Protesters Take Pipeline Fight To White House

Environmentalists are planning to encircle the White House Sunday to protest the Obama administration's expected support of a new pipeline through the Midwest to carry one of the dirtiest forms of oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. NPR's Richard Harris explains that the pipeline pits jobs against the environment.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Organizers say more than 5,000 people signed up online for a protest today at the White House. At issue is the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is proposed as a way to take oil from Alberta, Canada 1,700 miles to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Environmental groups are asking President Obama to kill the project, but labor unions argue the construction would create badly needed jobs. Joining us to talk about the pipeline controversy is NPR's science correspondent, Richard Harris. Richard, welcome.

RICHARD HARRIS: Hi.

CORNISH: So there are hundreds and thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines criss-crossing the United States, so what is the big deal about this one?

HARRIS: I think the big deal about this one is the source of the oil for the pipeline. The pipeline would originate in an oil resource in Alberta that is second only to Saudi Arabia in size, and environmentalists who are concerned about global warming would rather have that oil just stay in the ground if at all possible. I think the second issue related to this is that extracting oil from this area does a lot of environmental damage. This isn't just oil that you pump out of the ground.

It's sort of mixed in to this sort of clogged up kind of sandy, tarry, slurry, and it takes a lot of energy as a matter of fact to extract the oil out of that mess once you pull it up. So it has very significant local environmental impacts, as well as creating additional greenhouse gases just to extract it.

CORNISH: And I mentioned labor unions and sort of jobs earlier, but what are some of the arguments in favor of the pipeline?

HARRIS: Well, the jobs argument, of course, is a strong one given this economy right now. But the White House also makes the point that this is an issue of energy security because they say, you know, we would much rather buy oil from Canada, our friendly neighbors to the north, than spend all that money and ship it off to states in the Middle East and so on where obviously we have much less friendly relationships, and much less certainty about how steady the oil supply would be. So this is a - really an energy security issue as well as a jobs issue.

CORNISH: And interestingly enough, because it's cross-border, right, the State Department is involved and they are responsible for weighing the environmental and economic issues of the pipeline. But last week, President Obama said he would make the final decision and what's at stake for him?

HARRIS: Well, I think environmentalists are pressing this issued because they see it as an opportunity for the president to show that he's committed to moving away from fossil fuels, and this happens to be one of those few issues that doesn't go through Congress. It's just for the president to make so they don't have to take the fight to Congress where they would almost certainly lose this fight. So this is a test for the environmental movement.

I think that at stake is if he rules against the environmental movement, they'll still probably vote for him in November, but they'll be less enthusiastic in supporting him in his reelection efforts, and so that's kind of what they're holding out, saying look, you want us to get there and pound the pavement, help us out on this issue. On the other side, of course, major unions are pressing for him to go ahead with the pipeline, and many people who are just concerned about inexpensive gas and so on would like to have a sense that there's more oil and gas being produced and that we're getting it from secure sources.

CORNISH: Republicans generally support the development of domestic oil and gas resources, and yet in this case we've got a Republican governor in Nebraska who's opposed because the pipeline would go through his state. What are the concerns that they're articulating in Nebraska?

HARRIS: Well, the pipeline would cross Nebraska's principal water supply which is the Ogallala Aquifer, and ever since the BP oil spill in the Gulf last year, there's of course heightened public concern about oil spills, and I've talked to geologists in the region who say actually if the pipeline breaks over the Ogallala reservoir, it would actually only spill in a very local area, and would not in fact in spread out and contaminate the entire Aquifer.

But obviously that is a public concern and the geologists do say a bigger worry is that if there were a pipeline break, and it went into a river, that could cause another spill like the one this past summer on the Yellowstone River in Montana. So it's obviously an issue.

CORNISH: Richard, planning for this pipeline has been underway for years. I mean, what happens if the U.S. rejects it?

HARRIS: Well, there's some talk that the company, TransCanada, would then try to put it through British Columbia, and ship the oil off to China, but there are political issues with doing that as well.

CORNISH: So Richard, when do we expect the administration to make their decision?

HARRIS: Well, they were originally hoping to make it by the end of the year, but they're now saying it could be early next year.

CORNISH: NPR science correspondent, Richard Harris, thanks so much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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