Tipton high on Keystone Pipeline

Experts at U.S. House hearing disagree about climate-change effects

Tipton Enlarge photo


Witnesses at a House hearing Thursday on the Keystone XL Pipeline emphasized the pipeline’s safety compared with other methods of transporting fossil fuels.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, led the House Committee on Small Business hearing, asking Congress to support the pipeline’s construction before other countries step in and lure Canadian oil away from American markets.

“Who’s going to do it in a more environmentally responsible way? The U.S. or China?” Tipton asked.

TransCanada, the company petitioning for the pipeline, would extract heavy crude oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The proposed 1,179-mile-long pipeline would cross into Montana, wind through the Great Plains and Texas to transport oil to the Gulf Coast.

The proposed pipeline has enraged environmentalists, who claim it is prone to oil spills and creates greenhouse gases. In March, Colorado environmentalists in Denver protested Sen. Michael Bennet’s vote on the pipeline, forming a “human oil spill” outside his office. Bennet voted in favor of two nonbinding budget amendments on the pipeline, although neither amendment called for complete approval. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., voted against both amendments.

But at Thursday’s hearing, witnesses claimed the pipeline would have little effect on the climate.

“The effect on the climate would not be ‘game over,’” said Dr. Christopher Knittel, a professor of energy economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Knittel was referring to an opinion piece in The New York Times written by the former head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, who said that exploiting the tar sands would be “game over for the climate.”

Tar sands, Hansen wrote, release more carbon dioxide and would contribute to global warming, which could worsen environmental issues such as drought from North Dakota to Texas.

Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a specialist in the causes of multiyear droughts, said drought in the Southwest is caused by normal climate variability. Global warming will increase drought in the West, but modestly, he said. Tar sands have no different climate effects from any other type of fossil fuel, Seager added.

“It’s the same as hydrofracking or coal from Germany,” Seager said. “They shift where precipitation goes in the atmosphere, raise sea levels and melt glaciers.”

As the U.S. shifts from industries such as coal mining to fracking, its greenhouse gases have decreased, Seager said.

“But this (pipeline) is going back to high-carbon oil, so this would kind of nullify that,” Seager said.

Tipton raised the pipeline as an alternative to older industries in his district.

“I just talked with coal miners who were laid off, wondering how they’re going to feed their families,” Tipton said.

Brent Booker, secretary treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Department for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said transporting oil by the pipeline would be safer than by railroad. The Wall Street Journal reported a spike in train derailments carrying crude oil. From 2010 to 2012, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration reported 112 oil spills from U.S. rail tanker cars, compared to 10 in the previous years, according to the Journal.

“Transporting oil by trucks would be even worse,” said Mat Brainerd, president of Brainerd Chemical Co. in Tulsa, Okla.

Tipton asked Congress to put politics aside and move on with the pipeline, but for the White House, the Keystone decision is not simple.

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., spoke at the hearing. He met earlier with President Barack Obama and spoke about the pipeline.

“On one side, there are those like us in this room who support the pipeline,” Huelskamp said to those at the hearing, “and then there are the environmentalists.” The congressman quoted Obama as saying, “I’m in the middle.”

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