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Steve Paul: Oil spills should give Americans pause

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Two more oil spills should give Americans pause, especially in the ongoing, fractious debate over the Keystone XL pipeline.

A BP refinery near Chicago, expanded just a year ago to handle the thick tar-sand crude oil coming from Canada – the oil destined to be carried south by the proposed U.S. pipe – experienced an operational hiccup last week. According to the Chicago Tribune, the extent of the spill remains unknown though an EPA official “said there appeared to be no negative effects on Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for 7 million people in Chicago and the suburbs.” The official also reported “no known impact” to wildlife.

Off Galveston, Texas, 168,000 gallons of bunker fuel oil seeped into coastal waters after a container ship collided with a fuel tanker. Reports note that that’s a mere fraction of the 100 million-gallon, Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, yet nearby wildlife refuges did not escape harm and the remaining thick fuel uncaptured in recovery efforts could have long-term consequences.

USA Today noted that Texas records 675 oil spills a year – nearly two a day – most of them relatively tiny.

The Obama administration, after five years of study, controversy and protest actions, is on the verge of deciding whether to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,100-mile project would stretch from the Alberta tar-sand fields to Steele City, Neb., where it will hook up with other pipeline projects already underway.

Proponents argue that the Keystone XL will mean jobs, jobs, jobs and other boosts to the economy. Opponents fear ecological dangers to, say, the Ogallala Aquifer, which reaches into Nebraska, and the global-warming doom that extends from the persistent drilling of Canada’s huge dirty-oil reserve.

But other than capping that Canadian production entirely – not likely to happen, of course – the alternatives are slim. Without a pipeline into the U.S., less-efficient transport of the crude oil by rail will increase, bringing its own downsides. Or the Canadians – and Chinese – can choose to skirt U.S. refiners and pipe the stuff directly to Canada’s west coast.

So goes our Faustian bargain with fossil fuels. We have our oil-shale boom and our natural-gas bounty, and we have our fears of fracking and ecological taint. Twenty-five years after the still-disturbing Alaska tragedy of the Exxon Valdez, it seems as if we’ve hardly learned a thing.

Today’s political climate, which will hold more sway than any damaging oil spill, might force Secretary of State John Kerry – given the crossing of an international border, it’s his primary call – to endorse the Keystone XL. If so, approval should come only with the strictest of standards for safety and supervision and disaster control. Even then, we can only hope for good luck.

Steve Paul is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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