Tag Archives: Keystone Pipeline

Stories From the Frontlines: The Crossroads Between Fracking, Tar Sands, Campaign Finance, and Renewable Energy

How Two Texas Regulatory Agencies Have Embraced Industry Interests Over Citizen Concerns and Public Health

By Dave Cortez and Dewayne Quertermous

This feature was written following two hours of public testimony at an Arlington, Texas town hall regarding the Sunset Review of the Public Utilities Commission and Railroad Commission of Texas – two agencies tasked with regulating electricity, telecommunications, oil, and gas industries, among others. Organized by the Greater Fort Worth & Dallas Sierra Clubs and Public Citizen, the event served as a citizen’s communication forum for North Texans to speak directly to State Representatives Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) and Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas). We thank both of them for their participation.
To submit comments directly to the Sunset Advisory Commission, please email sunset@sunset.state.tx.us

Last week, more than 80 concerned citizens gathered in Arlington to present passionate testimonials about their experiences with two major state regulatory agencies: the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Railroad Commission (RRC). From concerns about the PUC’s failure to implement state renewable energy mandates and the need to develop net-metering rules for solar, to the financing of campaigns for Railroad Commissioner and the RRC’s track record of neglecting citizen concerns over fracking and tar sands pipeline construction, one unmistakable theme repeated throughout the night was that they are tired of these agencies operating largely by and for polluting industry interests, and not for the public good.

On December 19th, many of these same North Texans will be joining with other concerned citizens from around the state to relay their personal stories of struggle and frustration with the PUC and RRC directly to members of the Sunset Advisory Commission – a 12 member legislative body tasked with the 12 year review to determine the need for an agency, looks for potential duplication of other public services or programs, and considers new and innovative changes to improve each agency’s operations and activities.

(Click here for location, meeting time, and Sierra Club’s comments on the PUC & RRC Sunset Review.)

Keystone 8-24


Of the more than forty speakers, many criticized the RRC’s lax regulation of the oil and gas industry, especially regarding fracking for natural gas and oil. While there was praise for the Fracking Fluid Disclosure Bill passed in the 82nd legislative session, and the RRC’s quick implementation of the law, as well as a few other fracking related regulations the Commission has strengthened, any positive recognition was always followed by a litany of air, water, public health, and safety concerns.

The Commission’s willingness to let industry have virtually free reign to frequently use the Rule 37 exemption, allowing them to take a mineral owner’s minerals without a lease and with little if any remuneration, came up often throughout the night. A common sore point was that Rule 37 hearings are not held locally but in Austin, forcing landowners to travel to Austin for a hearing that may be rescheduled at the last moment in order to protest what is usually a rubber-stamp approval for the industry.


Numerous speakers were frustrated by pipeline companies’ abuse of their eminent domain powers, which they get by simply checking a box on a form saying they are a ‘common carrier’. A sustained stream of outraged speakers cited concerns that the RRC does nothing to confirm the veracity of this statement, much less set any criteria for what constitutes a ‘common carrier’, whether associated with gas and oil drilling or with tar sands pipelines. The fact that once they receive ‘common carrier’ status, virtually no limits are placed on the use of eminent domain by a private company, left many incredulous.

“There’s no box to mark or delineate tar sands on the T4 form at the RRC. Tar sands is unlike conventional crude, Syncrude, or Venezuelan crude,” said event organizer Rita Beving. “These tar sands companies get a federal IRS exemption as they have determined with the IRS that dilbit or tar sands is not crude, and therefore are exempt from paying into the U.S. spill liability fund.  Still this company marks their T-4 at the RRC that they are “crude”. What is Texas to do should there be a spill? Who is going to bear the liability? The counties? The state?”

The PUC was not spared by the wave of criticism from speakers. In reference to a petition filed by the Sierra Club and Public Citizen in September, citizens wanted to know why the PUC has maintained a 7-year position that the implementation of a 500 megawatt renewable energy mandate would harm Texas electricity consumers, when many saw it as an efficient means to achieve energy independence and create jobs.

 “The recent denial to hold public meetings for a petition to act on the non-wind RPS, and in documentation on a commission website that compares the capital cost of a natural gas plant to the total cost of a solar PV plant and then declares solar too expensive indicates a bias that needs to be removed or an analysis that needs to be improved,” said Larry Howe of Plano.


