Star-Telegram’s Sunday Feature on the Keystone XL Pipeline Fell Far Short

The Texas Supreme Court declined last week to hear the case of Julia Trigg Crawford, an East Texas landowner who challenged the right of a Canadian oil pipeline corporation to condemn her land. That, I’m guessing, is the news peg the Star-Telegram used to hang a broad Sunday feature on the controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s a complicated subject to tackle. At least in this telling, the Star-T wasn’t equal to the task. I feel for the deadline-harried reporter at a retrenching daily who probably did the best she could while juggling a handful of other stories. But I fear for the reader even more.

First, a little context. The Canadians are tearing up huge swaths of the boreal forests in Alberta to get at bitumen, a tarry hydrocarbon that, when steamed, separated and mixed with natural-gas liquids, can be moved by pipeline (albeit at high pressures and temperatures) to refineries and turned into products like diesel. The trouble is, the Canadians have neither the demand nor the refining capacity to handle it all. The Keystone XL pipeline was supposed to be the answer, ferrying the stuff from Alberta to the Texas Gulf refinery complex. The Oklahoma-Texas segment is finished. The Alberta-Oklahoma segment, which crosses an international border, is held up in the U.S. State Department approval process.

The issues can be boiled down like this: Landowners and environmentalists fear a spill, particularly over aquifers and near rivers and lakes. Climatologists say enabling the release of a vast reservoir of carbon is generally a bad idea. And proponents say it’ll lower gas prices, create jobs and promote energy independence.

The Star-Tstory gives landowners like Crawford the opportunity to voice what sound like vague fears about a spill. Yet the story neglects the context on which these fears are founded. The most baffling omission is its failure to mention the catastrophic diluted bitumen pipeline spill in Marshall, Michigan, on Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo. Some 800,000 gallons poured from the ruptured line nearly four years ago. In February, Enbridge Energy Partners had just received permission to conduct more dredging of the rivers. Clean-up efforts are hampered by the fact that diluted bitumen sinks, unlike light crude.

Unmentioned was the spillage of more than 200,000 gallons of diluted bitumen from an ExxonMobil pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas, last year. The bodies of the people exposed to these spills and the hazardous compounds they contain will tell a story in the years ahead. The threat posed to the people the Star-T interviewed isn’t abstract.

To satisfy concerns about the pipeline’s integrity and TransCanada’s spill-identification system, the Star-T is content to quote a TransCanada spokesperson. He assures us, of course, that it is “the safest pipeline built.” But the company’s track record isn’t encouraging. The Keystone XL’s predecessor, Keystone I, sprang 12 leaks in its first year of operation. TransCanada had projected it would leak once every seven years. By that metric, Keystone I came in significantly ahead of schedule. According to a State Department review, at full capacity the Keystone XL could leak 12,000 gallons a day before its leak-detection system registers the breach.

It should also be noted that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation obtained an internal government report citing “inadequate” field inspections and “ineffective” management surrounding a TransCanada natural gas-line explosion in 2009.

Star-T again takes TransCanada at its word when it touts the 20,000 jobs the pipeline will create. Parse that number and it falls apart. It only makes sense if each job is counted as a “job year.” Most of the jobs will be temporary ones occupied by people who are already in the business. The State Department, which seems in favor of green-lighting the pipeline, estimated Keystone XL would create a grand total of 35 permanent jobs. Fewer than three dozen permanent jobs.

No doubt, there should probably be a place in the story for Bud Weinstein of SMU to tell us there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. There’s a place for the guy from the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce to talk about gas prices and energy security. All that oil is coming to refiners in his town, so it’s no surprise that he’s for it. Hell, there’s probably even a place in the story for the random barista from Paris, Texas, who says it was pretty great when all those pipeline guys came into the shop and spent money, even though I’m sure they’re long gone by now.

But some key context is missing from this story, and some easily disproved claims went unchecked. That’s the Star-Telegram’s job — to fact-check statements made by the corporation with all the skin in the game, and to provide that illuminating context. A good start might be to let your readers know about recent town- and eco-system altering spills of just the kind of oil that may one day flow through Texas in the steel pipe of the Keystone XL.