ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
A key Democrat in Congress says the U.S. is in danger of becoming too dependent on foreign oil. Okay, so there's nothing surprising about that statement until you hear which foreign oil supply he's talking about.
Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, is worried about dependence on oil from Canada. He wants to block plans for a new oil pipeline from our friendly neighbor to the north, and he's not alone.
As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it's not that opponents don't trust Canada, they just don't like the kind of oil Canada is selling.
MARTIN KASTE: Ben Gotschall grew up in Nebraska's Sand Hills. His family has been ranching there for four generations, and the landscape is close to his heart.
Mr. BEN GOTSCHALL: The whole Sand Hills region is a wetland. And so you have bird migrations, obviously the Sand Hill crane. We have the whooping crane.
KASTE: It's bird paradise, a paradise Gotschall believes may soon be menaced by oil spills. That's because a Canadian company is planning a 1,600-mile pipeline from Alberta down to the American oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
The pipeline, called the Keystone XL, will go right by the Gotschall family ranch. Because it's a wetland, he's worried that any leaked oil would go straight into the local water supply, and he's worried about a rerun of the BP disaster in the Gulf.
Mr. GOTSCHALL: I see a lot of parallels, even though, yes, it's not an oil well, it's a pipeline. But it's still oil traveling through an ocean of water. It's freshwater instead of saltwater, but in my mind, oil and water don't mix no matter where it is.
KASTE: TransCanada, the company planning the pipeline, says not to worry. If there's ever a leak, it says, the flow of oil will be quickly shut off. And really, for most environmentalists, the threat of a spill is secondary. The bigger concern is the kind of oil that'll be inside that pipeline: oil from the Canadian tar sands.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Tar sands are basically a very heavy, tar-like oil, bound up with the sand.
KASTE: That's Congressman Henry Waxman, Democrat from Los Angeles. He's referring to the fact that the oil from Alberta is mixed up with sand and is hard to extract.
Some of it is mined. Some of it is steamed out of the ground. That takes a lot of energy. The Canadians are actually burning huge amounts of natural gas just to get to this oil. And that means, overall, this kind of oil produces more greenhouse gases.
Rep. WAXMAN: So we're adding to the carbon pollution for the globe, and we're making a multi-billion dollar investment to expand our reliance on the dirtiest source of transportation fuel currently available. And I think that's a step in the wrong direction.
KASTE: If the U.S. is serious about cutting greenhouse gases, Waxman says, this pipeline makes no sense. And he's asking the State Department, which has jurisdiction over this international project, to stop it.
Terry Cunha is spokesman for the pipeline company, TransCanada. Despite Waxman's efforts, he thinks the project is still on course for final approval this fall.
Mr. TERRY CUNHA (Spokesman, TransCanada): We respect his views, though we disagree with him. We feel that, you know, the Department of State has been very diligent and transparent in its review of our project. And we believe, you know, this is a beneficial project.
KASTE: TransCanada doesn't actually produce tar sands oil, it just wants to move it to the U.S. And customers for that service are lining up. Cunha says oil companies have already pre-booked most of the pipeline's capacity. The fact of the matter is, Cunha says, there's demand for this oil.
Mr. CUNHA: Quite honestly, the reality is the U.S. has a large need for crude oil.
KASTE: The proven oil reserves in the Canadian tar sands are huge, second only to Saudi Arabia, and that's the strategic argument for America's use of tar sands oil. Supporters say building another half-million-barrel-a-day pipeline from Canada will make the U.S. a half-million barrels a day less dependent on places like Venezuela or the Middle East.
Terry Cunha says it's just better for America to get more of its oil from what he calls a reliable neighbor. But that doesn't win over Nebraskan Ben Gotschall.
Mr. GOTSCHALL: Where I'm sitting, having an oil pipeline in my backyard, in my drinking water, that's not a very friendly neighbor. That's not what neighbors do, at least where I was raised.
KASTE: Americans' misgivings haven't gone unnoticed in Canada. One newspaper there asked whether Canada was becoming too dependent on the U.S. as a customer. Industry analysts say this shows the need for some new oil pipelines to Canada's west coast. That way, if the U.S. turns up its nose at tar sands oil, Canada can still has the option of selling it to China.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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