Although audience members expressed their frustrations with the PUC’s deference to industry lobbyists and utility stakeholders, the fact of the matter is members of the PUC are unelected and therefore lack sufficient means for public accountability. The 3 commissioners are appointed by Governor Perry – who ironically enough signed Senate Bill 20 into law in 2005, which established a mandate for 500 mws of “non-wind” renewable energy such as solar and geothermal power.

But commissioners at the RRC are publicly elected. Members of Clean Elections Texas were on hand to present testimony highlighting the need to reform the system of financing campaigns for seats at the RRC.

It isn’t just that 1) there’s been an explosion of campaign spending in RRC races in the last ten years, 2) that most of the money comes from people in industries with business before the commission, 3) that commission candidates raise significantly more than candidates for comparable agencies, 4) that there is no limit to how much any single interested party can give to a commissioner, or 5) that most of the high dollar contributions come from individuals in regulated industries…it’s that some of the campaign contributions simply cannot be explained as an effort to affect the outcome of an election,” said Joel Page of Clean Elections Texas.

Further analysis and review of testimony shows that the volume and source of money flowing into campaigns for the RRC – as documented by a 2010 study by Public Citizen – suggests an effort to buy influence over the Commission. Between 2000 and 2010, money raised and spent by incumbent commissioners increased nearly seven fold; in the 2008 cycle, incumbents spent more than 3.5 million dollars. The amount spent by industry sources – energy companies, their employees, as well as consultants, attorneys and lobbyists – has steadily increased as well.

Problem is: campaign finance reports show that much of the money raised by candidates for RRC goes unspent. This begs the question, “why would donors give candidates more money than they need to run a campaign that receives relatively little public attention?”


Wind Solar Worker

There’s no doubt that Texas is an oil & gas state. While our economy is rooted in the days of Spindletop and wildcatting for Texas crude, there’s no reason assume that clean air and water are mutually exclusive to economic and energy development. Texans are proud of our rights to personal property, our independence, and the idea that we can lead in more than low-wage jobs and carbon pollution.

But when our appointed and elected leadership at the PUC and RRC fails to listen to legitimate grievances from of its own citizens,  to respect state law, to protect private property rights, to prioritize transparency & accountability, and to tap into the most abundant renewable energy resource in the nation (the Texas sun), prudence dictactes a greater and more vocal response from the people whom these agencies are tasked to represent and protect.

Send in your comments to the Sunset Advisory Commission, and your State Senator and Representative.  Want to build a local clean economy team in your area? Get started by taking 5 minutes to complete this short survey.

There’s no more compelling case for action and reform than your personal story. However, if you’d like to review talking points and more details of the Sierra Club’s and Public Citizen’s comments on the PUC Sunset Review click here. For talking points and more detail on the Sierra Club’s comments on the RRC Sunset Review click here.

Below is a photo essay featuring all of the speakers at the Arlington town hall. Click on photos to see quotes from the testimony given that night.

Will Obama Bring the “Dirtiest Oil on Earth” to Texas?

Lower Rio Grand Valley Sierra Club members at the rally against the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House

By Stefanie Herweck

In the coming weeks President Obama will make one of the most fateful decisions of his presidency: whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project.  The pipeline would transport liquefied tar sands across the United States for export on the Texas Gulf Coast.

On Sunday protesters formed a human chain around the White House in an effort to remind the president of his own words on the campaign trail: “Let’s be the generation that frees itself from the tyranny of oil.”

Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on Earth,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and it is hard to imagine how mining, transporting, and burning it will help bring to life Obama’s words.  It is also hard to think of a project with more terrible consequences for Texas, and for the world.

A Canadian corporation, Transcanada, wants to build the 1,980 mile long pipeline from the tar sands oil mines in Alberta, Canada across the American heartland to the Texas Gulf Coast.  Because the pipeline crosses the U.S. – Canada border, it is up to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to approve or reject it.

The tar sands underlie 54,000 square miles of boreal forest that is prized for its biodiversity.  Every spring more than half of North America’s birds flock there to nest.  As a boreal forest, it is also uniquely suited to absorb carbon emissions, and it stores twice as much carbon as a tropical forest.

Since the tar sands lie near the surface, these forests are completely obliterated during the mining process.  As these forests are destroyed, critical habitat is lost and stored carbon is released into the atmosphere.  Where the forest once stood, companies dig massive open pit mines and create toxic tailing ponds so big they can be seen from space.  As of June 2009, 32,000 square miles of boreal forest had been leased to companies for tar sands extraction.

