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Winona LaDuke, Published June 08 2013

Letter: Pipeline as life saver is pipe dream

Just because you say something at a federal hearing doesn’t mean it’s accurate. A couple of weeks ago, North Dakota Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms told Congress that the Keystone pipeline would save North Dakota lives. “The Keystone XL pipeline could mean three to six fewer traffic deaths per year in North Dakota as a result of reduced truck traffic, the state’s top oil and gas regulator says,” The Forum reported.

The remarks came in response to rising highway deaths in western North Dakota from oil trucks on the roads. McKenzie County has had nine traffic fatalities this year, or 28 percent of the state total of 32, according to the state Department of Transportation. That’s appalling for a county of 10,000 people. Western North Dakota saw a 53 percent increase in traffic in the past two years, compared to a 22 percent increase in traffic statewide. Highway 85 west of Watford City averaged 11,051 vehicles a day in 2012 compared to 2,322 in 2006.

Those figures are not just big oil trucks; that’s everyone working in the Bakken, and most of those folks will still be there – shipping oil out. To say a pipeline will save lives is a bit creative. More oil moving doesn’t necessarily make life safer.

The state needs either better infrastructure and/or fewer trucks on the road. And maybe we need to do a bit more drug testing at the man camps.

Pipelines are not a panacea. The province of British Columbia just rejected a similar pipeline – the Northern Gateway. In its submission April 30 to the federally appointed Northern Gateway Pipeline Joint Review Panel, the province said it cannot support the Enbridge Northern Gateway project because the company “has been unable to address British Columbians’ environmental concerns,” according to a Canadian newspaper. North Dakota should take note.

Helms testified on environmental issues: “Keystone XL, for every year that it’s in service, will reduce North Dakota’s greenhouse gas emissions by almost a million kilograms per day.” Well, sort of good. But, it turns out greenhouse gas emissions don’t stay in the state, and the prevailing analysis is that tar sands oil produce up to 40 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional oil. In fact, it’s estimated that tar sands will add 240 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere. Since we just increased world CO2 levels to 400 parts per million, the highest amount for 200,000 years, we might want to think about how much more we want to add.

North Dakota does not live in a bubble where we can claim greenhouse gas reductions within imaginary borders. North Dakota is part of a big world. Enabling larger markets for more destructive oil projects and emissions is not a bragging right.

Another contestable point: “Transporting our oil by truck leads to three to four times the number of spills that a pipeline does, leads to dust problems and causes accidents,” Helms said.

Well, sort of. Oil spills from pipelines are about a thousand times worse, and transporting tar sands or diluted bitumen is more dangerous – 17 times more likely to break a pipeline than conventional oil. That’s because tar sands oil is more viscous and abrasive, requiring a higher temperature. And, when those pipelines break, it’s often not in plain sight.

Enbridge is one of the biggest pipeline companies. That company is responsible for 804 pipeline spills since 1999 – including the Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan, where 800,000 barrels of oil gushed for 17 days. Kalamazoo cleanup – $800 million thus far, and it’s not done. Total spills value: 6.8 million gallons of oil. Oil spills are less frequent but a lot bigger. And the area of the Keystone XL in the Northern Plains has been exempted from the safest pipeline materials.

To Mr. Helms: If we think in a small box, it’s handy for arguing certain points. However, if we look at the big picture and put facts in context, things look different.

I don’t want more children killed on the oil-choked highways of western North Dakota, but I don’t think the Keystone XL pipeline is the answer to anything.


LaDuke is an American Indian activist, author and environmentalist. She leads a land recovery project on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation.