Energy is ugly, some forms more so than others, as nuclear near meltdowns in Japan, the bp disaster in the gulf of Mexico and deaths in the west Virginia coal mine explosion have driven home in the last year.
How Rural America Got Fracked
If the world can be seen in a grain of sand, watch out. As Wisconsinites are learning, there’s money (and misery) in sand—and if you’ve got the right kind, an oil company may soon be at your doorstep.
March in Wisconsin used to mean snow on the ground, temperatures so cold that farmers worried about their cows freezing to death. But as I traveled around rural townships and villages in early March to interview people about frac-sand mining, a little-known cousin of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” daytime temperatures soared to nearly eighty degrees—bizarre weather that seemed to be sending a meteorological message.
In this troubling spring, Wisconsin’s prairies and farmland fanned out to undulating hills that cradled the land and its people. Within their embrace, the rackety calls of geese echoed from ice-free ponds, bald eagles wheeled in the sky and deer leaped in the brush. And for the first time in my life, I heard the thrilling warble of sandhill cranes.
Yet this peaceful rural landscape is swiftly becoming part of a vast assembly line in the corporate race for the last fossil fuels on the planet. The target: the sand in the land of the cranes.
Five hundred million years ago, an ocean surged here, shaping a unique wealth of hills and bluffs that, under mantles of greenery and trees, are sandstone. That sandstone contains a particularly pure form of crystalline silica. Its grains, perfectly rounded, are strong enough to resist the extreme pressures of the technology called hydraulic fracturing, which pumps vast quantities of that sand, as well as water and chemicals, into ancient shale formations to force out methane and other forms of “natural gas.”
That sand, which props open fractures in the shale, has to come from somewhere. Without it, the fracking industry would grind to a halt. So big multinational corporations are descending on this bucolic region to cart off its prehistoric sand, which will later be forcefully injected into the earth elsewhere across the country to produce more natural gas. Geology that has taken millions of years to form is now being transformed into part of a system, a machine, helping to drive global climate change.
“The valleys will be filled… the mountains and hills made level”
Boom times for hydraulic fracturing began in 2008 when new horizontal-drilling methods transformed an industry formerly dependent on strictly vertical boring. Frac-sand mining took off in tandem with this development.
“It’s huge,” said a US Geological Survey mineral commodity specialist in 2009. “I’ve never seen anything like it, the growth. It makes my head spin.” That year, from all US sources, frac-sand producers used or sold over 6.5 million metric tons of sand—about what the Great Pyramid of Giza weighs. Last month, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Senior Manager and Special Projects Coordinator Tom Woletz said corporations were hauling at least 15 million metric tons a year from the state’s hills.
By July 2011, between twenty-two and thirty-six frac-sand facilities in Wisconsin were either operating or approved. Seven months later, said Woletz, there were over sixty mines and forty-five processing (refinement) plants in operation. “By the time your article appears, these figures will be obsolete,” claims Pat Popple, who in 2008 founded the first group to oppose frac-sand mining, Concerned Chippewa Citizens (now part of The Save the Hills Alliance).
Jerry Lausted, a retired teacher and also a farmer, showed me the tawny ridges of sand that delineated a strip mine near the town of Menomonie where he lives. “If we were looking from the air,” he added, “you’d see ponds in the bottom of the mine where they dump the industrial waste water. If you scan to the left, you’ll see the hills that are going to disappear.”
Those hills are gigantic sponges, absorbing water, filtering it and providing the region’s aquifer with the purest water imaginable. According to Lausted, sand mining takes its toll on “air quality, water quality and quantity. Recreational aspects of the community are damaged. Property values [are lowered.] But the big thing is, you’re removing the hills that you can’t replace. They’re a huge water manufacturing factory that Mother Nature gave us, and they’re gone.”
It’s impossible to grasp the scope of the devastation from the road, but aerial videos and photographs reveal vast, bleak sandy wastelands punctuated with waste ponds and industrial installations where Wisconsin hills once stood.
When corporations apply to counties for mining permits, they must file “reclamation” plans. But Larry Schneider, a retired metallurgist and industrial consultant with a specialized knowledge of mining, calls the reclamation process “an absolute farce.”
Reclamation projects by mining corporations since the 1970s may have made mined areas “look a little less than an absolute wasteland,” he observes. “But did they reintroduce the biodiversity? Did they reintroduce the beauty and the ecology? No.”
Studies bear out his verdict. “Every year,” wrote Mrinal Ghose in the Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research, “large areas are continually becoming unfertile in spite of efforts to grow vegetation on the degraded mined land.”
Awash in promises of corporate jobs and easy money, those who lease and sell their land just shrug. “The landscape is gonna change when it’s all said and done,” says dairy farmer Bobby Schindler, who in 2008 leased his land in Chippewa County to a frac-sand company called Canadian Sand and Proppant. (EOG, the former Enron, has since taken over the lease.) “Instead of being a hill it’s gonna be a valley, but all seeded down, and you’d never know there’s a mine there unless you were familiar with the area.”
Of the mining he adds, “It’s really put a boost to the area. It’s impressive the amount of money that’s exchanging hands.” 84-year-old Letha Webster, who sold her land 100 miles south of Schindler’s to another mining corporation, Unimin, says that leaving her home of fifty-six years is “just the price of progress.”
Jamie and Kevin Gregar—both 30-something native Wisconsinites and military veterans—lived in a trailer and saved their money so that they could settle down in a pastoral paradise once Kevin returned from Iraq. In January 2011, they found a dream home near tiny Tunnel City. (The village takes its name from a nearby rail tunnel). “It’s just gorgeous—the hills, the trees, the woodland, the animals,” says Jamie. “It’s perfect.”
Five months after they moved in, she learned that neighbors had leased their land to “a sand mine” company. “What’s a sand mine?” she asked.
Less than a year later, they know all too well. The Gregars’ land is now surrounded on three sides by an unsightly panorama of mining preparations. Unimin is uprooting trees, gouging out topsoil and tearing down the nearby hills. “It looks like a disaster zone, like a bomb went off,” Jamie tells me.
When I mention her service to her country, her voice breaks. “I am devastated. We’ve done everything right. We’ve done everything we were supposed to. We just wanted to raise our family in a good location and have good neighbors and to have it taken away from us for something we don’t support…” Her voice trails off in tears.
For Unimin, the village of Tunnel City in Greenfield township was a perfect target. Not only did the land contain the coveted crystalline silica; it was close to a rail spur. No need for the hundreds of diesel trucks that other corporations use to haul sand from mine sites to processing plants. No need, either, for transport from processing plants to rail junctions where hundreds of trains haul frac-sand by the millions of tons each year to fracture other once-rural landscapes. Here, instead, the entire assembly line operates in one industrial zone.
There was also no need for jumping the hurdles zoning laws sometimes erect. Like many Wisconsin towns where a culture of diehard individualism sees zoning as an assault on personal freedom, Greenfield and all its municipalities, including Tunnel City, are unzoned. This allowed the corporation to make deals with individual landowners. For the eight and a half acres where Letha Webster and her husband Gene lived for fifty-six years, assessed in 2010 at $147,500, Unimin paid $330,000. Overall, between late May and July 2011, it paid $5.3 million for 436 acres with a market value of about $1.1 million.
There was no time for public education about the potential negative possibilities of frac-sand mining: the destruction of the hills, the decline in property values, the danger of silicosis (once considered a strictly occupational lung disease) from blowing silica dust, contamination of ground water from the chemicals used in the processing plants, the blaze of lights all night long, noise from hundreds of train cars, houses shaken by blasting. Ron Koshoshek, a leading environmentalist who works with Wisconsin’s powerful Towns Association to educate townships about the industry, says that “frac-sand mining will virtually end all residential development in rural townships.” The result will be “a large-scale net loss of tax dollars to towns, increasing taxes for those who remain.”
Frac-sand corporations count on a combination of naïveté, trust and incomprehension in rural hamlets that previously dealt with companies no larger than Wisconsin’s local sand and gravel industries. Before 2008, town boards had never handled anything beyond road maintenance and other basic municipal issues. Today, multinational corporations use their considerable resources to steamroll local councils and win sweetheart deals. That’s how the residents of Tunnel City got taken to the cleaners.
On July 6, 2011, a Unimin representative ran the first public forum about frac-sand mining in the village. Other heavily attended and often heated community meetings followed, but given the cascades of cash, the town board chairman’s failure to take a stand against the mining corporation, and Unimin’s aggressiveness, tiny Tunnel City was a David without a slingshot.
Local citizens did manage to get the corporation to agree to give the town $250,000 for the first two million tons mined annually, $50,000 more than its original offer. In exchange, the township agreed that any ordinance it might pass in the future to restrict mining wouldn’t apply to Unimin. Multiply the two million tons of frac-sand tonnage Unimin expects to mine annually starting in 2013 by the $300 a ton the industry makes and you’ll find that the township only gets .0004 percent of what the company will gross.