In the ground tar sands are a mixture of 90 percent sand, clay and water and 10 percent bitumen, a thick hydrocarbon liquid.  Steam is used to extract the bitumen, which requires 4 barrels of water and a significant amount of natural gas for every barrel of oil.  The lakes of waste water left over from this process cover 22 percent of the mined land and are so toxic that they have killed entire flocks of birds that were unlucky enough to land on them.

Because the bitumen is so thick – the consistency of peanut butter – it must be diluted with volatile natural gas compounds in order to make it flow through a pipeline.  It is heavier and more corrosive than conventional oil, so the Keystone XL pipeline would be far more likely subject to leak.  In fact, the first stage of the Keystone tar sands pipeline had 14 accidents in its first year of operation.

The pipeline’s path across the Ogallala aquifer makes the potential for leaks especially alarming.  More than a quarter of the water for crops grown in the United States comes from this aquifer, and millions depend on it for drinking water.  Nebraska’s Republican Governor, Dave Heineman, has called upon the State Department to deny Transcanada’s permit request out of fear that spills of tar sands oil could prove catastrophic for the state’s water supply.

The proposed path of the pipeline will also cross hundreds of heartland farms.  Transcanada is already suing landowners in Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas under eminent domain, even though the project has not been approved.  Many have questioned whether a foreign corporation can use eminent domain against U.S. citizens, but the flurry of lawsuits has not slowed.

When tar sands oil arrives at a refinery it is laden with toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, and metals like mercury, lead, nickel and vanadium.  Refineries in Port Arthur that process tar sands will therefore produce, and release, much more hazardous waste than conventional oil refineries.

According to the EPA, the entire process of extracting and refining tar sands oil from well to gas tank produces 82 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil.  Transporting and burning the Keystone XL pipeline’s tar sands would add 27 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere per year.

Beyond this, the sheer scope of the tar sands deposits make Obama’s pipeline decision a grave one indeed.  The tar sands are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet.  If we begin tapping them rather than switching to renewable energy sources, it would mean, in the words of James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “essentially game-over” for all hope of reversing climate change.

Thanks to the drought, we already have a taste about what out-of-control climate change could do to Texas.  Most climate projections show a continued decline in precipitation for Texas and an increase in temperatures.  This is likely to have serious economic impacts in a state with a $100 billion agricultural sector that employs 1 out of 7 workers.

Warming temperatures and thermal expansion of the ocean led to a tripling of sea level rise during the 20th century.  If greenhouse gas emissions continue to escalate, Gulf Coast waters could rise as much as 1 meter by 2100, a rise that could submerge Texas coastal communities and make others far more vulnerable to storms.  One study of the Houston-Galveston area found that sea level rise could displace 100,000 people over the next 100 years and mean a loss of $12 billion in infrastructure.  The beaches of South Padre Island could disappear beneath the waves.

Potential Inundation Along the Texas Coast from Sea Level Rise

Some are claiming that in these tough economic times, we should sacrifice the environment for energy security and economic benefits.  Unfortunately, the Keystone XL pipeline provides neither.

Reducing America’s reliance on Middle-eastern oil is one argument that Transcanada has repeatedly put forward.  Though they have denied that Keystone XL is an export pipeline, analysts have determined that the diesel fuel most easily refined from tar sands oil will only find lucrative markets in Europe and Latin America.  In fact, the published business model for the Valero refinery at the end of the pipeline explicitly states that the diesel would be exported to foreign markets, rather than put into U.S. gas tanks.

The United States won’t derive significant tax revenue from the tar sands oil before it heads overseas because the refineries at the pipeline’s end are located in Port Arthur, Texas.  Port Arthur’s designation as a foreign trade zone means that the refined diesel can be exported tax-free.  The benzene and other pollutants released by the refining process are all that will stay in Port Arthur.

Transcanada has claimed that 100,000 jobs would be created by its pipeline.  As pressure on the Obama administration to stop the pipeline has gone up, Transcanada’s job estimate has soared to as high as 250,000.  The American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of oil corporations, has gone so far as to claim that, “U.S. jobs supported by Canadian oil sands development could grow from 21,000 jobs today to 465,000 jobs by 2035.”  Of course, these rapidly inflating numbers all come from the company who stands to reap huge profits from exporting tar sands oil oversees without paying any export taxes if they can sell the administration on their pipeline.

