Engineer raises concerns over Keystone XL pipeline

Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Fort McMurray, Alberta Suncor Millennium mine. The open-pit oil sand project would feed the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

An interesting commentary by civil engineer Mike Klink in our local paper today. It’s about TransCanada, the company proposing to build the Keystone XL pipeline across Nebraska.

Klink shared his concerns from his days working on the first Keystone pipeline project. Klink, who lives in Auburn, Ind., is now seeking whistleblower protection from the U.S. Department of Labor. Said Klink:

“Despite its boosters’ advertising, this project is not about jobs or energy security. It is about money. And whenever my former employer Bechtel, working on behalf of TransCanada, had to choose between safety and saving money, they chose to save money.”

Mike Klink, a civil engineer who worked on the first Keystone pipeline, testifies at an Oct. 2011 U.S. State Department hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Klink says the Keystone XL pipeline is not about jobs or energy security. It's about money. Photo: C-SPAN.

Klink explained that as an inspector, his job was to monitor construction of the first Keystone pipeline. He oversaw construction at the problematic pump stations on the original pipeline, that have already spilled more than a dozen times.

Tell the truth

Klink said he is speaking out because his children encouraged him to tell the truth about what was done and what covered up.

“When I last raised concerns about corners being cut, I lost my job,” said Klink. “What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as “not too bad,” shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.”

Oil in standing water outside Ludden, ND pump station, TransCanada Keystone pipeline system, May 9, 2011. Photo: Pete Carrels

Sharing concerns

Klink said he shared his concerns with his bosses, who communicated them to officials with TransCanada, but nothing changed.

“TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden, N.D., where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields,” Klink said.

Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota.

If Klink’s experiences are  true, it’s disconcerting to read about the reaction Klink  got when he reported to Bechtel and TransCanada his concerns about poor materials, faulty workmanship, and “fudged” safety tests on the first Keystone pipeline.

Questions raised
  The reaction Klink claims he received from Bechtel and TransCanada may also raise fair questions about both company’s business and ethical practices.
Regarding safety, last October TransCanada promised Nebraska state legislators it would take additional steps to protect environmental safety if the project was approved by the federal government. The Canadian pipeline company said it would back a $100 million bond to ensure adequate funds to clean up after any oil spills.
That bond may not be enough to clean-up a major pipeline oil spill. In July, 2010 more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands crude spilled into Michigan’s  Kalamazoo River system through a rupture in the Enbridge pipeline.  The clean-up cost for that spill is now estimated at about $700 million — 20 percent more than Enbridge’s previous estimate of $585 million.
A pipeline now?
Interestingly, Klink’s comments come on the heels of an Associated Press report this week that said America is on pace to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel this year than any other single export. The last time the U.S. was a net exporter of fuels was 1949, when Harry Truman was president.

The Associated Press reports that the United States is on pace to ship more gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel this year than any other single export. Photo: Texas Comptroller

Motives for the XL pipeline? The article said the volume of fuel exports is rising as the U.S. uses less fuel because of a weak economy and more efficient cars and trucks. That allows refiners to sell more fuel to rapidly growing economies in Latin America, for example.

The domestic downside to America’s growing role as a fuel exporter?- Experts say the trend helps explain why U.S. motorists are paying more for gasoline. The more fuel that’s sent overseas, the less of a supply cushion there is at home.

Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. "It's a world market," he says. Photo: Wall Street Journal

Gasoline supplies are being exported to the highest bidder, says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. “It’s a world market,” he says.
Refining companies won’t say how much they make by selling fuel overseas.

According to the A.P. article, analysts say those sales are likely generating higher profits per gallon than they would have generated in the U.S. Otherwise, they wouldn’t occur.

Unless the oil companies, refiners and Keystone can promise that every drop of the tar sands oil piped from Alberta to Texas is dedicated for domestic use, to give America energy security and keep consumer gas prices low, isn’t it fair to ask why the pipeline should exist at all?

XL pipeline- Getting the facts straight

Pieces of the Keystone XL pipeline await construction in South Dakota. Photo:North Platte Post

Every big controversy seems to generate its own information fog.  Facts may be  incomplete or missing altogether. Reporting can get fuzzy.

The debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is no different. Rhetoric abounds. Facts may be iffy.

The question is whether the fact omission is deliberate or accidental.  Both happen. Either may detract from what should be an informed, vigorous public discussion.

Take Darrin Goode’s Politico article this week entitled “On Keystone XL Pipeline, Democrats slow to probe.”  Goode writes:

“Labor unions — an important constituency for Obama and a lot of other Democrats — are backing the pipeline and the jobs it could bring.”

Goode’s statement is inaccurate. Early today, I wrote the following to Mr. Goode and requested a correction in his Politico article.

“You did not note that large labor unions also oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. They include the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU). The two unions represent more than 300,000 workers in the U.S.
These unions are calling for “New Deal” type public investments in infrastructure modernization and repair, energy conservation and climate protection as a means of putting people to work and laying the foundations of a green and sustainable economic future for the United States.”
I ask that you add this correction to your story for the sake of fair and balanced journalism.”

I will let you know if Mr. Goode agrees with my clarification and makes a correction. I should note that the Politico article is not the first to make the false assumption that labor stands unified in favor of the proposed pipeline.

TransCanada's Keystone pipeline, shown here under construction. Photo: The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, in the comment section for Goode’s Politico article I received this reply to my clarification from a reader.

While the ATU & TWU represents a measly 300,000 workers opposing the pipeline, they are trumped by the AFL-CIO (11,000,000 members), Teamsters (1,400,000 members) and LIUNA (630,000 members).

Last time I checked, 13,000,000 is more than 300,000.

Need more proof? Here:
“It’s the vision and competence of TransCanada in the U.S. that provides our skilled local workforce with the means to perform the trade they have been taught while contributing to their communities.” – William Hite, General President, AFL-CIO.

“TransCanada has a solid reputation for its responsible construction practices, and Canada is our largest and most responsible oil supplier. Allowing the project approval process to move forward was the right decision to make.” – Jim Hoffa, General President, Teamsters

In a protest, debate or fist-fight between a group of Environmentalists and Union workers, I will place my money on the Union workers everytime!”

To which I replied:

“Hello Van-

Yes, some unions and union members support the XL pipeline. BUT- The ATU and TWU are in fact AFL/CIO member unions who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. Many other unions and union members in the U.S and Canada have also stepped forward opposing the pipeline.

Examples: The Alberta Federation of Labor and the CEP (Communications , Energy and Paperworkers Union), the Canadian union that represents the tar sands and refinery workers who would work on the project oppose the pipeline claiming it is “unsustainable and cuts off the possibility of creating a democratic energy policy that benefits workers in Canada for the long haul.”

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) is opposed to Keystone XL. “The pipeline will create environmental destruction, take potential upgrading and refining jobs away from Canadians, and put our country’s energy security at risk,” says CEP President Dave Coles.

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), Alberta’s largest labor organization, thinks the pipeline shouldn’t go ahead. “Members of the Alberta and federal governments have been acting like sales executives for pipeline company TransCanada, travelling to the U.S. to persuade Americans what a great idea the raw bitumen pipeline will be, but they are ignoring what’s best for Alberta and Canada,” said Gil McGowan, AFL president.

These examples disprove your contention that this debate is strictly between labor and environmentalists.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of union members on both sides of the border are against the XL pipeline. They’re joined by nine Nobel laureates, ranchers, farmers, first nations members, students, NASA climatologist James Hansen, politicians, clergy and others.

In short, you made a poor bet backed more by rhetoric and less by fact when you assumed all labor unions and all union members (of which I’m one) support the XL pipeline.”

Pieces of the Keystone XL pipeline await transport. Photo: National Radio Canada

Let there be a fair, factual and informed debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Likewise, let there be fair, factual and informed reporting on the topic.  It’s in the best interest of our democracy and the credible journalism citizens rely.  It’s also how society can best demand transparency, accountability and clarity on an important issue.

The Keystone XL pipeline: Missing the point

Alaura Luebbe was overcome with emotion as she described her concerns that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would threaten her family's Nebraska ranch. Luebbe's comments came during a U.S. State Department hearing last Friday. Photo: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg News

The controversy surrounding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline reached new heights Friday when the U.S. State Department hosted the last in a series of public hearings on the 1,700 mile pipeline. It would carry tar sand crude oil from Canada to Texas.

Graphic: New York Times

The Washington, D.C.  hearing drew the national news media’s attention.  In turn, the news reports that followed missed the most important point behind the controversial project.

They suggest the proposed pipeline is a trade-off pitting environmentalists against new jobs, lower oil prices and a dependable foreign oil supply.

 NPR reports: This one pits potential job growth versus environmental concerns.

The Washington Post reports: Hundreds of members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America filled the auditorium at Friday’s hearing; Brent Booker, who directs the union’s construction department, said the project will provide “thousands of jobs” to his members….Shortly afterward, two Nebraska women broke down in tears as they testified. Alaura Luebbe, a rancher’s daughter, sobbed as she spoke of her ranch being threatened by the project, while activist Jane Kleeb declared, “We are the Sand Hills lovers. We are the Ogallala Aquifer lovers. And we are begging you — not asking, we are begging you — to deny this pipeline permit.”

The real story: The Keystone XL pipeline is a litmus test of President Obama and our political leadership’s resolve to make a true commitment to alternative energy in America and ween ourselves from foreign energy reliance? It’s also a test of the American consumers’ ability to consume less energy and create less waste.

It won’t be easy. If our leaders, as well as and you and I are sincere about America’s  security, energy independence and guiding our own national destiny we can do this. A sustained move to alternative energy sources is a commitment we’re better off making today, before we deplete traditional energy sources, cause more pollution and burden future generations of Americans.

Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Canada's oil sands are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen mixed with sand, clay, and water. Around a hundred feet of soil must be stripped off to reach many deposits. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

To be sure, other concerns have been expressed by opponents and supporters of the project. Supporters say the Keystone XL project could create 20,000 pipeline equipment and construction jobs, and give us lower oil prices courtesy of a more dependable foreign importer. Opponents say the costs will be  the pipeline’s “dirty” extraction process, human health problems, permanent damage to Canada’s forests and a pollution threat to places like Nebraska’s Sand Hills country and the Ogallala fresh water aquifer.

The mowed strip across Nebraska's Sand Hills counrtry is what plaintiff groups claim is evidence of Keystone XL pipeline construction before federal approval is granted for the project. Photo: Bruce McIntosh, Center for Biological Diversity

Conflicting jobs message: If the pipeline is approved, most or all of those 20,000 jobs will end when the construction’s complete. It should be noted that according to TransCanada data supplied to the State Department, the project will only create between 2,500 and 4,560 construction jobs in the U.S. A recent Cornell University report says “[the pipeline] will not be a major source of US jobs, nor will it play any substantial role at all in putting Americans back to work.”

Instead, lets get back to Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan of two years ago. It envisioned creating about 500,000 jobs by making new investments in clean energy, doubling the production of alternative energy over three years and improving the energy efficiency of government buildings and homes.

Lower oil prices? Maybe not. Here’s another reason Mr. Obama, the State Department and politicians from  both parties might be better off denying a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline-  Many pipeline supporters suggest it would lead to more stable or lower oil prices due to the new influx of up to 700,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Canada.

CNN reports: “For the Obama administration, having an answer to high prices will be much more important in 2012 than it is today,” said Kevin Book. managing director at the research firm ClearView Energy Partners. “We think it will get approved.”

According to a CTV report, the Keystone XL pipeline might actually increase oil prices. It would do so by reducing the crude oil over-supply problem in Cushing, Okla., one of the largest crude storage facilities in the world. Industry analysts say this has driven prices down.

Via CTV:  “We have a unique problem now with North American supply,” said Mike Ming, Secretary of Energy for the State of Oklahoma. “We’ve brought on more oil supply than we really have outlets to get it to market and it’s tended to bottle up at Cushing.”  Cushing is the prime delivery point for New York oil futures contracts and helps set the value of West Texas Intermediate, North America’s benchmark oil price.”The problem is, we’ve got too much oil in Cushing relative to our pipeline capacity to get it out to the Gulf Coast mainly, because that’s where the majority of the United States refining capacity is,” said Mike McDonald, the former Chair of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association… If it is approved, the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline would link Cushing to refineries on the Gulf Coast with a 500,000 barrel-a-day spur line, helping to relieve the glut and the pressure on West Texas Intermediate.

Conflict of interest? Finally, the proposed pipeline permit should be denied because of the real or perceived conflicts of interest involved in this project.

On October 7th, The New York times reported: The State Department assigned an important environmental impact study of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to a company with financial ties to the pipeline operator, flouting the intent of a federal law meant to ensure an impartial environmental analysis of major projects…The E.P.A. has criticized two prior draft environmental impact statements prepared by Cardno Entrix on Keystone XL as “inadequate” and providing “insufficient information,”

A few days earlier-

The New York Times reports: The State Department has also faced charges of political conflict of interest over its handling of the Keystone XL application because TransCanada’s chief Washington lobbyist, Paul Elliott, was a top official in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Beneath a green sweep of fen and forest in northern Alberta lies a promise of wealth—vast layers of hydrocarbons that can be refined into petroleum products like gasoline. Undisturbed until now, these trees may soon fall: This land has already been staked out by prospectors. Photo: Peter Essick, National Geographic

What is the state of our nation’s political accountability and transparency? Can we create sustainable energy policies that support our economy and democracy while, at the same time, provide America greater control of its destiny? These are real questions. The decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project will tell us if the Obama administration is truly willing to act in the best interests of our country and set us on a new course of self-reliance and energy sustainability.

What are your thoughts on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal? I’d like to know.


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