“Keystone 2” Puts Great Lakes Water, and, By the Way, Life on Planet Earth, at Risk
April 15, 2013
One of the leading arguments against the proposed route of the Keystone Pipeline is that it runs across one of North America’s most critical water resources, the Ogallala Aquifer. What do we say, then, about a pipeline and shipping plan to bring the toxic Dilbit oil across 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water?
What’s concerning is that with alternative routes like this one springing up, even a symbolic “win” on the Keystone project is just that – a hollow symbol.
Detroit Free Press ran a front page story on Sunday – managing to avoid the word “climate” in the entire piece.
Two oil projects in the works could significantly increase the amount of heavy crude oil moving on — and near — the Great Lakes, causing alarm among environmentalists because they involve the same heavy oil that was behind a $1-billion oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in 2010 that remains an ecological disaster.
The company fined for that spill — Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge — is behind one of the new projects. Its new venture would nearly double the amount of crude oil shipped on a major pipeline from Canada to Lake Superior — transporting more oil than the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that has caused an environmental outcry and fierce debate in Congress. The second project involves a refinery on Lake Superior’s shore building a dock to load oil barges, allowing the shipment of up to 13 million barrels of crude oil per year throughout the Great Lakes to Midwest refineries and markets beyond
Together, the projects would mean a new reality for the Great Lakes basin, heightening risks to the world’s most vital freshwater source, according to environmental groups.
“It’s pretty alarming,” said Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor. “We’ve known for a while that the Midwest has been the major consumer for these tar sands. Now, we’re becoming the transportation hub for it.”
I interviewed Beth Wallace on this project last summer.
Ignoring the climate impacts of the Alberta tar sands is not an aberration, it is the rule, according to a recent investigation by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
Exploiting the tar sands is a severely carbon-intensive project, more so than conventional oil drilling. According to NASA climatologist James Hansen (Rolling Stone, 7/19/12), the tar sands could contain 240 gigatons of carbon—about half the estimated total carbon that can be added to the atmosphere before dangerously raising global temperatures.
The Washington Post (7/1/12) reported that using a barrel of tar sands oil produces “14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of U.S. imported crude oil.” The greenhouse gases emitted just to put it in your gas tank are “about twice as high as the average U.S. crude import.”
And the group Oil Change International (1/13) warned that many analysts could be underestimating Keystone’s climate impact, due to the likely use of a tar sands byproduct called “petroleum coke,” a cheaper, more carbon-intensive substitute for coal. The question, then, seems to be not whether the Keystone project will be worse for the climate than conventional oil production—but howmuch worse (Guardian, 8/23/11).
Right after Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, Washington Postreporter Juliet Eilperin (2/13/13) called the pending Keystone decision “one of the most contentious climate issues he will face.”
But how often did media treat the Keystone debate as if climate change mattered at all?
A FAIR survey of several major outlets’ coverage of Keystone found that the debate over the pipeline’s future touched on a number of topics, but the fate of the planet was rarely among them.
FAIR looked at stories from January 2012 through January 2013 that included mention of the Keystone pipeline. The survey included news stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, and any coverage on any programs that aired on the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) and National Public Radio.
The stories were judged on the low bar of whether they referred to Keystone’s climate impact at all—counting any mention of climate change, global warming or green-house gases—and then on whether those discussions were at all substantive. But much of the coverage failed to pass even the easier test.
On the television networks, not one of the 24 reports that mentioned Keystone also touched on climate change. The closest reference came on the CBS Evening News (1/18/12), which referred to the “thick tar sands oil…which environmentalists call among the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.” But that appeared to be more about the potential for other environmental problems like oil spills.
Major newspapers had more space to cover Keystone—but climate change mentions were still scarce. USA Today’s news articles brought up Keystone 12 times; three of those stories mentioned its climate impact.
In the Washington Post, Keystone received more coverage, including a four-part series by reporter Steven Mufson (7/1–29/12). But in the 43 pieces mentioning the pipeline, over half of them (27) never brought up climate.
Of the 16 that did, half mentioned the issue only in passing. A nearly 2,000-word article by Mufson (7/6/12) focused almost entirely on opposition to Keystone had one line that noted the “unusually high level of green-house gas emissions associated with oil extraction from the tar sands.” Mufson’s series devoted close to 10,000 words to looking at Keystone from a variety of angles, but climate change was a factor in only piece (7/1/12), which posed the question as, “How pressing are climate-change concerns, and how do we balance them with economic priorities?”