For those of us who do not serve on the board of directors of Transcanada or Valero, any economic benefits from the pipeline will be minimal.  An independent analysis of the economic impacts of the pipeline estimated that nationwide there would be between 500 and 1,400 temporary construction jobs would come from building the pipeline.  Once the pipeline is up and running those jobs would evaporate, and it would take as few as 50 full time employees maintain it.

While those 50 people may be happy to receive a paycheck, their side of the balance sheet is far outweighed by the health costs of those who will be exposed to toxic chemicals in Canada and Texas, not to mention the millions of coastal residents around the world whose homes and communities will be threatened by rising seas.

This is why the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group is supporting protesters from the Rio Grande Valley who boarded the Rio Bravo Wildlife Institute’s vegetable-oil powered bus for the long drive to Washington DC.  They  joined thousands of other Americans to demand that President Obama uphold the vision and the promises that got him elected.

The ultimate decision will be President Obama’s.  Will he cave in to corporate pressure and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, or will he stand with the American people, and people around the world, who will suffer the terrible consequences if this pipeline is built?  This is not a political question to be decided by poll numbers and the next election.  President Obama’s decision will have a real impact on human lives, on human health, and on the world that our children grow up in.  This may be the most important decision that President Obama makes, and it is up to all of us to ensure that he makes the right choice.

Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group.  She lives in McAllen.  This article originally appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian.

Keystone XL hearing in Port Arthur

The following blog is by Kat Herrera, Sierra Club super intern in Houston.  

The way I’ve been describing how the hearing went on the Keystone XL pipeline in Port Arthur is this: it was a bottleneck of emotions.  Many showed up and brought their personal convictions along.  However, in the face of opposition, the hearing proved to be an excellent showcase of our nation’s democratic process.

Spirits were fired up at the gathering at Hartmann Park in Manchester before travelling to Port Arthur.  A large group of residents, from near and far, gathered in solidarity with those across the nation and at Washington D.C.

We saw a long line as we pulled into the parking lot and realized that the oil industry spent a lot of money bussing supporters in.  There were groups of hundreds, donning t-shirts that read “build Keystone XL now,” or “Keystone XL means jobs.”

It’s true that this project would create some jobs but not nearly as many as TransCanada leads you to believe.  The State Department’s own study finds their numbers to be inflated by up to 19 times the actual amount.  Don’t forget that these jobs will last a maximum of three years.

The first few hours of the hearing were a repetitive script of job creation, and hopes of ending our dependence on foreign oil. There were very few reasons why Keystone XL should be built.  Opponents to the project brought such a vast array of risks as to why this pipeline simply has no room in America’s future.  Risking a third of our agricultural irrigation, and similar spills in the Yellowstone and Kalamazoo Rivers, is reason enough to stop this pipeline.

The media coverage on the hearing leads you to believe that opposition was minimal, but those of us there fought valiantly.  I have confidence that many initially in favor of the project left with more questions that will lead them to realize that this pipeline isn’t worth the benefits it may bring.  The risks to our future are too great.  The State Department is still accepting comments on their website.  I plead for everyone to submit a comment, and stop this project.

Biggest Environmental Issue of Our Generation

As a new Sierra Club intern and engineering student at UT,  I am lucky enough to have the chance to stay well informed about current environmental issues facing our world today. The biggest environmental issue of our generation will be culminating this fall — the proposal by Transcanada to build the dangerous Keystone XL tar sands Pipeline.

If President Barack Obama allows this proposed pipeline to be built, every single person in Texas will suffer.  Every student at UT, every child entering kindergarden at a Texas elementary this fall, the young, the old, the weird, the rich.  Those around the world have taken notice, including eight nobel laureates that have written to President Barack Obama urging Obama to reject the proposal to build the $7 billion pipeline that spans from Canada to Texas. Over a thousand protesters from all over the nation were arrested in Washington D.C protesting the pipeline, yet looking around my campus of 50,000, how many people know what is being planned without their consent, without their knowledge?

Although this is not strictly a Texas issue, it will effect Texans profoundly. 10-12 million Texas inhabitants who get their drinking water from the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer that the pipeline will run over will be at the mercy of a pipeline similar in construction to the Keystone pipeline in Michigan, one that has had 12 spills in one year of operation and has caused 40 miles of the Kalamazoo river to become unusable.

Texas has been plagued by drought and wild fires.  Everyone from Bastrop to Tyler is feeling the hurt of a Texas without water. Can a state with 93% of its counties listed in extreme drought afford to lose any amount of water to an oil pipeline spill?

I as a student will not  let my friends and colleagues remain in the dark about this issue, but everyone in Texas needs to become aware of this proposal. If you respect the student sitting next to you in class, or the woman at your HEB with grocery shopping for her small children, or the men and women who work along side you every day, as fellow human beings capable of great things, you need to inform them about the upcoming proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

Once informed about the Keystone XL pipeline it is hard to not to take action.  A fellow UT student of mine, John Richter, has taken a great step forward by creating a great cheat sheet —  http://tarsandsgameover.com. John is a Computer Science major spurred to action after hearing about the Tar Sands.

When I first heard about the Tar Sands, I immediately wanted to go to DC and protest, but I couldn’t afford the flight or miss classes.  So, I did what I could at the time and created a cheat sheet on the tar sands at http://tarsandsgameover.com.

Being in Texas, I’m at the epicenter of where the pipeline fight will play out, and I can make my stand here.  I feel happy that I have this opportunity to work with other students and take a stand.

Time is running out on standing up to Tar Sands, and my generation, and those following that have everything to lose. I encourage everyone, to implore their colleagues, family, and friends to educate themselves on what is going on, and how to take action. Every single person in Texas will be effected by this. An easy way to do your part is to attend a public hearing. Barack Obama will be closely watching the public hearings to see how many attend, especially in Austin, one of his favorite cities.

Please attend the public hearing in Austin this Wednesday. Your attendance will matter.

U.S. Department of State Hearing.  The public is invited to comment.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 from 12:00 Noon – 8:00 PM, LBJ Auditorium, University of Texas, Austin, TX.  Free parking. 

Come speak at the hearing.  Attend the press event at 11:30, a rally at 6:30 and/or the bike ride at 8:00.  For more information, contact ian.davis@sierraclub.org or trevor.lovell@gmail.com.

Posted by Kathleen Hetrick, Sierra Club intern

Texas Mobilizing to Stop Oil Pipeline.

The Keystone XL pipeline, if allowed to be constructed, will bring the dirtiest oil (tar sands) from Alberta, Canada to Texas, allowing plenty of room for oil leaks and spills to leach across six states.  Nothing is as frightening as the possibility that the Ogallala Aquifer, a source of drinking water for millions and a major contributor to agricultural irrigation, may be contaminated in the future.  But nothing is more exciting than seeing many Americans band together to stand up to big oil, with hopes that we will finally start the transition to clean and renewable energy.

The Keystone XL pipeline has been in the spotlight, with thousands in Washington D.C. sending a clear message to President Obama; Americans don’t want Canada’s dirty oil to pollute and destroy the homeland. News coverage across the nation and state has shed a limelight on people who believe in a clean future.  Whether big oil likes it or not, there is a shift in American’s view of the industry.

In Houston, things are heating up.  A group of volunteers talked with people of the Manchester community, a neighborhood no more than a block away from several oil refineries.  If the pipeline is constructed, the residents of the area will have even higher levels of pollutants in the air.  They fear that their children will suffer major health complications, ranging from asthma to cancer. Many of the adults and seniors already do, and know that it’s from the smokestacks seen from their porch.

In a recent protest last Sunday, over 30 volunteers came together in a march around the neighborhood, complete with the local jazz group the Free Radicals.  For the young and old alike, it was a moment of solidarity in the struggle for clean energy.  There are hundred of thousands mobilizing all over the U.S. who share your fears, hopes, and dreams.  Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s environmental justice director, came all the way from Washington to lend her voice to the community.

Scarlett Russell, an environmentalist aiming to protect this community, is a source of hope for many and a voice given to the people of Manchester.  She organized a team of canvassers and a documentary film crew to spread the word and put a face to those who suffer most from the activities of big oil.  Many have joined her, such as Juan and Bryan Parras of T.E.J.A.S. Barrios, and volunteers from the Sierra Club’s Houston group.

It is vital to keep the pressure on big oil, and on Obama.  Now is the time to come and speak out, to volunteer, or to tell our state and national leaders that we simply have no room for the Keystone XL pipeline in America’s green future.  The hearings in Port Arthur and Austin are extremely important for all those who stand against Keystone XL to attend, and make comments:

Port Arthur – Monday September 26, 2011

4:30 – 10 p.m.

Bob Bowers Civic Center

3401 Cultural Center Drive, Port Arthur, TX, 77642

Austin – Wednesday September 28, 2011

12 p.m. – 8 p.m.

UT Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium

2313 Red River Street, Austin, TX, 78705

– Kat Herrera, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Intern, Houston.