For the Gregars, it’s been a nightmare. Unimin has refused five times to buy their land and no one else wants to live near a sand mine. What weighs most heavily on the couple is the possibility that their children will get silicosis from long-term exposure to dust from the mine sites. “We don’t want our kids to be lab rats for frac-sand mining companies,” says Jamie.
Drew Bradley, Unimin’s senior vice president of operations, waves such fears aside. “I think [citizens] are blowing it out of proportion,” he told a local publication. “There are plenty of silica mines sited close to communities. There have been no concerns exposed there.”
That’s cold comfort to the Gregars. Crystalline silica is a known carcinogen and the cause of silicosis, an irreversible, incurable disease. None of the very few rules applied to sand mining by the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) limit how much silica gets into the air outside of mines. That’s the main concern of those living near the facilities.
So in November 2011, Jamie Gregar and ten other citizens sent a thirty-five-page petition to the DNR. The petitioners asked the agency to declare respirable crystalline silica a hazardous substance and to monitor it, using a public health protection level set by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The petition relies on studies, including one by the DNR itself, which acknowledge the risk of airborne silica from frac-sand mines for those who live nearby.
The DNR denied the petition, claiming among other things that—contrary to its own study’s findings—current standards are adequate. One of the petition’s signatories, Ron Koshoshek, wasn’t surprised. For sixteen years he was a member of, and for nine years chaired, Wisconsin’s Public Intervenor Citizens Advisory Committee. Created in 1967, its role was to intercede on behalf of the environment, should tensions grow between the DNR’s two roles: environmental protector and corporate licensor. “The DNR,” he says, “is now a permitting agency for development and exploitation of resources.”
In 2010, Cathy Stepp, a confirmed anti-environmentalist who had previously railed against the DNR, belittling it as “anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes,” was appointed to head the agency by now embattled Governor Scott Walker who explained: “I wanted someone with a chamber-of-commerce mentality.”
As for Jamie Gregar, her dreams have been dashed and she’s determined to leave her home. “At this point,” she says, “I don’t think there’s a price we wouldn’t accept.”
Frac-Sand vs. Food
Brian Norberg and his family in Prairie Farm, 137 miles northwest of Tunnel City, paid the ultimate price: he died while trying to mobilize the community against Procore, a subsidiary of the multinational oil and gas corporation Sanjel. The American flag that flies in front of the Norbergs’ house flanks a placard with a large, golden NORBERG, over which pheasants fly against a blue sky. It’s meant to represent the 1,500 acres the family has farmed for a century.
“When you start talking about industrial mining, to us, you’re violating the land,” Brian’s widow, Lisa, told me one March afternoon over lunch. She and other members of the family, as well as a friend, had gathered to describe Prairie Farm’s battle with the frac-sanders. “The family has had a really hard time accepting the fact that what we consider a beautiful way to live could be destroyed by big industry.”
Their fight against Procore started in April 2011: Sandy, a lifelong friend and neighbor, arrived with sand samples drillers had excavated from her land, and began enthusiastically describing the benefits of frac-sand mining. “Brian listened for a few minutes,” Lisa recalls. “Then he told her [that]… she and her sand vials could get the heck—that’s a much nicer word than what he used—off the farm. Sandy was hoping we would also be excited about jumping on the bandwagon. Brian informed her that our land would be used for the purpose God intended, farming.”
Brian quickly enlisted family and neighbors in an organizing effort against the company. In June 2011, Procore filed a reclamation plan—the first step in the permitting process—with the county’s land and water conservation department. Brian rushed to the county office to request a public hearing, but returned dejected and depressed. “He felt completely defeated that he could not protect the community from them moving in and destroying our lives,” recalls Lisa.
He died of a heart attack less than a day later at the age of 52. The family is convinced his death was a result of the stress caused by the conflict. That stress is certainly all too real. The frac-sand companies, says family friend Donna Goodlaxson, echoing many others I interviewed for this story, “go from community to community. And one of the things they try to do is pit people in the community against each other.”
Instead of backing off, the Norbergs and other Prairie Farm residents continued Brian’s efforts. At an August 2011 public hearing, the town’s residents directly addressed Procore’s representatives. “What people had to say there was so powerful,” Goodlaxson remembers. “Those guys were blown out of their chairs. They weren’t prepared for us.”
