Montana pipeline crisis should be nail in coffin of Keystone XL

President Obama’s State of the Union address — and the Republican response — certainly shed a fair amount of light on the state of the environment in 2015. The president, for his part, made a passionate plea for putting climate change at the very top of the nation’s political agenda, although I would have like to have heard more specifics about how the Obama administration will move the nation toward a renewable energy grid. Meanwhile, the GOP response by newly minted Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa put many of its eggs in one basket: The Keystone XL pipeline, or, as she called it, the Keystone jobs bill:

One you’ve probably heard about is the Keystone jobs bill. President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it. The President’s own State Department has said Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact. We worked with Democrats to pass this bill through the House. We’re doing the same now in the Senate. President Obama will soon have a decision to make: will he sign the bill, or block good American jobs?

There are many, many problems with this. Needless to say, Ernst was intentionally vague on what the Keystone XL pipeline is: A scheme to harvest some of the dirtiest fuels known to humankind, from the tar sands fields of Canada, ship it across the prairies of the U.S. heartland, including aquifers that service millions of Americans, to refineries and ports on the Gulf Coast, where most of the fuel will be shipped overseas. So our citizens will bear all of the risks from this project, but see few benefits. The biggest joke is the idea that this is a “jobs” bill. The Keystone project will create about 4,000 jobs during the construction phase, but only 50 or so permanent jobs are needed to run it. This is a bill to bring profits to Big Oil, not middle-class jobs.

But there’s something else that was missing, and it’s the most important factor: Assurances that the Keystone XL will be safe. The oil industry and its bought-and-paid-for lawmakers pretend this is a settled issue, that state-of-the-art technology has made the issue of spills a non-starter. But in reality, today’s pipelines leak all the time, for reasons ranging from corporate corner-cutting to an almost complete lack of government oversight. If you’re still convinced that the Keystone project is safe, check out what’s happening right now in Montana:

HELENA, Mont. — Work crews burrowed through thick ice and set up containment booms Tuesday in a struggle to vacuum up 50,000 gallons of oil that spilled into the Yellowstone River from a ruptured pipeline, contaminating drinking water.

The 12-inch steel pipeline, which burst Saturday morning near Glendive, Mont., about 400 miles east of here, sent light crude oil flowing downstream as far as the confluence with the Missouri River, 60 miles away in North Dakota.

Health officials warned people not to use tap water in Glendive and surrounding towns after traces of benzene from the leak were found in a water treatment plant. Gov. Steve Bullock visited the area on Monday and declared a state of emergency for Dawson and Richland Counties.

The Bridger Pipeline Company, which operates the line, has shut it down, company officials said. The line is part of a system that passes across eastern Montana from the Canadian border.

Federal officials have said short-term exposure to the water was not dangerous. But residents near the spill found the water undrinkable.

“It smells like diesel and it’s oily,” said Lisa Kjelstrup, a real estate agent in town who spent the day trying to determine how to get potable water to elderly residents. “People are panicking right now. I don’t think there was anything on the shelves.”

This isn’t the first time that an oil spill from a pipeline has befouled the Yellowstone, one of nation’s scenic and natural treasures, the longest undammed river in the Lower 48. And the pipeline that ruptured and spilled this week carried just a fraction of the amount of thick, highly toxic fuel that would be carried by the Keystone project, which will pass only 25 miles from where the spill occurred.

The Keystone project is inherently unsafe. The solution isn’t to build it but to wean both America and the world off the fossil fuels addiction that makes us want to tap the tar sands in the first place. Do America’s Republicans really believe the risk of an environmental disaster is worth a measly 50 permanent jobs?

Author’s note: In my new book — Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America there’s more info about what’s wrong with Keystone and why America needs a fossil-fuel-free future. Check it out here: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/Crude-Justice.html

Here’s the transcript of Joni Ernst’s call for a Keystone “jobs bill”: http://www.politico.com/story/2015/01/gop-response-transcript-joni-ernst-gop-response-114423.html

Read the latest on the pipeline spill in Montana: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/21/us/traces-of-montana-oil-spill-are-found-in-drinking-water.html

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