Posts

Sandhill Crane

Giving Voice to the Sandhill Cranes: Place-based Arguments against Keystone XL

By Wrexie Bardaglio, guest commentator

When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men…” ~ Aldo Leopold, on the Sandhill Crane, in “Marshland Elegy”

Dilbit – or diluted bitumen – is refined from the naturally-occurring tar sands deposits in Alberta, Canada. In March 2017, I applied to the Nebraska Public Service Commission for standing as an intervenor in the Commission’s consideration of TransCanada’s request for a permit to construct a pipeline transporting dilbit – a project referred to as the Keystone XL pipeline. Below are my reflections on the battle against the permitting process, and how FracTracker’s maps ensured the Sandhill Crane’s voice made it into public record.

A Pipeline’s History

The Keystone 1 pipeline carries the dilbit from Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, and ultimately to Port Arthur, Texas and export refineries along the Gulf Coast. The state of Montana had already approved the Keystone XL project, as had the state of South Dakota. The decision of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission was appealed, however, and has now worked its way to the South Dakota Supreme Court, where it is pending.

Resistance to TransCanada’s oil and gas infrastructure projects is not new. Beginning in 2010, some Nebraska farmers and ranchers joined forces with tribal nations in the Dakotas, who were also fighting TransCanada’s lack of proper tribal consultation regarding access through traditional treaty territory. The indigenous nations held certain retained rights as agreed in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty between the United States government and the nine tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. The tribes were also protesting TransCanada’s flaunting of the National Historic Preservation Act’s protections of Native American sacred sites and burial grounds. Further, although TransCanada was largely successful in securing the easements needed in Nebraska to construct the pipeline, there were local holdouts refusing to negotiate with the company. TransCanada’s subsequent attempts to exercise eminent domain resulted in a number of lawsuits.

In January of 2015, then-President Barack Obama denied the international permit TransCanada needed. While that denial was celebrated by many, everyone also understood that a new president could well restore the international permit. Indeed, as one of his first actions in January 2017, the new Republican president signed an executive order granting the permit, and the struggle in Nebraska was reignited.

“What Waters Run Through My Veins…”

While I am a long-time resident of New York, I grew up in the Platte River Valley of South Central Nebraska, in a town where my family had and continues to have roots – even before Nebraska became a state. There was never a question in my mind that in this particular permitting process I would request status as an intervenor; for me, the matter of the Keystone XL Pipeline went far beyond the legal and political and energy policy questions that were raised and were about to be considered. It was about who I am, how I was raised, what I was taught, what waters run through my veins as surely as blood, and who my own spirit animals are, the Sandhill Cranes.

wrexie_3yrs

Bardaglio (age 3) and her father, along the banks of the Platte River

When we were growing up, our father told us over and over and over about why Nebraska was so green. The Ogallala Aquifer, he said, was deep and vast, and while eight states partially sat atop this ancient natural cistern, nearly all of Nebraska floated on this body. Nebraska was green, its fields stretching to the horizon, because, as our father explained, the snow runoff from the Rockies that flowed into our state and was used eleven times over was cleansed in water-bearing sand and gravel on its way to the Missouri on our eastern boundary, thence to the Mississippi, and finally to the Gulf.

I grew up understanding that the Ogallala Aquifer was a unique treasure, the largest freshwater aquifer in the world, the lifeblood for Nebraska’s agriculture and U.S. agriculture generally, and worthy of protection. I thought about the peril to the aquifer because of TransCanada’s plans, should there be a spill, and the additional threats an accident would potentially pose to Nebraska’s rivers, waterways and private wells.

2000px-ogallala_saturated_thickness_1997-sattk97-v2-svg

The Ogallala Aquifer

Knowing that climate change is real, terrifying, and accelerating, I recognized that a warming world would increasingly depend on this aquifer in the nation’s midsection for life itself.

Migration of the Sandhill Cranes

As I thought about how I would fight the KXL, another narrative took shape rising out of my concern for the aquifer. Growing up in the South Central Platte River Valley, I – and I daresay most everyone who lives there – have been captivated by the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes, plying the skies known as the Central Flyway. As sure as early spring comes, so do the birds. It may still be bitterly cold, but these birds know that it is time to fly. And so they do – the forward scouts appearing in winter grey skies, soon followed by some 500,000 – 600,000 thousand of them, darkening the skies, their cries deafening and their gorgeous archaeopteryx silhouettes coming in wave after wave like flying Roman Legions.

branch-bird-sky-sunrise-sunset-morning-dawn-flock-dusk-birds-cranes-water-bird-bird-migration-migratory-birds-atmospheric-phenomenon-animal-migration-crane-like-bird-529634

To this day, no matter where I am, the first thing in my sinews and bones when winter begins to give way is the certainty that the birds are coming, I feel them; they are back. They are roosting on the sandbars in the braided river that is the Platte and gleaning in the stubbled fields abutting it… they are home.

According to The Nature Conservancy:

Scientists estimate that at least one-third of the entire North American population of Sandhill Cranes breed in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska…

Scientists estimate that approximately 80 percent of all Sandhill Cranes in North America use a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River during spring migration. From March to April, more than 500,000 birds spend time in the area preparing for the long journey north to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. During migration, the birds may fly as much as 400 miles in one day.

Sandhill Cranes rely on open freshwater wetlands for most of their lifecycle. Degradation of these kinds of wetland habitats is among the most pressing threats to the survival of Sandhill Cranes. (Emphasis added)

Giving Sandhill Cranes a Voice

But how could I make the point about the threat TransCanada posed to the migratory habitat of the Sandhill Cranes (and endangered Whooping Cranes, pelicans, and hummingbirds among the other thermal riders who also migrate with them)? Books, scientific papers, lectures – all the words in the world – cannot describe this ancient rite, this mysterious primal navigation of the unique pathway focusing on this slim stretch of river, when viewed from a global perspective a fragile skein in a fragile web in a biosphere in peril.

In my head I called it a river of birds in the grassland of sky. And I am so grateful to my friend, Karen Edelstein at FracTracker Alliance, for her willingness to help map and illustrate the magnificence of the migration flyway in the context of the three proposed options for the KXL pipeline.

flyway_map

Karen prepared two maps for me, but my favorite is the one above.

It shows an ancient, near-primordial, near-mystical event. Guided by rudders and instinct we can barely comprehend, in concert with earth’s intrinsic and exquisitely-designed balance, and as certain as a sunrise, a sunset or a moon rise, these oldest of crane species find their ways through the heavens. They hew to certainties that eclipse the greed of multinational corporations like TransCanada, who barely even pay lip service to the integrity of anything over which they can’t exert dominion. To say they don’t respect the inherent rights of species other than our own, or to ecological communities that don’t directly include us, is an understatement, and a damning comment on their values.

I was prepared for pushback on these maps from TransCanada. And in truth, the company was successful in an in limine motion to have certain exhibits and parts of my testimony stricken from the official record of the proceedings.

But not the maps.

In fact, too many other intervenors to count, as well as several of the lawyers involved in the proceedings commented to me on the beauty and accuracy of the maps. And not only are they now a part of the permanent record of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, should there be an appeal (which all of us expect), on both sides of the issue, there is a very good possibility they will be incorporated into the formal testimonies by the lawyers as the matter moves through the appeals process.

Taking Action, Speaking Out

Ordinary citizens must figure out how to confront the near-impenetrable stranglehold of multi-national corporations whose wealth is predicated on the continuance of fossil fuels as the primary sources of energy. We have had to become more educated, more activist, and more determined to fight the destruction that is now assured if we fail to slow down the impacts of climate change and shift the aggregate will of nations towards renewable energy.

Many activists do not realize that they can formally intervene at the state level in pipeline and infrastructure permitting processes. In doing so, the voice of the educated citizen is amplified and becomes a threat to these corporations whose business models didn’t account for systematic and informed resistance in public agencies’ heretofore pro forma proceedings. The publicly-available documents and filings from corporations can be important tools for “speaking truth to power” when paired with the creative tools born of necessity by the environmental movement.

Technology is value-neutral, but as I learned – as did many others in the Keystone XL Pipeline fight – in skilled hands it becomes a weapon in the struggle for the greater good.

I will be forever grateful for FracTracker, and will be interested to see how others use this tool in the fights that are sure to come.

