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State Dept’s Keystone XL Contractor, ERM Group, Also OK’d Controversial Pebble Mine in Alaska

2:22 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

ERM has always been able to turn a blind eye to serious environmental impacts.

DeSmogBlog investigation has revealed Environmental Resources Management Inc. (ERM Group) — the contractor performing the U.S. State Department’s environmental review for the northern half of TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline — gave the greenlight to Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine proposal in June 2013.

The proposed Pebble Mine, located in Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska, contains mineable gold and copper. It’s also a major hub for fishing and the seafood industry, leading the Center for American Progress to call the battle over Pebble Mine a “resource war.”

“Bristol Bay…is home to the world’s largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery,” explains a November 2013 EarthWorks blog post. ”The devastation caused by a massive open pit mine would linger in perpetuity affecting not just Bristol Bay, but the commercial fishing industry everywhere in the Pacific Northwest.”

Like the Pebble Mine review, ERM’s review for the northern half of the U.S.-Canada border-crossing Keystone XL pipeline concluded the pipeline would have negligible environmental impacts.

EPA Tackles Pebble Mine, Keystone XL

Another thread tying Keystone XL and Pebble Mine together: in both cases, ERM Group’s environmental assessment flew in the face of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) assessment. In April 2013, the EPA critiqued ERM Group’s Keystone XL environmental review, while the EPA published a damning environmental review of Pebble Mine on January 15.

“The report concludes that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses risks to salmon, wildlife, and Native American cultures,” explains an EPA fact sheet published summarizing the study. “Bristol Bay supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year.”

ERM scolded the EPA for not taking a balanced approach on Pebble Mine, not looking into the “positive effects” it would create if it opens for business.

“[EPA did not take] into account the positive effects of cash income from employment on a community’s overall subsistence-gathering capabilities, as well as, harvest-sharing capabilities,” wrote ERM. “Overall, the Assessment lacks discussion of potential positive effects associated with industrial development.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) didn’t toe the ERM party line, though.

“Wrong mine, wrong place, too big,” Begich said in a January 19 interview with the Anchorage Daily News. “Too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to that area but also to Alaska, to world markets. I think it will harm the environment, harm the salmon, harm the jobs that are connected to the fisheries industry out there.”

“A Polluted Process”

As documented previously here on DeSmogBlog, ERM has also green-lighted other projects with ecologically unsavory track records. These have ranged from an explosive pipeline project in the Caspian Sea to a contentious LNG project in Peru to a toxic tar sands refinery in Delaware.

All of these projects were met with backlash from environmentalists, but eventually received the customary ERM rubber stamp.

Some members of the U.S. House of Representatives have called ERM’s Keystone XL northern half environmental review into question, though.

Led by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), 24 House Democrats sent a letter to President Obama on December 12 saying he shouldn’t green light the northern half of the pipeline until the State Department’s Office of Inspector General finishes its probe into how ERM Group was chosen and why. It’s what Friends of the Earth has called a “a polluted process.”

“The Department of State apparently overlooked these conflicts when it accepted Environmental Resources Management’s (ERM) bid to perform the analysis,” reads the letter. “Because of the seriousness of the conflicts…we believe no EIS from the company – draft or final – should be accepted by the administration before these issues are resolved.”

One thing is clear as Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama head into decision-making time on Keystone XL’s northern half: ERM has always been able to turn a blind eye to serious environmental impacts. Now it’s up to Obama and Kerry to avoid falling into the same trap. Read the rest of this entry →

Keystone XL Fork in the Road: TransCanada’s Houston Lateral Pipeline

1:49 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

Houston Refinery at night

The southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is scheduled to bring oil & tarsands to Houston’s refineries starting in January.

Only Barack Obama knows the fate of the northern half of TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  But in the meantime, TransCanada is preparing the southern half of the line to open forcommercial operations on January 22.

And there’s a fork in that half of the pipeline that’s largely flown under the radar: TransCanada’s Houston Lateral Pipeline, which serves as a literal fork in the road of the southern half of Keystone XL’s route to Gulf Coast refineries.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline” by TransCanada, the 485-mile southern halfof Keystone XL brings a blend of Alberta’s tar sands crude, along with oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. This area has been coined a “sacrifice zone” by investigative journalist Ted Genoways, describing the impacts on local communities as the tar sands crude is refined mainly for export markets.

But not all tar sands and fracked oil roads lead to Port Arthur. That’s where the Houston Lateral comes into play. A pipeline oriented westward from Liberty County, TX rather than eastward to Port Arthur, Houston Lateral ushers crude oil to Houston’s refinery row.

“The 48-mile (77-kilometre) Houston Lateral Project is an additional project under development to transport oil to refineries in the Houston, TX marketplace,” TransCanada’s website explains. “Upon completion, the Gulf Coast Project and the Houston Lateral Project will become an integrated component of the Keystone Pipeline System.”

Boon for Houston’s Refinery Row

Houston’s LyondellBasell refinery is retooling itself for the looming feast of tar sands crude and fracked oil bounty that awaits from the Houston Lateral’s completion.

“The company is spending $50 million to nearly triple its capacity to run heavy Canadian crude at the Houston refinery, to 175,000 bpd from 60,000 bpd,”explained a March article in Reuters.

LyondellBasell admits TransCanada’s Houston Lateral project is a lifeline ensuring its Houston refinery remains a profitable asset.

“Over time, heavy Canadian oil is going to be extremely important to this refinery,” the company’s spokesman David Harpole said in a February interview with Bloomberg. “It’s not all getting down there today but as time goes on, that will become more and more powerful to an asset like we have.”

But LyondellBasell’s not the only company with skin in the game. Valero — whose refining capacity is currently overflowing with fracked Eagle Ford shale oil — is also considering expanding its capacity to refine more tar sands crude.

Not “What If,” But “Right Now”

A financially lucrative asset to refining companies like LyondellBasell and Valero, Houston’s refineries are an issue of life or death for those living within the vicinity.

“In a December 2010 report, the Sierra Club linked tar sands refinery emissions to prenatal brain damage, asthma and emphysema,” a March Huffington Post article explained. “A recent Houston-area study found a 56 percent increased risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia among children living within two miles of the Houston Ship Channel, compared with children living more than 10 miles from the channel.”

Like Port Arthur, Houston — the headquarters for some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world — is a major “sacrifice zone” for front-line communities, with many people suffering health impacts from the city’s four petrochemical refineries.

“Much of the debate around the Keystone XL pipeline has focused on the dangers of extracting and transporting the tar sands,” DeSmogBlog contributor Caroline Selle wrote in a May 2013 article. “Left out, however, are those in the United States who are guaranteed to feel the impacts of increased tar sands usage. Spill or no spill, anyone living near a tar sands refinery will bear the burden of the refining process.”

With Keystone XL’s southern half currently being injected with oil and with TransCanada counting down the weeks until it opens for commercial operations, those living in front-line refinery neighborhoods face a daunting “survival of the fittest” task ahead.

“With toxic chemical exposure nearly certain, it is unclear what the next step will be for residents [living in refinery neighborhoods],” Selle wrote in her May article. “[T]his is a life or death struggle more immediate than the ‘what-if’ of a pipeline spill. And it’s not a ‘what-if, [but rather] the fight is ‘right now.’”

Read the rest of this entry →

Pipeline Safety Agency Approves Startup of Keystone XL South

6:53 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

No Tar Sands banner

Despite serious safety concerns and months of protests, Keystone XL South is approved for tarsands.

DeSmogBlog has learned that TransCanada cleared the final hurdle for the southern half of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, receiving a green light last week from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) following a review of several safety concerns.

TransCanada announced this week that it has begun injecting oil into the southern half of its Keystone XL pipeline in preparation for commercial operations.

Leading up to PHMSA giving Keystone XL south the go-ahead to start up, Public Citizen raised several questions about the safety of the pipeline.

Will TransCanada respond to greivances raised about dents, faulty welding, pipeline material designated “junk” and other issues raised in the consumer advocacy group’s November investigation? And what about September 10 and September 26 warning letters obtained by Public Citizen raising similar concerns from PHMSA to TransCanada?

Both TransCanada and PHMSA have provided DeSmogBlog answers to these questions.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the 485-mile Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas Keystone XL southern half — approved via a March 2012 Executive Order from President Barack Obama — is set to open for business by mid- to late-January.

PHMSA’s Initial Concerns

In September, PHMSA drafted two letters to TransCanada expressing concerns over the integrity of the pipeline during its construction phase.

