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  • November 8th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


It’s as if an environmental mugger sliced a 30 mile long gash across the face of Mother Nature. The Phillips 66 company is replacing 30 miles of elderly pipeline across the heart of mid-Missouri, including the state capital, Jefferson City. As if a spring tornado which ripped a wide swath through the heart of the city, were not intrusion enough, the pipeline repair has created a broad avenue of bare dirt through residential areas of the city, on into the countryside. Nothing impedes progress, including 200 year old red cedar trees and any other vegetation that stands in the way.


The massive oil corporation with the industry’s usual compassion for the damage it causes, generously offered free mulch to anyone willing to haul it away—the ground up vegetation their right of way clearing machinery chewed up. Wasn’t that nice of them?  In the words of Dana Carvey’s church lady on Saturday Night Live, “Isn’t that speshul!”


Gas and oil pipelines lace the United States like the circulatory system of the human body. And, like our own vein and artery network, there always is the potential for an aneurysm and an eventual rupture. While a ruptured artery in the human body may prove fatal, a pipeline rupture won’t prove fatal to the body politic— but it certainly does put a hurt on it.  The United States owns more than 65% of the more than 2 million pipeline miles worldwide.


Pipelines, like any other man-made creation, are prone to failure. They explode, leak, catch on fire, and wear out. And when they do any of these things, they pose a threat to the environment. They become, in short, a wound on the face of Mom Nature.  Pipelines are like riding a motorcycle—it’s not whether you will have an accident, it’s when.  Pipeline proponents argue that pipelines are the safest method of transporting crude oil, natural gas, ethanol, and other fluids and while that very possibly is true, the results of failure, even if rare, are ugly.


Transport of any potentially hazardous substance is risky. One only has to remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 when that tanker hit a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil. Sometimes it’s not even the transport but the drilling for oil that is the source of the problem. Remember British Petroleum’s  Deepwater Horizon explosion of an oil rig in 2010 which contaminated the Gulf of Mexico with an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil.  The oil slick covered an area roughly the size of Oklahoma.  And of course there is a current mania for fracking, in which wells are drilled deep into the earth and flooded with water, potentially dangerous chemicals, and sand. Fracking almost certainly has induced earthquakes and only time will tell what is happening to groundwater quality.


These are the extreme examples of problems caused by oil and gas extraction and transportation, but they are by no means uncommon—just extreme.


Reliance on mineral extraction for United States energy needs is both shortsighted and dangerous to the long-term health, not only of the country, but to the planet as a whole. The scientific community and, increasingly, the bulk of public opinion, is convinced that climate change (a.k.a. global warming) is caused by carbon emissions into the atmosphere— and carbon dioxide emissions overwhelmingly are the result of the combustion of those extracted minerals. The United States is the only country among 195 signatory nations  of the so-called Paris Agreement seeking to cut carbon emissions that has  announced withdrawal from the agreement. And we are the biggest offenders when it comes to atmospheric pollution. The administration has gutted regulations to limit carbon emission by automobiles and coal-fired power plants, and has encouraged more and more despoliation of the natural landscape by drilling for oil and gas.


The latest pipeline leak to make big news occurred in North Dakota when an existing pipeline known as the Keystone, ruptured and spilled 383,000 gallons of oil over the countryside.  There is in the works a plan to build an even longer and more ambitious pipeline known as the Keystone XL.  Tim Donaghy, a research specialist for Greenpeace, an environmental advocacy group, listed a few statistics which should give anyone pause before endorsing construction of Keystone XL: “History has shown us time and again that there is no safe way to transport fossil fuels, and pipelines are no exception. In the last 10 years, U.S. pipeline spills have led to 20 fatalities, 35 injuries, $2.6 billion in costs and more than 34 million gallons spilled. New pipelines are locking us into carbon emissions that will push our climate past safe limits. That is not the future I want for my children.”


Pipeline problems are not always that dramatic.  It’s entirely possible that inquisitive news hawks could report a pipeline break every day of every year, somewhere, that affects the United States.  In a statement about the North Dakota spill. Donaghy said “I wish I could say I was shocked, but a major spill from the Keystone pipeline is exactly what multiple experts predicted would happen. In fact, this is the fourth significant spill from the Keystone pipeline in less than 10 years of operation,”


The existing and the proposed Keystone XL pipelines would transport oil extracted from tar sands originating in Alberta, Canada across the United States. The existing pipeline was built directly on top of the Ogallala Aquifer….a large body of fresh water that supplies drinking water for 82% of the people living in the high plains, and which is already under stress and has been depleted by 9% by use for irrigation. The tar sands oil is trapped in a sludgy substance called bitumen and the process of squeezing out the oil is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.


