PORT ARTHUR, Texas
Texas has rarely met an oil facility it didn't like. Ever since Spindletop sent a gush of crude 150 feet into the air near Port Arthur in 1901, Texans have been mostly willing to put up with the spills, smokestack belches and massive refinery vistas that go along with big, fat pots of "Texas tea."
But that was before a Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., came forward with a plan to build a 1,700-mile pipeline to carry heavy, high-pollutant oil from the tar sands under the boreal forests of northern Alberta, across the American heartland, through scenic ranchlands in the piney woods of east Texas and on to refineries near Houston and Port Arthur.
For many in Texas — who are holding meetings, passing out leaflets and hosting neighborhood talks with, of all people, the Sierra Club — the Keystone XL pipeline is a barrel too far.
Warnings that the 36-inch pipeline, with walls less than half an inch thick, could worsen the state's already potent refinery emissions and threaten water supplies have riled up people not normally inclined to cotton to environmentalists.
"Basically, what you're saying is they're going to shove it down our throat, whether we want it or not?" Charles Crouch, a former refinery worker, said at a meeting on the pipeline last month in Lufkin. "That's hard to do in Texas, I'll tell you. We get riled up, and we're going to figure out a way to stop this thing."
The State Department is expected to decide soon whether to require additional environmental studies before approving the Keystone XL project, which would run through an aquifer in Nebraska that provides up to 25 percent of the nation's agricultural irrigation, en route to Texas, where the Environmental Protection Agency has said more documentation is needed on potential worsening of poisonous refinery emissions.
A similar pipeline in the $12 billion Keystone system, from Alberta to Oklahoma and on to market hubs in the Midwest, began operating in June. Keystone XL would run 1,660 miles southeast through the same region to Cushing, Okla., then jut south to Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast.
The pipeline fight is somewhat at odds with the war Texas state officials have waged against the new Obama administration regulations on greenhouse gases that scientists say are warming the planet. Texas is decidedly in the global warming doubters' camp.
But for many conservationists, the battle against the Keystone XL project fits squarely in a climate change agenda. It is about stopping extraction of tar sands oil, which they say threatens to devastate Canada's boreal forests and waterways and release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that annual greenhouse gas emissions from transporting and burning oil from the Keystone XL pipeline would be 27 million metric tons a year — or 82 percent greater than the average crude processed in the United States.
Tar sands, a thick, peanut-butter-like bitumen that is chemically thinned and heated for transport, can contain 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen and five times more lead than conventional crude. Canadian oil operators have said they have cleaned up and reduced the carbon footprint of their extraction processes, and they promise further improvement.
One of the big issues raised at organizing meetings here is safety, and warnings about the possibility of ruptures and leaks.
In July, a 41-year-old pipeline carrying Canadian tar sands oil in Michigan spilled up to 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan. Enbridge Inc., which operates that pipeline, also reported a spill of about 126,000 gallons near Neche, N.D., in January, and 50,000 gallons in rural Wisconsin in 2007.
"We're meeting all of the guidelines that have been put in place by the U.S. government," said Terry Cunha, spokesman for the pipeline company.
But it's the manners of the Canadians that stick most in the craw of Texans. At many of the Texas meetings, landowners complained that surveyors for TransCanada have shown up on their property unannounced, followed by land agents pushing them to sign easements.
David Daniel, a Winnsboro carpenter, said TransCanada notified him it would need to cut down most of the trees in the wooded valley that lies at the heart of his property in east Texas.
"I asked them, what are the chances of this thin-wall, high-pressure pipeline rupturing, compared to other pipelines? They said there's no study available — we won't know till the line has been in service for many years. So I'm a lab rat on my own property," Daniel said.
Daniel signed after TransCanada threatened to take him to court, and after pipeline workers showed up at his door to ask him why he was threatening their jobs — apparently convinced that the project will create more than 50,000 "spinoff" jobs, as a study promoted by TransCanada predicts.
So far, nine of the state's 32 members of Congress are on record supporting the pipeline. In a state already crisscrossed by more than 77,000 miles of utility pipelines, supporters argue, it would be foolish to stand in the way of a project that will help secure reliable energy supplies from a close ally of the United States — one that already is the nation's biggest oil supplier.
Even among many here with long ties to the environmental movement, the economic argument, as it often has in Texas, wins the day.