“I think people insinuate that we’re little farmers in a little community and everyone’s an ignorant buffoon,” added Sue Glaser, domestic partner of Brian’s brother Wayne. “They found out in a real short time there was a lot of education behind this.”
“About 80 percent of the neighborhood was not happy about the potential change to our area,” Lisa adds. “But very few of us knew anything about this industry at [that] time.” To that end, Wisconsin’s Farmers’ Union and its Towns Association organized a day-long conference in December 2011 to help people “deal with this new industry.”
Meanwhile, other towns, alarmed by the explosion of frac-sand mining, were beginning to pass licensing ordinances to regulate the industry. In Wisconsin, counties can challenge zoning but not licensing ordinances, which fall under town police powers. These, according to Wisconsin law, cannot be overruled by counties or the state. Becky Glass, a Prairie Farm resident and an organizer with Labor Network for Sustainability, calls Wisconsin’s town police powers “the strongest tools towns have to fight or regulate frac-sand mining.” Consider them so many slingshots employed against the corporate Goliaths.
In April 2012, Prairie Farm’s three-man board voted two to one to pass such an ordinance to regulate any future mining effort in the town. No, such moves won’t stop frac-sand mining in Wisconsin, but they may at least mitigate its harm. Procore finally pulled out because of the resistance, says Glass, adding that the company has since returned with different personnel to try opening a mine near where she lives.
“It takes 1.2 acres per person per year to feed every person in this country,” says Lisa Norberg. “And the little township that I live in, we have 9,000 acres that are for farm use. So if we just close our eyes and bend over and let the mining companies come in, we’ll have thousands of people we can’t feed.”
Food or frac-sand: it’s a decision of vital importance across the country, but one most Americans don’t even realize is being made—largely by multinational corporations and dwindling numbers of yeoman farmers in what some in this country would call “the real America.” Most of us know nothing about these choices, but if the mining corporations have their way, we will soon enough—when we check out prices at the supermarket or grocery store. We’ll know it too, as global climate change continues to turn Wisconsin winters balmy and supercharge wild weather across the country.
While bucolic landscapes disappear, aquifers are fouled and countless farms across rural Wisconsin morph into industrial wastelands, Lisa’s sons continue to work the Norberg’s land, just as their father once did. So does Brian’s nephew, 32-year-old Matthew, who took me on a jolting ride across his fields. The next time I’m in town, he assured me, we’ll visit places in the hills where water feeds into springs. Yes, you can drink the water there. It’s still the purest imaginable. Under the circumstances, though, no one knows for how long.
Tar Sands Make Their Mark
For years, “not in my backyard” has been the battle cry of residents in Cape Cod who stand opposed to an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. The giant turbines will forever mar the beauty of the landscape, they say.
Energy is ugly. Some forms more so than others, as nuclear near-meltdowns in Japan, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and deaths in a West Virginia coal mine explosion have driven home in the last year. Energy kills plants, plankton and people. It imperils the environment, poisons the oceans and is threatening to turn part of Japan, one of the most advanced nations on the planet, into a contaminated zone for decades to come.
David Daniel knows this all too well. He built his dream home on twenty acres of lush wilderness, alive with panthers, wild boar and deer, in Winnsboro, East Texas. Then a nightmare called tar sands appeared on his doorstep.
Tar sands are sandy soils laden with a tar-like substance called bitumen. Getting oil out of them is a dirty, dangerous and deadly process. Daniel knew none of this when a neighbor phoned in the fall of 2008 to say that he’d seen trespassers on the property. “I went back [from work] and I found survey stakes that cut my property in half,” he recalls. Several months later, an eminent domain letter arrived, telling him that a pipeline carrying oil from Canada’s “oil sands” would cut through his pristine property. When he complained to TransCanada, the company in charge, its lawyer responded with a veiled threat: “Should I put the letter in the ‘cooperative’ or the ‘uncooperative pile?’ ”
So began the Daniel family’s struggles with TransCanada, whose powerful US backers include Koch Industries (best known for its stealth attacks on the federal government, and big spending on climate change denial campaigns). By the time TransCanada’s surveyors entered the Daniels’ lives, the corporation was already hard at work pushing a pipeline that would run from the Canadian border to Texas’s Gulf Coast, along the way slicing through the Daniels’ land and the properties of countless other Americans.
