The forgotten tar sands pipeline: 1/3 larger than the Keystone XL

A battle in Dane County, Wisc. has been raging over the construction of additional capacity for the Line 61 tar sands pipeline. Line 61, which is owned by the Canadian company, Enbridge, is presently one of the largest pipelines in the United States, carrying 400,000 barrels of tar sands and crude oil per day through Wisconsin and branches off to refineries in Chicago and a pipeline network extending to the Gulf of Mexico.

The present dispute in Wisconsin centers around whether or not Enbridge will be allowed to triple the capacity of Line 61, expanding Line 61 to flow 1.2 million barrels a day. Such an expansion would make Line 61 one of the largest pipelines in the world and 1/3 larger than the notorious Keystone XL pipeline.

The planned expansion comes on the heels of the spill near Marshall, Mich. where Line 61 dumped 840,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil into the Kalamazoo River, causing it to overflow with polluted water. Enbridge declared the $1.2 billion cleanup effort last summer, despite the fact that the National Transportation Security Board pointed out “unconscionable lapses” in Enbridge’s cleanup efforts.

The dangers of tar sands

The high level of activity to prevent the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has raised attention to the special danger posed tar sands. Oil spills—highly costly to cleanup and virtually inevitable with any form of oil transport—are significantly more likely when carrying tar sands due to the corrosive effect of the sands in the oil, which can only be moved through pipeline by mixing them with corrosive solvents. Where transporting regular crude oil already has significant risks, those risks are greatly amplified when carrying tar sands due to the shorter life of pipeline carrying sands mixed with solvents.

Once spilled, tar sands are uniquely damaging to any land or body of water they are spilled into. Those same corrosive solvents which make tar sands dangerous to pipelines are extremely poisonous. Benzene is among the chemicals released, and is highly carcinogenic. In addition, other toxic chemicals can become gasified and force people to evacuate their homes once a spill has begun and make agriculture on spill sites difficult or impossible.

Because tar sands are denser than regular crude oil, they sink to the bottoms of rivers and lakes, requiring destructive dredging, or physical removal from the bottoms of bodies of water. Since dredging often disturbs aquatic ecosystems, tar sands spills may entail permanent, irrecoverable damage.

The damage to the Kalamazoo River after the 2010 Marshall Spill in Michigan should stand as a warning of the dangers of tar sands in general and of Line 61 in particular.

Sloppy, lethargic response by government

The last hold-up for Enbridge’s construction plans lies in Dane County, Wisc., where they have been unable to obtain a permit for a new pump station to handle the additional pipeline capacity. In every other county in Wisconsin where they plan to build, Enbridge has been able to obtain permits to build new stations. In other words, local Wisconsin governments have been perfectly willing to risk Wisconsinites’ lives and livelihoods by allowing the tar-sands holding time bomb to be built through their counties.

Other counties’ willingness to be bought and sold by Enbridge has left Dane county’s efforts to deny the pump station permit as the last line of defense. That defense will be tested one in one week’s time, on January 27, when Dane County’s Zoning and Land Regulation Committee will decide whether or not to tie the pump station permit to higher insurance liability requirements than it had for the Marshall Spill. Activists and other people opposing the expansion hope that the high insurance overhead costs will make it unprofitable for Enbridge, forcing it to reconsider the expansion.

Put plainly: Wisconsin’s state government has taken little or no serious action to prevent the Line 61 expansion, leaving the matter to county governments. Most of those county governments have been perfectly willing to green-light the expansion through their counties. The one exception is Dane County, where the government is so powerless that it is forced to turn to  indirect struggles over insurance requirements, instead of simply saying no. The reason behind Dane County’s powerlessness to stop the pipeline on principle lies in an interpetration of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from setting their own safety standards or rejecting construction of the pipeline on principle after review by the federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration.

Perhaps most egregiously, Wisconsin’s Department of National Resources has been relying on the same study of the pipeline’s safety that it used to approve initial construction of the pipeline in 2007. The study, conducted in 2006, is meant to access the environmental impact, but was conducted before the catastrophic Marshall Spill.

It is plain to see, therefore, that the Wisconsin state government is content to sit on its hands and leave Enbridge free to do as it pleases in Wisconsin, no matter the risks. What, then, about the federal government?

Look no farther than the federal Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration’s approval of the plan, which left Wisconsinites with back-route avenues like Dane County’s bid to raise Enbridge’s insurance costs as the only option to block the pipeline.

Why tar sands?

Ultimately, the Line 61 expansion is only one tile in a larger mosaic of capitalist production; it cannot be viewed independently of its context, and removing it does not significantly change the broader picture. Its position completes the broader picture.

The low gas prices now are largely a result of ramped-up production in a global game of chicken between US shale and tar sands producers and international oil producers, especially OPEC. In a bid for control of the global oil market, both have stepped off in a race to the bottom in order to out-produce each other so as to displace their economic position. If, for example, US oil producers are able to reduce their production costs enough to push Saudi and Venezuelan oil companies out of business, their monopoly will extend beyond the United States and into the world oil market. In this short-sighted competition, global oil prices have fallen as a result of the flood of oil on the market.

Because oil reserves in the United States have been essentially depleted, save some oil fields in Alaskan nature preserves and disparate oil fields elsewhere, tar sands have become profitable. Rather than taking the depletion of oil reserves in the United States as a signal to find new, more sustainable sources of energy, the US energy sector turned to literally bleeding stones for oil.

Revolutionary action needed

If there was ever an instance where the absurdity of capitalism was shown in its full glory, the price war is it. After running out of conventional oil supplies, thus facing the dustbin of history, U.S. oil companies have turned to extremely expensive and destructive tar sands and shale oil mining to get crude oil. The path to saving themselves revived their competitiveness on the international oil market, thanks in large part governments’ vested interest in keeping independent domestic oil supplies. This combined with economies of scale and access to the most advanced technology allowed U.S. oil companies and their partners in Canada to compete internationally. That competition is the backdrop to the present price war.

To put it briefly, the stunning illogic underlying the renaissance of the U.S. oil industry has proliferated to a global scale. It is ultimately a product of a competitive system based on securing profits. Without the profit motive, there would be no incentive to compete over the oil market. Climate scientists for years have agreed essentially unanimously that climate change is an existential threat to all life on earth, yet competition over profits in the oil industry has pushed the end of fossil fuel use beyond the horizon. Only ending the root of the problem—by ending global capitalism—can a logical response to climate change come.

The expansion of Line 61 shows that change does not come from “our” government. In fact, it shows that those governments do not serve the interests of the vast majority of people, even when those interests are made abundantly clear as they are following the Marshall Spill, and that those governments thus cannot be call “our governments” at all.

Enbridge’s proposed expansion of Line 61 and its strong-arming of the federal and local governments constitutes an act of war against the people of Wisconsin and the world. While it may not be illegal under the U.S. government’s law, it violates the human right to basic safety from oil spills, land and water destruction, and more.

The capitalist mosaic of which Line 61 is only a tile is soaked from its top to its foundation in blood. The most recent developments show the pressing need to tear it down and build a new wall altogether.


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