The latest newsworthy leak happened on the existing Keystone pipeline system, not the 1,179-mile  Keystone XL ‘s the construction of which has been under protest by environmental groups for years.  In 2015 then President Barack Obama denied a permit for it. Predictably just a few days after Donald Trump took office he gave the company, TransCanada, the go-ahead to build the tar sands pipeline.  The original Keystone pipeline system began operation in 2010 and carries tar sands-extruded crude oil from Alberta, Canada, south to Texas. The system would span 2,687 miles of pipeline.


Tar sands extraction is considered the most potentially hazardous way to pull oil from beneath the Earth’s surface.  Keystone XL would traverse the midsection of the United States like a gigantic and potentially lethal venomous reptile. Any cataclysmic eruption would threaten the Ogallala aquifer.  That gigantic underground lake provides water from which eight states draw for irrigation of crops as well as for drinking.  Irrigation itself has been a hazard for years, in that it is drawing down the aquifer level, which would take hundreds of years to recharge if the aquifer drops below a sustainable level. Irrigation is bad enough, but pipeline contamination would be insult added to injury.


Fresh water is mandatory for the continued existence of people; crude oil is not— we already produce and export more oil than is necessary to run the country. And, if technology achieves the promise of renewable energy, the demand for more and more oil should diminish in years to come. But not if the political powers that run the country continue to insist that we drill, baby, drill!


Some years ago I was sleeping in an old farmhouse in North Missouri on the night before a quail hunt when I woke and saw a strange glow in the window, as if being alone in an old farmhouse weren’t spooky enough. I got dressed and decided to see if I could track down the source of the strange light. Perhaps someone’s farm house was on fire and I could help. I got in my car and began driving north toward the light in the sky. After traveling several miles, I realized I was no closer to the cause of the light, so I turned around and returned to bed. The next day on the television news I found that a pipeline in Iowa, at least 100 miles from where I had been sleeping, had exploded.


Pipelines transport more than oil—they also are conduits for gas, a highly explosive substance to be pumping beneath the ground where people live. When gas ignites, like what happened in Iowa, it can be as spectacular and hazardous as a wartime bombing raid. Some years back, I used to leave my desk as a sports editor at the Mexico Missouri Evening Ledger, hop in my car and drive north several miles on State Highway 15 to a small farm where I bow hunted for deer. Highway 15 was the major conduit north from Mexico and fairly heavily traveled for a state road.


Several months ago an interstate gas pipeline, owned by Panhandle Eastern, developed a massive leak through a corroded pipe adjacent to highway 15, about 1 mile north of the city limits of Mexico. The gas leak ignited an explosion that literally melted the highway. The resulting fire also burned a house under construction and the result was a highway closure until repairs were made, compensation to the would-be homeowners, and $1 million in damages. It could’ve been far worse—suppose that pipeline had been the one now being buried under Missouri’s state capital?


The Union of Concerned Scientists, an impeccable source of unbiased information has this to say about tar sand oil extraction.  “Extracting bitumen from tar sands—and refining it into products like gasoline—is significantly costlier and more difficult than extracting and refining liquid oil.  Common extraction methods include surface mining—where the extraction site is excavated—and “in-situ” mining, where steam is used to liquefy bitumen deep underground. The largest deposits of tar sands are in Alberta, Canada.”


Tar sands have been exploited for nearly 60 years and now account for about 5% of United States gasoline production. The scientists say that 1 gallon of gasoline from tar sands produces about 15% more carbon dioxide emissions than one made from conventional processes— and carbon dioxide emission is the culprit in climate change.  And it takes about 6 gallons of water to produce each gallon of gasoline from tar sands—three times as much water as in conventional methods. Not only that, but toxic substances used in tar sands extraction can contaminate groundwater. The water people drink.


Catherine Collentine, an associate director with the Sierra Club, which opposes the Keystone XL addition, said   “We don’t yet know the extent of the damage from this latest tar sands spill, but what we do know is that this is not the first time this pipeline has spilled toxic tar sands, and it won’t be the last,” she said. “We’ve always said it’s not a question of whether a pipeline will spill, but when, and once again TC Energy has made our case for us.”


 This is the second major incident for the pipeline system in the last two years. In 2017, a spill coated a stretch of grassland in South Dakota with more than 407,000 gallons of leaked Canadian crude oil, which was nearly twice as much as originally estimated.  The pipeline also leaked about 16,000 gallons each in spills in 2011 in North Dakota and in 2016 in South Dakota.


Snow White’s dwarves whistled a happy tune as they marched off, digging implements over their shoulders. I rather doubt that the pipeline diggers whistle or sing a happy tune as they march off to scrape the land bare, but if they want one, how about the old English folk tune “Fair Ellen”? It’s about a murder over love, possibly not appropriate for pipeline excavation, but after all that’s a sort of murder of the countryside, and “Fair Ellen” does end with this:



“Father, oh father, go dig my grave

go dig it wide and deep.”


I’ve looked at the trench being dug by the Phillips contractors, stretching for miles through the countryside and it looks like nothing so much as an extended grave. Let’s hope that it is not an interment site for our future.





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