At no time did TransCanada’s representatives volunteer information about tar sands, leaving Daniel to do his own research. When he asked how tar sands oil would affect the pipeline, TransCanada responded only that the effects would be determined after the pipeline was put in place. “They made us feel like lab rats on our own property,” he says.
Behind his painful schooling in corporate arrogance lies a startling fact: Canada is the leading oil supplier of the United States. Let me repeat that: the US imports more oil from Canada than (yes) Mexico, which ranks second, and (believe it or not) Saudi Arabia, which ranks only third. Tar sands are largely responsible for Canada’s new petro-status. Nearly a million barrels of tar sands oil arrive in the United States every day. By 2025, Canada is expected to be producing 3.5 million barrels of tar sands oil daily. Most of that, says Ryan Salmon of the National Wildlife Federation, will be imported to the US. And believe me, when it comes to energy ugly, tar sands could take the cake.
Not Tar, Not Oil
In fact, “tar sands” is a colloquialism for 54,000 square miles of bitumen that veins sand and clay beneath the boreal forests of Alberta, one of Canada’s western provinces. Black as it is, bitumen isn’t actually tar, though it looks and smells like tar, and has its consistency on a very cold day—hence, that term “tar sands.” (The corporations that produce the stuff prefer “oil sands.”)
Unlike oil, bitumen does not flow. Gouged and steamed out from under the forest, it is wrenched from the soil, barreled and then refined into synthetic crude oil—at shattering environmental costs. The tar sands industry has ravaged Alberta’s forests, poisoned its air and water, and wrecked the livelihoods of its indigenous peoples. Moreover, producing synthetic crude from a barrel of bitumen generates at least twice as much greenhouse gas as producing a barrel of normal crude oil. At 1.5 million barrels of tar sands oil a day, that’s a lot of global warming.
But for corporations intent on profits in a world rocked by Middle East and North African uprisings that might threaten global oil supplies, and by declining reserves of normal crude, environmental catastrophe is trivial collateral damage. The tar sands’ great selling point in the United States is that it comes from a friendly neighbor. Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada, typically touts tar sands as improving “US energy security and reduc[ing] dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East and Venezuela,” At a White House meeting in early February, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper assured President Obama that “Canada is the largest, the most secure, the most stable and the friendliest supplier of that most vital of all America’s purchases: energy.”
A complex alchemy turns bitumen into synthetic crude. Canadian journalist and tar sands expert Andrew Nikiforuk calls this final product “the world’s dirtiest hydrocarbon oil.” Canada used to transform bitumen from its rawest into its ultimate form, sending synthetic crude through pipelines to the United States. Now, however, with Canada’s refineries maxing out, US refineries are increasingly taking up the task of turning bitumen into the mock crude that makes even my Prius environmentally unfriendly. That means what’s coming to Americans in ever-increasing quantities is a very raw form of diluted bitumen called DilBit, whose transport will make lab rats of us all.
Under jaunty names like “Lakehead,” “Alberta Clipper” and “Keystone,” a vast pipeline network is already pumping this diluted bitumen to the Midwest and into the American heartland. The 1,900-mile-long Lakehead pipeline, owned by Canada’s Enbridge Inc., skirts one of the world’s largest stretches of fresh water, the Great Lakes.
Last June, Enbridge’s main competitor, TransCanada, opened a $5 billion, 2,147-mile pipeline it dubbed Keystone I, which plunges from Canada straight through the eastern parts of the Dakotas and Kansas to the Gulf Coast. Now, TransCanada is pushing hard for an extension, the Keystone XL, the one that will run through David Daniel’s land on its way to the Gulf coast.
In February, 2011, a landmark report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted that diluted bitumen is “the primary product” carried by the Keystone I. The proposed Keystone XL, write the report’s authors, will be dedicated only to DilBit whose “combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration.” So imagine this recipe for pipelines from hell: take thick, raw, corrosive, acid-ridden bitumen and add volatile natural gas to propel it since the bitumen doesn’t flow by itself; next, crank up the temperatures and pressures far higher than those needed to move ordinary crude oil (again, to help the stuff on its way). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand some of the possible dangers of moving tar sands oil in this state through our communities.
The Tar Sands Come to Kellogg’s
Last July, as BP’s catastrophe in the gulf was making news around the clock, the United States experienced its first big DilBit moment. Part of Enbridge’s Lakehead line broke, oozing black gunk into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek, Michigan, iconic home to cereal-maker Kellogg’s. Twelve hours passed before workers responded to the surge of sludge, which by then had passed from the tributary into the river itself. The dark slop could be seen from bank to bank in the Kalamazoo, making its way to Lake Michigan.
High levels of benzene filled the air and local residents had to be evacuated from their homes. When the sludge passed through Battle Creek, the Kellogg’s factory even stopped making cornflakes. The spill was arrested before it could reach Lake Michigan, but not before a million gallons of DilBit had fouled a thirty-mile-long stretch of the Kalamazoo, one of the biggest spills in Midwest history.
This was, however, no “ordinary” oil spill, as DilBit spills are much harder to clean up. Once DilBit hits water, the bitumen in it doesn’t float; it quickly sinks into river sediment. Exposed to sunlight, it forms a dense, sticky substance hard to remove from rock and soil.
Special dredging and other equipment is needed for any effective cleanup. The booms you saw skimming the gulf last summer are inadequate, and the United States doesn’t yet have DilBit cleanup technology. So while cleanup crews worked on the Kalamazoo and its banks after the spill was discovered, they left a whole lot of DilBit behind. Adequate cleanup isn’t expected until at least late 2011, according to the NRDC’s Susan Casey-Lefkowitz.
At the time of the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge’s CEO, Patrick Daniels, claimed that there had never been a leak “of this consequence” in the company’s history. According to Enbridge’s own reports, however, between 2000 and 2009 the company was responsible for 610 pipeline spills in Canada, totaling 5.5 million gallons. (Not all were DilBit, which makes the picture worse, not better, since ordinary crude is less corrosive and volatile than DilBit.) In Michigan, twelve spills from Enbridge’s pipelines preceded the larger one in the Kalamazoo. Two months after that spill, another part of Enbridge’s Lakehead pipeline leaked 256,000 gallons of DilBit into Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago.
Keystone’s underground pipeline to the Gulf Coast, which opened only nine months ago, has already leaked seven times. They have been small leaks, but significant nonetheless as they point to larger, more distressing problems. “It seems odd to us that a brand-new pipeline would have these little spills throughout,” says Casey-Lefkowitz. “It raises questions about the quality of construction.”
“TransCanada is building its pipelines according to strength regulations designed for conventional pipelines decades ago,” adds Anthony Swift, co-author of the NRDC report. Swift says the company “has not yet provided a meaningful strategy for dealing with some of the characteristics of diluted bitumen.”
The proposed Keystone XL, also underground, would carry up to 900,000 barrels of DilBit (37,800,000 gallons) south every day, passing through some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the United States, including rivers, wildlife preserves and wide expanses of prairie. In addition, it would run through the Ogallala aquifer, a 174,000-square-mile expanse of water that lies under eight states from the Dakotas to Texas and provides 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation for agriculture, as well as drinking water for 82 percent of the people within its vast boundaries.
The pipeline would pass through areas where landslides and earthquakes are known threats. Part of Keystone I already traverses an area of seismic activity in Nebraska, where a recent tremor—3.5 on the Richter scale—shook the ground throughout the southeast part of the state. It also runs through the easternmost part of the Ogallala. Before Keystone I was built, a National Wildlife Federation report warned, “Some portions of the aquifer are so close to the surface that any pipeline leak would almost immediately contaminate a large portion of the water.”
TransCanada cannot begin constructing Keystone XL without both a presidential permission and a State Department environmental impact statement (EIS), made necessary because the project crosses international borders. The State Department issued that EIS in April, 2010, in the wake of public hearings in towns along the pipeline route. Environmental organizations, landowners and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were sharply critical of the EIS. Among other things, says the NRDC’s Anthony Swift, the statement failed to demonstrate “the need for the pipeline, its safety, and its greenhouse gas impacts.” Especially troubling, according to Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, was the failure to consider an alternate pipeline route that would not slash through the Ogallala aquifer.
Last month, under pressure from mounting opposition to the pipeline by a coalition of grassroots groups, the State Department held further meetings in Washington to hear their grievances. (The EPA also met with coalition leaders.) Ben Gotschall, a fifth-generation Nebraska organic rancher, called the State Department’s environmental statement “insulting.” It suggested, he said, neither that stronger than normal pipeline materials should be used, nor that there might be alternative routes to the one currently proposed. TransCanada’s only concern, he insisted, was cost, while at stake was the “life and livelihood of millions of people.”
“My family has been producing grass-fed beef for five generations,” said Gotschall. “We do this organically, without chemicals and with minimum fossil fuel inputs…. Nebraska farmers and ranchers were producing food long before we had the benefit of fossil fuels and we can and will find a way to produce food long after fossil fuels are gone. But we will never be able to produce food without clean water. To me, this pipeline is an issue of national security that threatens our domestic food and water supply.”
If the pipeline goes through, a handful of giant corporations will profit, among them Koch Industries which handles about 25 percent of tar sands imports to the United States, and is among the biggest of US tar sands refiners. Meanwhile, the grassroots opposition uniting farmers and ranchers, environmentalists and scientists is growing in the heartland states.
Last month, the coalition demanded that the State Department issue a supplemental environmental impact statement. On March 16th, Ben Gotschall e-mailed: “If you haven’t heard already, the State Department has called for a supplemental draft EIS…. This is a victory for all of us who have been fighting this from the beginning.” On March 24, twenty-five mayors sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We are concerned,” they wrote, “that expansion of high carbon projects such as the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will undermine the good work being done in local communities across the country to fight climate change and reduce our dependence on oil.”
Yet in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, domestic fears over nuclear energy are spiking, while months of turmoil in the Muslim world have highlighted a growing US dependence on Middle Eastern oil. As a result, it will surely become harder to derail the efforts of TransCanada and Koch Industries to ram a pipeline filled with toxic tar sands oil right through David Daniel’s property.
Will a pipeline leak one day kill off his old growth hardwood trees, foul his three natural springs and poison the deer now roaming his land? If TransCanada’s checkered history is any guide, it’s a real possibility. Energy kills. In Japan. In the Gulf. In Appalachian mines. And in the corn flake capital of the world. If Winnsboro, East Texas, is added to the list, it won’t be a surprise, not to David Daniel anyway. He knows what we all know now: in the hands of corporations whose only concern is profit, energy is ugly.
Big Oil Makes War on the Earth
If you live on the Gulf Coast, welcome to the real world of oil—and just know that you’re not alone. In the Niger Delta and the Ecuadorian Amazon, among other places, your emerging hell has been the living hell of local populations for decades.
Even as I was visiting those distant and exotic spill locales via book, article and YouTube, you were going through your very public nightmare. Three federal appeals court judges with financial and other ties to big oil were rejecting the Obama administration’s proposed drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution from the BP spill there was seeping into Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans. Clean-up crews were discovering that a once-over of beaches isn’t nearly enough: somehow, the oil just keeps reappearing. Endangered sea turtles and other creatures were being burnt alive in swaths of ocean (“burn fields”) ignited by BP to “contain” its catastrophe. The lives and livelihoods of fishermen and oyster-shuckers were being destroyed. Disease warnings were being issued to Gulf residents and alarming toxin levels were beginning to be found in clean-up workers.
None of this would surprise inhabitants of either the Niger Delta or the Amazon rain forest. Despite the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and the Exxon Valdez in 1989, Americans are only now starting to wake up to the fate that, for half a century, has befallen the Delta and the Amazon, both ecosystems at least as rich and varied as the Gulf of Mexico.
The Niger Delta region, which faces the Atlantic in southern Nigeria, is the world’s third largest wetland. As with shrimp and oysters in the Gulf, so its mangrove forests, described as “rain forests by the sea,” shelter all sorts of crustaceans. The Amazon rain forest, the Earth’s greatest nurturer of biodiversity, covers more than two billion square miles and provides this planet with about 20 percent of its oxygen. We are, in other words, talking about the despolation-by-oil not of bleak backlands, but of some of this planet’s greatest natural treasures.
Consider Goi, a village in the Niger Delta. It is located on the banks of a river whose tides used to bring in daily offerings of lobsters and fish. Goi’s fishermen would cast their nets into the water and simply let them swell with the harvest. Unfortunately, the village was located close to one of the Delta’s many pipelines. Six years ago, there was a major spill into the river; the oil caught fire and spread.
Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth, International, visited soon after. “What I saw” he reported in a recent radio interview, “was just a sea of crude, burnt out mangroves, and burnt out fishponds beside the river… All the houses close to the river were burnt… It was like a place that had been set on fire in a situation of battle, of war. The people were completely devastated.”