EXCELSIOR!

For more background on the natural history of Sandhill Cranes, please view this video produced by The Crane Trust.


Wrexie Bardaglio is a Nebraska native living in Covert, New York. She worked for ten years for a member of Congress as a legislative assistant with a focus on Indian affairs and for a DC law firm as legislative specialist in Indian affairs. She left politics to open a bookstore in suburban Baltimore. She has been active in the Keystone XL fights in Nebraska and South Dakota and in fracking and gas infrastructure fights in New York.

This article’s feature image of a Sandhill Crane is the work of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

FracTracker Alliance makes hundreds of maps, analyses, and photos available for free to frontline communities, grassroots groups, NGO’s, and many other organizations concerned about the industry to use in their oil and gas campaigns. To address an issue, you need to be able to see it.

However, we rely on funders and donations – and couldn’t do all of this without your help!

Pipelines vs Oil Trains

By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern

Media outlets have been very focused recently on reporting oil train derailments and explosions. Additionally, the Keystone XL pipeline has hastened political debates and arguments for years by both political parties since its initial proposal in 2008 – and the May 19th pipeline oil spill in California isn’t helping matters. In the midst of all of this commotion, a million questions are being asked, yet no one can seem to reach a conclusion about what method of transporting oil is truly safest and economically feasible – or if we are just stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Some say the solution to this problem is transporting the volatile crude via pipelines, while others believe it is a matter of increasing regulations, standards, and compliance for transport by train. The answer is simply not simple.

In light of this, a few of the folks at FracTracker gathered some facts on pipelines vs oil trains to lay out this issue in a clearer fashion.

Let’s start with trains.

Benefits

Due to the increasing demand of crude oil supply, there has been increasing activity in the transportation of crude oil by rail, which provides flexibility and quick transportation throughout the U.S. and its 115 refineries. Railroads are also willing to offer shippers shorter contracts than pipelines and other transportation methods, making them a more favorable method of crude oil transportation.

In 2008, U.S. freight trains were delivering somewhere from 9-10,000 carloads of crude oil. In 2013, they delivered roughly 435,560 carloads of crude oil, showing a 20-fold increase in crude oil shipments.

Risks

Oil trains, as well as pipelines, can pose a detrimental risk to communities and public health in the case of an explosion and/or spill. Danger Around the Bend describes in detail the dangers of transporting Bakken Formation crude oil from North Dakota to parts all over the country.

Some of the risks of transporting volatile crude via train have been clearly depicted in the news with announcements of spills, derailments, and explosions in urban and suburban areas, putting many people in harm’s way. Despite the decrease in spills between 1996 and 2007, devastating train accidents like the one on July 6, 2013 have raised questions about the safety of transportation by train.

train_incidents_english

Learn more about this trend and the increasing risk of exploding oil trains in a post by Randy Sargent of CMU.

Trains and train tracks in general can be very dangerous, as demonstrated by the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this May. The total number of incidents in 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, sum up to 11,793 – with 818 of those being fatal. These fatalities have been linked to a range of possible causes, but the numbers depict the gravity of safety issues within the railroad regulations.

Regulations

When it comes to train safety and regulations, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is in charge. Some of the current efforts to increase the safety of oil trains include safer tank car design, adding breaking power, reducing the train speed limits through urban areas and increasing crew size. One of the most important improvements, however, includes an increase in oil spill response, which is managed through the National Oil and Hazardous Substance Contingency Plan.

Now, let’s talk pipelines.

As we all know, finishing the Keystone XL pipeline has stirred years of controversy, since this project was initially proposed back in 2008. On January 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sand oil per day through an 875-mile long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast area. Below we have mapped the current and proposed tracks of the Keystone, along with the numerous ports, refineries, and rail lines:


The Keystone XL, Alberta oil sands, North American oil refineries and associated ports. View fullscreen and click Details for the metadata behind this map.

The SEIS discussed the impacts that the proposed pipeline would have on the environment and public health based on research, modeling, and analysis. One of the many purposes of the SEIS is to focus on whether the proposed project serves the national interest by comparing the risks to the benefits – discussed in more detail below.

