This will affect you more than old people like me.”

  15. Got a question BostonBob, what website were you barred from? What entity guided you onto the Politicususa domain? Quiet please, don’t help with his answere.

  16. oh my god!!! shut the f*ck up you anti-American POS traitor. you are garbage and you must be a paid Koch troll cause I don’t know anybody stickin’ up for those Koch brother bastards.

  17. bob is apparently under the impression that the east coast refineries are still importing oil from opec. bakken crude has made opec pretty much irrelevant, at least as far as the usa is concerned. disruption of the middle east supply is no longer a problem for us. which is why I find it interesting that there is no serious pipeline proposal running to the east coast. it was only a couple years ago that Sunoco was going to sell their Philadelphia refinery to an airline to make jet fuel.

    don’t get me wrong. I am all for investments in renewables. here in Pennsylvania there have been massive investments in windmills atop the Allegheny mountains. but renewables alone aren’t going to solve the problem. personally, i’d rather we use oil or coal to fill the gap, and deal with the temporary effects of an oil spill than invest in nuclear and risk the sort of pollution seen after the Chernobyl accident.

  18. clennis,
    As far as I know I have never been barred from any website. I thought I had been blocked here, but as best I can detect it was my adware blocking the comments, maybe I am wrong. I came here through an article I had found looking up some information. I found the sight interesting and some of the comments well thought out. I always enjoy it when someone challenges what you believe, it lends itself o introspection. I am sure I could use more of it, it is just how I am wired.

  19. I fail to see a need to devolve into that type of language, Mdag – BostonBob may be playing the Devil’s advocate here, but he’s doing so in a polite, respectful manner (other than calling us hypocrites and fools in his first comment), and some of the points that he mentioned have credence – some of them. You lose the debate when you have nothing left but pejorative and ad hominem counters.

  20. mdag,
    I do not see where anything I said was anti-American, but if think paying my taxes, volunteering in my community, sending my children to public schools and voting are anti-American then so be it. I will continue to anti-American in your eyes.If challenging the way you see the world upsets you then you must not be very secure in your beliefs. Most here on this site have a strong set of beliefs which is why I come here, to be challenged. I could easily go somewhere where everyone agrees but that is boring.

  21. Dear Johnathan Waldman:

    Having read your NY Times Op-Ed article listed in the “Subject space” above, I realize that the position you take on Keystone is heavily influenced by the absence of two overwhelmingly scientific facts that (if known by everyone) would abolish the Keystone Project FOREVER. These two facts (i.e., Fact 1 and Fact 2) are given in the article just below.

    They are derived by using completely elementary arithmetic that is taught in all US elementary schools (usually grades 5, 6, 7 or 8). As explained below, the benefit that would accrue to the US petroleum consumption needs from the maximum daily delivery of 830,000 barrels of Tar Sand crude (by far the dirtiest petroleum on Earth) promissed by TransCanada (in case the pipiline is ever completed) is ZILCH!

    What the devil are so many people (i.e., Congress, the Media, an overwhelming majority of the US population)thinking? Are we a nation of elementary arithmetic ignoramuses?


  22. The Utter Folly of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project and Tar Sand Petroleum Production
    By John M. Bachar, Jr.
    Emeritus Professor of Mathematics
    California State University Long Beach
    The Congress, the Media, and an overwhelming majority of the US population are abysmally ignorant of Facts 1 and 2 just below (estimate: 99% do not know them).
    If these two Facts were known by these bodies, it would easily lead to killing the Keystone project forever.
    Fact 1. The Energy Information Agency (EIA) published a table that shows the U.S. daily petroleum consumption (in millions of barrels of petroleum per day – MBD) by sectors from 1950-2013. The three sectors covered are: Residential/Industrial, Electric and Transportation.
    In 2013, the Transportation sector consumed 13.2 MBD (= 4,818 million barrels per year), and all three sectors consumed 18.9 MBD.(= 6,898.5 million barrels per year).
    If the Keystone XL Pipeline is built and 830,000 barrels of Tar Sands cru…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.