Nigeria’s biggest oil producer, Royal Dutch Shell, insisted that it cleaned up the village, but Bassey just laughs. “One thing about oil incidents: you cannot hide them. The evidence is there for anybody to see. This was in 2004; I’ve been there two times this year. The devastation is still virtually as fresh as it was then. You can still see the oil sheen on the river. You can see the mangroves that were burnt, they’ve not recovered. You can see the fish ponds that were destroyed. You can see the fishing nets and boats that were burnt. They’re all there. There’s no signs of any clean-up.”
Though the local inhabitants are still there, struggling for survival, notes Bassey, they can’t depend on fishing anymore. “The last time I went there, there was a little boy who came with a plastic container… [He and his father had gone] to look for shrimps all night. And what they came back with was a paltry quantity of crayfish that could barely cover the bottom of the plastic container…The container was covered with crude and the crayfish itself was covered in crude oil. So I was wondering what they were going to do with it, and he said they were going to wash the crayfish, and then they would feed on it.”
Now people in Goi have to buy fish from traders. The fish are not very fresh, and often smoked. More important, buying fish is a luxury, given that 70 percent of Nigerians subsist on less than a dollar a day.
Fifty years ago, Shell sank its first 17 wells in the Delta. The rest is history written as nightmare: unparalleled government corruption, ecocide, impoverishment. One estimate puts spills in the Delta over the past half century at 546 million gallons—nearly 11 million gallons a year. If it’s hard to wrap your mind around those figures, maybe this is easier to grasp: more oil is spilled from the Delta’s pipeline maze each year than has been lost so far in the Gulf of Mexico.
Through photographs, you can glimpse life in the Delta under the shadow of big oil. Derelict shacks slouch on river banks amid an extravagance of garbage and waste. Children bathe in lifeless ponds. People live and work in the heat and amid toxins released by flames roaring from flare stacks. Flaring is universally agreed to be wasteful, but is also a way of maximizing oil production on the cheap. Much of the gas burned could be used productively, but in places like the Niger Delta big oil just doesn’t want to spend the money necessary to reclaim it. The flames belch toxins and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The U.S. prohibits such flaring. Officially, Nigeria does, too, and scheduled its first “flare-out” for 1984. To date, however, its governments still keep eternally postponing the deadline for stopping the practice.
The sheen, sludge, and slime of crude oil that Americans living on the Gulf coast are just beginning to get used to have been omnipresent facts in the Delta for so long that most people know little else. Average life expectancy in the rural Delta, says Bassey, “has never been lower than it is now”—48 years for women, 47 for men, and 41 if you escape subsistence farming and petty trading by becoming an oil worker. In other words, years shaved off lives are the personal sacrifice those in the region make to big oil.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Nigeria nationalized its oil, but Shell still ruled production. The state organized large public works projects and long-term plans for development, only to abandon them under powerful international financial pressures—the “free market” doing what it does best when truly unchecked. Nigeria’s leaders have raked in $700 billion in national oil revenues since 1960. One percent of Nigeria’s population, in other words, has pocketed over 75 percent of its energy wealth. In part thanks to the unwanted sacrifices of the Nigerian majority, America’s gas tanks remain well-filled at relatively reasonable prices, since 40 percent of U.S. crude oil imports come from the Delta.
Indigenous inhabitants of the Delta like the Ogoni people have suffered disaster without even the oil-money equivalent of trickle-down economics touching their lives. “In recovering the money that has been stolen from us I do not want any blood spilt, not of any Ogoni man, not of any strangers amongst us,” Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria’s legendary nonviolent activist, told an audience of his people in 1990. “We are going to demand our rights peacefully, nonviolently, and we shall win.” The movement he launched adopted the tactics of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, promoting divestment from Shell and staging peaceful demonstrations.
Shell soon took notice. So did Nigeria’s military government, which also felt threatened by a movement in the Delta region dedicated to regaining some share of pillaged local wealth. In 1995, that government hanged Saro-Wiwa and eight other nonviolent leaders. A case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Saro-Wiwa’s son and other plaintiffs resulted in a $15.5 million out-of-court settlement by Shell, a veritable drop in the bucket for the giant company.
Since Saro-Wiwa’s execution, a rebellious spirit has spread widely in the region, but his pacifist approach has long since been rejected. The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has become remarkably disruptive and powerful through sabotaging pipelines, kidnapping foreign oil workers, and even piracy. It has, in fact, come close to bringing the oil industry to a standstill there. Shell has shut down its major operations in the Delta, where 36 percent of young people interviewed in a 2007 World Bank study showed a “willingness or propensity to take up arms against the state.”