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Three Other Oil and Gas Pipelines, and What They Put at Risk

With all eyes turned to the Dakota Access Pipeline, three oil and gas projects have been making steady headway.

by Sarah Emerson
Nov 18 2016, 1:00pm

Oil pipeline in Alaska. Image: Flickr/Travis

Over the last several months, people from all walks of life have opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline: a $3.7 billion and 1,172-mile crude oil conduit that would destroy the sacred cultural property of the Dakotas' Standing Rock Sioux tribe. This week, President Obama refused to make a decision on whether to proceed with its construction—a move that will likely leave the verdict to president-elect Donald Trump, a staunch defender of fossil fuel interests.

But meanwhile, three different pipeline projects have been steadily making headway in North America. And with energy relations looking potentially volatile under Trump, these nascent oil and gas projects are worth paying attention to.

The Trans Mountain Expansion Pipeline, Alberta and British Columbia, Canada: Threatens endangered orca population

Up north, Canada's Trans Mountain Expansion project, which would add more than 600 miles of additional pipeline to already-existing infrastructure, stands to extinguish an endangered orca population along the Pacific coast. Conservationists fear that increased oil tanker traffic, an inevitable side effect of the expansion into Vancouver, will fatally disrupt the resident whales' habitat due to noise and physical pollution.

The Trans Mountain Pipeline was established in 1953 by the American company Kinder Morgan; North America's fourth largest energy company. Carrying crude and oil sands bitumen from Alberta down to the coast of British Columbia, the pipeline currently moves some 300,000 barrels per day.

Map showing the Trans Mountain Expansion route. Image: Trans Mountain

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will need to approve the expansion before a December 19 decision deadline, but has showed support for the project as a way to export Canadian oil to Asian markets.

However, environmentalists have called the twin pipeline proposal a death warrant for southern resident orca in the Salish Sea—one of only two orca populations to have received federal protections under the United States' Marine Mammal Protection Act, an environmental law that prohibits the killing, harassment, or taking of animals considered at-risk. Just 80 southern resident whales currently exist, with numbers middling since government scientists began tracking them in 1974. Orca species are considered endangered in both Canada and the United States.

Should the Trans Mountain Expansion project receive the greenlight, marine traffic from oil tankers and barges in the region will increase sevenfold, according to The Guardian. As shipping traffic rises, so does the risk of an oil spill, which can be toxic and deadly to orca who are unlikely to detect the presence of chemicals in the water. In addition to the hazards of physical pollutants, noise pollution can cause these whales to lose up to 97 percent of their communication abilities which allow them to hunt, socialize, and navigate their surroundings.

"The approval of the project is also the approval of the extinction of the population," Ross Dixon, a spokesperson for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, told The Guardian. "No one is disputing it. Nobody is saying that's not accurate. It's been accepted."

Over the last decade, the pipeline has seen dozens of ruptures and leaks causing millions of dollars worth of damage. The worst of these incidents was in 2007, when road workers accidentally ruptured part of the pipeline, allowing 66,000 gallons of oil to spill into a neighborhood of Burnaby, and more than 18,000 gallons into the Burrard Inlet.

Prime Minister Trudeau pledged to balance Canada's energy and environmental priorities with regard to the pipeline, but the project has been condemned by conservationists and some First Nations communities. Trudeau has also been criticized for his support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and has yet to offer a nationwide plan for meeting the goals set forth by the Paris Agreement, which Canada formally ratified in October.

The Trans-Pecos Pipeline and Comanche Trail Pipeline, Texas, United States: Pose environmental risk to Big Bend wildlands

Further south, the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail pipelines will move natural gas from Texas' Permian Basin across the border into Mexico. In May, President Obama approved permits for both projects while public attention was diverted to Dakota Access pipeline protests.

The Trans-Pecos project will shuttle billions of cubic feet of natural gas per day, straight through Big Bend—a region cherished for its pristine wilderness areas—and into Chihuahua, Mexico. Comanche Trail, which, like the Trans-Pecos Pipeline is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, will stretch from Pecos County, Texas, and snake 195 miles underground to the US-Mexico border.

Trans-Pecos Pipeline route. Image: Trans-Pecos

Announced in 2014, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline was commissioned by the Mexican Federal Electricity Commission which services approximately 37.3 million electricity customers in Mexico. The project will be a joint effort between American and Mexican energy companies, and its growing roster currently includes former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and multibillionaire Carlos Slim, according to Mother Jones.

Since its inception, the pipeline has instigated a turf war waged by Texas locals, such as the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, which argues the project should receive stricter federal oversight. If the pipeline is ruled an "interstate" project, it will warrant an environmental assessment by the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). However, right now, FERC only has jurisdiction over the segment of pipeline crossing the US-Mexico border. The rest is governed by the Texas Railroad Commission—whose top candidate for Railroad Commissioner, Wayne Christian, received $190,000 in contributions from oil and gas interests this year—as an "intrastate" project, and is not required to receive an environmental impact report.

In Mexico, where the country's booming natural gas industry is still developing, regulatory oversight is even less stringent, according to Bloomberg BNA. Some environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, view the pipeline project as a way for American energy companies to eventually frack, under no regulation, Mexico's 545 trillion cubic feet of shale gas reserves.

Prickly pear and desert marigold, Big Bend, Texas. Image: Flickr/Outward_bound

The opposition to the Comanche Trail Pipeline is similar; Texas residents fear the natural gas conduit will spoil acres of precious wildlands that both animal species and outdoor recreation enthusiasts rely on. Big Bend is home to a US state park, US national park, and a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and provides crucial habitat for 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 56 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians.

As noted by EcoWatch, President Obama's timing for the joint approval of these pipelines couldn't have been more ideal. When all eyes were turned to North Dakota, leaders in the United States and Mexico created the US-Mexico Energy Business Council, aimed at enhancing collaboration between the countries with regard to large-scale energy development.

How president-elect Trump will manage these energy relations remains to be seen. In his America First Energy Plan, Trump promised to "unleash America's $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves."