Endangered Species Harmed Because Of Keystone XL Delay

Brian Seasholes Policy Analyst, Reason
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The unfolding disaster in West Virginia, in which a train transporting oil derailed, caught fire and is spilling oil into the Kanawha River, likely could have been prevented if more oil pipelines were approved — most notably the much-delayed Keystone XL pipeline. While the oil spill will have many negative environmental impacts, especially hard hit will be the five species of freshwater mussels that are listed under the Endangered Species Act and live in the Kanawha River.

The irony of the oil spill is that approval of Keystone XL has been delayed, and is likely going to be vetoed by President Obama, due to objections by many of the same environmental lobbying organizations that ardently support the Endangered Species Act. When it comes to Keystone XL, however, these same groups are raising the specter of a host of minor environmental risks, while ignoring the very real and significant threats to a wide range of imperiled and more common species of transporting oil by rail instead of by pipeline.

According to part of the U.S. State Department’s environmental review, Keystone XL would result in an average of 518 barrels of oil spilled annually, but transporting oil by rail would result in 1,335-1,606 barrels spilled. And if oil is transported by a combination of rail and truck, the amount spilled increases to 4,633 barrels. In addition, transporting oil by rail or truck would result in 28-42 percent more airborne emissions than Keystone XL.

The U.S. has the world’s greatest diversity of freshwater mussels, including the five species that may suffer because of the West Virginia spill. Unfortunately, the endangered mussels and the entire ecology of the Kanawha River are paying the price for Endangered Species Act proponents’ opposition to Keystone XL.

Not surprisingly, proponents of the Act prefer to change the subject and focus on relatively small threats related to Keystone XL. According to the National Geographic Society, four at-risk and endangered species, including the greater sage grouse, which is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, as well as the iconic whooping crane, are threatened by Keystone XL.

The Center for Biological Diversity ups the ante by claiming twelve endangered species would be harmed by the pipeline. “If Keystone’s built, they’ll be put directly in harm’s way by oil spills (the government estimates Keystone could spill 34,000 gallons of tar sands oil each year), collisions with 378 miles of new power lines, and habitat destruction to make way for this 1,700-mile pipeline,” states Noah Greenwald, the center’s Endangered Species Program Director. In fact, according to the U.S. State Department’s review, Keystone XL would result in an average of 21,756 gallons spilled annually.

But, hey, you can’t let a few pesky facts get in the way of saving Mother Earth. “The State Department has tried to sweep the worst impacts of the Keystone XL under the rug,” Greenwald reportedly claims. “Its analysis is like a shell game, where spills, power lines and other unavoidable consequences of the pipeline are hidden.” The West Virginia oil spill “should be an unmistakable wake-up call to our political leaders: Stop these dangerous oil trains and stop them now,” Mollie Matteson of the Center for Biological Diversity proclaims.

It takes chutzpah to make these assertions when it is environmental lobbying groups that are playing a shell game about the environmental impacts of Keystone XL, compared to the alternatives, and that these groups are responsible for so much oil being transported by train instead of pipeline.

In addition to oil spills, opponents of Keystone XL trot out other alleged horrors if the pipeline is built, one of which is the 378 miles of electrical lines that would be needed to supply pumping stations. Electrical lines are a particular hazard to whooping cranes, especially juvenile birds, which are prone to collide with them and die. “Basically you can overlay the strongest, best areas for wind turbine development with the whooping crane migration corridor,” Tom Stehn, then-whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reportedly said.

Yet when it comes to the threat to cranes from wind turbine-related power lines — the thousands of miles of lines for the 3,000 or so turbines in the birds’ migratory corridor that stretches from the Texas Gulf Coast to North Dakota, as well as the tens of thousands of miles of lines necessary for the 40,000 turbines that are estimated to be built in the coming years — Keystone XL opponents conveniently fail to mention this in the context of the proposed pipeline.

Another supposed environmental horror of Keystone XL is spilled oil contaminating the Ogallala Aquifer that is under a portion of the pipeline’s route in South Dakota and Nebraska. Again, a dose of reality is helpful. “Modeling indicates that aquifer characteristics would inhibit the spread of released oil, and impacts from a release on water quality would be limited,” according to the State Department.

The West Virginia oil spill and Keystone XL debate reveals the environmental lobby in all its infantile glory. The lobby excels at stomping its feet, screaming “NO!,” pretending actions don’t have consequences, “forgetting” previous stances and policies when they prove inconvenient, and pushing its agenda through compulsion (laws and regulations). By contrast, the adult world consists of nuance, tradeoff and compromise.

So if you want to have a reasonable conversation about Keystone XL, go talk to a friend, neighbor or family member. But if you want to see someone throw a tantrum, go talk to the environmental lobby.