As of around 2:30 yesterday afternoon, two Keystone XL pipeline protesters were perched atop platforms strung through the trees in East Texas, aiming to block construction of what may soon become the longest pipeline in the Western Hemisphere.
The controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which could be approved by the end of March, will transport diluted bitumen -- a slurry of semi-solid tar sand and light hydrocarbons -- from mines in Alberta to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. Along the way, it'll cross rivers and aquifers including the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which covers 60 Texas counties. If managed correctly, it could provide water for centuries.
The protesters in the trees, along with a number of small-town East Texans I spoke to for this week's cover story, "There Will Be Tar Sand," fear the pipeline will rupture and spoil their water. In the bigger picture, prominent climatologists like NASA's James Hansen say Canada's oil sands -- a reservoir of carbon unmatched anywhere in the world outside of Saudi Arabia -- will scuttle any attempt to halt the planet's changing climate.
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Proponents say the pipeline will bring about energy independence, good-paying jobs and lower prices at the pump. Just take a look at a pipeline map of the United States, they say. It's a messy tangle of oil and gas pipelines from sea to shining sea. And while they may have a point, it is also true that there has never been anything like the Keystone XL in this country. No pipeline has ever carried diluted bitumen at these volumes, over the kind of distance Keystone XL may soon cover.
Nor do the recent spate of massive pipeline spills engender much confidence. Just today, for example, the Feds faulted ExxonMobil for a pipeline spill on the Yellowstone River of some 1,500 barrels of oil. It would not have been as severe, federal regulators concluded, if the company had not delayed closing all the valves and isolating the rupture.
On the other hand, crude shipments to the U.S. from Mexico, South America, Saudi Arabia and Africa are slowing. A friendly neighbor with an ocean of crude shares our border. I understand why these young folks are in the trees of Angelina County as I type this. I admire their resolve, even as Angelina County Sheriff's deputies are reportedly preparing to pluck them from the trees and arrest them.
This is, quite literally, a high-wire act. Their platforms are anchored to a web of safety lines tied to surrounding trees. Mess with the wrong line and they plunge 50 feet. That takes balls. But for the reasons described in this week's story, I don't think there's much that can stop Canada's tar sands from finding their way through Texas.