Risks

The current risks associated with pipelines are similar to the risks associated with other modes of transporting oil across the United States. Oil spills are among the highest risks, but with the XL pipeline, it’s a more profound risk due to the type of oil being carried: tar sand oil. Tar sand oil, also known as heavy oil, is known for its tedious processing and its many environmental implications. Burning one single barrel of oil produced from Canadian tar sands generally emits 170 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also requires large amounts of energy and water, much of which cannot be recycled, to separate the oil from the tar sands and transform the oil into a form of petroleum that can be processed by refineries.

According to the final SEIS:

The proposed project would emit approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year during the construction period (up to three times as much than producing conventional crude), which would be directly emitted through fuel use in construction vehicles and equipment as well as land clearing activities including open burning, and indirectly from electricity usage.

Additional risks associated with the XL pipeline include potential groundwater contamination of major aquifers – particularly the Ogallala Aquifer – as well as deforestation, habitat destruction, and fragmentation.

In the event of an oil spill from the Keystone XL or other pipelines crossing the U.S., the responsibility for who cleans it up does not fall on TransCanada. According to a report from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), tar sand oils are exempt from paying into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Amendments that would require TransCanada to pay the 8-cent-per-barrel fee to the fund have not been passed.

Devastating oil spills such as the one in Santa Barbara in mid May reflect the impact it not only has on wildlife, but on the local culture, especially on those who depend on fisheries and whose lives revolves around surfing in the brisk waters of the Pacific Ocean. 21,000 gallons of crude oil covers roughly 4 miles of Santa Barbara’s coast now, extending about 50 yards into the water.

Benefits

Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economic stimulus is one purported advantage to the XL pipeline. During construction, proposed project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs, directly and indirectly and around $2 billion in earnings throughout the US, according to the final SEIS. Despite different job creation estimates, any number will contribute significantly to the US gross domestic product, associating a huge economic growth with the construction of the proposed XL pipeline. (TransCanada estimates around 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs, which is about 3 times higher than the State Department’s estimate.) In addition, the cost of paying for the Keystone XL project ($3.3 billion) would not be placed on the U.S. but on Keystone.

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA), the industry and their operators have reduced the risk of hazardous materials transportation incidents with death or major injury by 4% every 3 years, and since 2002, they have reduced the risk of a pipeline spill with environmental consequences by an average of 5% per year.1

Still, there is more work to be done. Safety issues that the pipeline industry is aiming to fix include:

  • Infrastructure: Repair obsolete pipeline infrastructure through a pipeline integrity management program and investigate new technologies that can detect pipeline risks.
  • Improving human error and safety culture: Increase the focus on safety beyond compliance standards and evaluate the potential value of safety management systems.
  • Adding secondary containment: Limit the spread of HAZMAT in the event of a failure in the primary container, and improve leak detection.
  • Transparency: Increasing transparency for companies and their accountability

Check out the infographic below for a summary of all of these pros and cons:

Moving Forward

All methods of transporting oil present various risks and benefits based on the available data. Explaining both sides of this coin allows us to assess each method’s impacts on our economy, environment, and public health. Through these assessments, we can make more informed decisions on what truly serves the nation’s interests. Oil and gas transport is a dangerous business, but all transportation industries are improving their management programs and increasing their regulations to provide citizens peace of mind and the safety they deserve. In light of ongoing issues, however, some would ask if these risks are even necessary.

For example, the growth of safer energy resources such as solar energy would significantly cut down the risks mentioned above in addition to providing jobs and stimulating the overall economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Solar Foundation, the growth in direct industry jobs for solar has outweighed oil and gas for the past 3 years. In 2014, new jobs created for the solar industry were more than twice the jobs created for the oil and gas industry. Based on 2014’s economics, Kepler Cheuvreux stated that all renewables are already more competitive than oil priced at $100 per barrel — This is because renewables have a higher net energy return on capital invested (EROCI).

As a reader and a citizen, it is important to know the pros and cons of the current activities taking place in our country today. We must be aware of loopholes that may be putting our states, cities, or counties into harm’s way, as well as recognize alternative energy sources and regulatory oversight that lessen the threats that oil extraction and transport pose to our health and environment.

Footnote

1. These statistics are based from the Census Bureau analysis and Bureau of Transportation Statistics as of July 2012.