Senior National Editor
Hundreds of people packed town halls in the Northeast states this time a year ago, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency heard the public sound off over the use of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” to crack rock formations and extract natural gas – a debate pitting job creation against protecting the environment.
This week, similarly large numbers are expected at town halls in the Plains states as the State Department hears from the public over the proposed construction of a pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast of the United States. The debate – again – is framed as a choice between jobs or the environment.
The controversies over fracking and the pipeline stem from the effort to find reliable sources of energy at home and lessen U.S. dependence on oil from politically sensitive countries and regions.
Hearings are scheduled in eight towns in six states along the nearly 1,400 U.S. miles of the more than 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada wants to build and which is designed to link up with and expand the range another pipeline. The State Department, which released a favorable environmental impact statement on the project, is involved because the pipeline would cross the border and run through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma before reaching refineries in Texas. A final hearing is scheduled for Oct. 7 in Washington, D.C.
All of this is leading to a decision anticipated by year’s end from President Barack Obama, on a recommendation from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on whether TransCanada can lay this pipe in U.S. soil. However the President decides, the pipeline already is touted as a 2012 campaign issue.
Estimates of how much oil is available from the tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta are enormous, perhaps 100 billion barrels; enough to meet 40 percent of U.S. import needs, say pipeline proponents. Canada already is the largest foreign supplier of U.S. oil imports (followed by Saudi Arabia and Mexico), estimated at more than 2 billion barrels daily. The Keystone XL pipeline could move upwards of 900,000 barrels southbound daily.
“Supporters say the Keystone pipeline would create jobs and let the country replace Venezuelan or Middle Eastern imports with well-regulated, dependable Canadian crude. They also say if the United States doesn't want the oil, the Chinese will gladly take it,” CNNMoney.Com has reported.
TransCanada has estimated that the $7 billion pipeline could yield upwards of 20,000 construction jobs, millions of dollars in taxes to the communities it crosses and $20 billion ultimately injected to the U.S. economy over the lifetime of the project.
Opponents warn of greenhouse gas emissions and the possibility of leaks or spills along the route. And if the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation stretching across a large swath of Appalachia, is the “ground zero” for the fracking debate, it’s counterpart in the oil pipeline controversy is the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground source of water critical for agriculture, industry and residents of states along the pipeline route.
But the pipeline debate extends to such places as East Chicago, Indiana, where BP is expanding an existing refinery to handle what it expects will be oil that begins its travels beneath Canadian soil. There, too, the debate pits the environmental concerns of neighbors and even officials from the nearby metropolis of Chicago against an outlook for thousands of construction jobs.
The State Department’s environmental impact report was met with rebuke from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group: “It is utterly beyond me how the administration can claim the pipeline will have ‘no significant impacts’ if they haven’t bothered to do in-depth studies around the issues of contention. The public has made their concerns clear and the administration seems to have ignored them. If permitted, the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will be a dirty legacy that will haunt President Obama and Secretary Clinton for years to come.”
Opponents also cite e-mails they say illustrate a too-cozy relationship between the State Department and a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide working as a lobbyist for TransCanada.
In advance of the public hearings, more than 1,200 people were arrested during two weeks of protests in front of the White House against the pipeline. Opponents plan to rally in Washington, D.C., again Nov. 6 – exactly one year before Election Day 2012.
Meanwhile, TransCanada has an advertising campaign appealing to members of Congress, federal officials and opinion makers in Washington. "We look at this as being proactive. If we hear a debate going on, and we are not happy about what the other side is saying, then we need to get out there and speak about it," James Millar, a TransCanada spokesman, told the Edmonton Journal. "We hear a lot of the negatives about the project. We heard them for the two weeks of protests in Washington, and we thought it was important to ensure the jobs and energy security message gets out there."
Supporters and opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline will escalate their message campaigns at this week’s hearings and continue until the White House makes what may be one of the most sensitive decisions of the Obama presidency.