“During the months of June and July 2013, a representative [from PHMSA]…inspected the construction of the Keystone Gulf Coast Project,” reads a September 10 warning letter from R.M. Seeley, Director of PHMSA’s Southwest Region Office to TransCanada’s Vice President Pipeline Safety and Compliance, Vern Meier. “As a result of the inspection, it appears you have probable violations of the Pipeline Safety Regulations, Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations.”

PHMSA’s September 10 warning letter said TransCanada had done a suboptimal job installing Keystone XL’s southern half, also writing that the coating utilized for Keystone XL’s southern half could easily degrade over time in the September 10 letter.

Two weeks later, PHMSA sent another warning letter to TransCanada on September 26, calling out TransCanada on its poor welding procedures. PHMSA could fine TransCanada up to $2 million, along with additional enforcement actions, if the company had failed to comply with PHMSA’s dictates outlined in both warning letters.

PHMSA Delays FOIA Response

After playing the “bad cop” role in its two September letters to TransCanada, PHMSA’s Southwest Office has backed off a bit.

In response to a FOIA request submitted by Public Citizen upon learning of the two September letters, PHMSA responded that, due to commercial reasons and the possibility of an ongoing investigation, Public Citizen will likely not be eligible for many of the records requested.

PHMSA Gives KXL South Green Light

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told DeSmogBlog he believes all is safe and sound with Keystone XL’s southern half.

Read the rest of this entry →

Obama’s Keystone XL Trade-Off: Executive Order Expediting Everything Else

6:19 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

While President Obama made a big deal out of delaying the northern half of the Keystone pipeline’s construction, he compensated by signing an executive order to expedite similar infrastructure projects everywhere else.

Cross-Posted from Mint Press News

Large segments of the environmental movement declared a win on Jan. 18, 2012, the dawn of an election year in which partisan fervor reigned supreme.

On that day President Barack Obama kicked the can down the road for permitting TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline’s northern half until after the then-forthcoming November 2012 presidential election.

“Northern half” is the key caveat: just two months later, on March 22, 2012 – even deeper into the weeds of an election year – President Obama issued Executive Order 13604. Among other key things, the order has an accompanying memorandum calling for an expedited review of the southern half of Keystone XL stretching from Cushing, Okla. to Port Arthur, Texas.

The day before, March 21, Obama flew on Air Force One to a pipe yard in Cushing – the “pipeline crossroads of the world” – for a special stump speech and photo-op announcing the executive order and memorandum.

Dubbed the Gulf Coast Pipeline Project by TransCanada – 95 percent complete and “open for business” in the first quarter of 2014 – the 485-mile tube will ship 700,000 barrels of tar sands crude per day from Cushing to Port Arthur, where it will then reach Gulf Coast refineries and be exported to the global market. It will eventually have the capacity to ship 830,000 barrels per day.

The subject of a large amount of grassroots resistance from groups such as Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance and the Tar Sands Blockade, the Gulf Coast Pipeline Project – when push comes to shove – is only the tip of the iceberg.

That’s because Obama’s order also called for expedited permitting and review of all domestic infrastructure projects – including but not limited to pipelines – as a reaction to the Keystone XL resistance.

A months-long Mint Press News investigation reveals the executive order wasn’t merely a symbolic gesture.

Rather, many key pipeline and oil and gas industry marketing projects are currently up for expedited review, making up for — and by far eclipsing — the capacity of Keystone XL’s northern half. The original TransCanada Keystone pipeline – as is – already directly connects to Cushing from Alberta, making XL (short for “extension line”) essentially obsolete.

Keystone XL’s northern half proposal is key for marketing oil obtained from the controversial hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin.

Dubbed the Bakken Marketlink Pipeline, the segment has lost its importance with the explosive freight rail boom for moving Bakken fracked oil to market and other pipeline proposals. One of those pipelines, in fact, has received fast-track approval under the March 2012 Obama Executive Order.

Feeling the pressure from protest against the Keystone XL from groups such as the Tar Sands Action, Indigenous Environmental Network and others, Obama pulled a fast one: “wait and see” for XL’s northern half – which many claimed as a victory – and expedited approval of everything else via executive order.

Breaking down the Keystone XL executive order

Read the rest of this entry →