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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.

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