They Can't Just Walk All Over Us: Farmers Resiste a Pipeline
Kari Lydersen, April 2008, The Progressive
Carlisle Kelly saved money from his Amtrak job for years to buy one of the last remaining wooded pieces of land in the expansive farm country of central Illinois . Because, as he tells it, "I'm crazy about the animals." An avid hunter and outdoorsman, he wanted to preserve the ancient oaks on a rare hilly, neverfarmed area near LeRoy, Illinois, and restore farmland back into native foliage for wild turkeys and deer.
So Kelly, fifty-four, was furious last winter when representatives of Enbridge Inc ., one of Canada's largest oil transport companies, told him they needed to survey his land to build a pipeline through it.
"To me, tearing those trees out to build a pipeline is like tearing my arms and fingers off," he says. "It's a miracle those trees are even there. I made a promise to protect them."
Enbridge wants to build a 175-mile, $350 million pipeline through Illinois to connect its northern and southern networks so that thick, gooey Albertan tar sand oil can be transported swiftly to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.
The proposed pipeline route runs through about 500 private parcels ofland, largely farms . Enbridge is seeking a 120-foot-wide easement through this land to construct and maintain the pipeline, paying farmers market value for the land, fees for crops lost during construction, and compensation for land damage. The farmers would still own the land, and could resume farming over the pipeline once it is complete. A number of farmers have already signed contracts with Enbridge, but many others refuse.
"I won't let them on my land for anything," says Bob Kelly (no relation to Carlisle) . This eighty-one year- old farmer says the land has been in his family for 125 years.
So Enbridge is seeking the power of eminent domain from the Illinois Commerce Commission, arguing that the energy its project would provide is in the American public good. The U.S. Department of Energy agrees, having filed a letter of support
for the petition . But many residents aren't buying it.
"They can say all they want that this is for the good of America, but it's really just a big-money foreign oil company trying to make money," says Carlisle Kelly.
Crude oil from the tar sands is difficult, energy-intensive, and dirty to extract, transport, and refine . But with steadily climbing oil prices, Middle East instability, and the Venezuelan government moving to nationalize its oil, Alberta's vast tar sand reserves second only to Saudi Arabia's-have become highly attractive.
Most U.S . refineries need significant upgrades to effectively refine tar sand oil . Public outcry forced BP to scale back plans for such an upgrade at its Whiting, Indiana, refinery last summer. Eight other Midwestern refineries have plans for tar sandrelated expansions in the works.
Enbridge isn't the only transport company looking to cash in on tar sand oil. Kinder Morgan Inc ., Trans- Canada Corp.; and Altex Energy Ltd. have also announced plans for Alberta- to-Texas pipelines . The pipeline Enbridge wants to build would link up with a planned joint project with ExxonMobil slated for completion in 2011 . In December 2007, Enbridge
and Exxon opened bidding for oil companies to secure long-term commitments for that $3 billion project .
Opponents of the eminent domain petition point out that oil going to the Gulf Coast means much of it will likely be exported to China or other countries, and it will have little measurable effect on the Midwest economy. In public meetings, according to people who attended, Enbridge has been cagey about where the oil will actually end up, stressing that since it is the transport company it has no power over what the companies that own the oil choose to do with it.
At an October 2007 company meeting, Enbridge CEO Pat Daniel described the oil sands as "right now the biggest resource play in the world and U.S. refining markets." At that meeting (transcripts of which were obtained by The Progressive from an activist), Enbridge Executive Vice President and CFO Richard Bird explained that both Gulf Coast refiners and Canadian oil producers are "keen" to get landlocked Canadian crude to the Gulf Coast for refining and transport.
"If you can move crude from western Canada to the Gulf Coast for something less than $13 a barrel, and we sure think we can, there's a significant arbitrage to be captured there and shared between western Canada producers and Gulf Coast refiners," he said.
Though Enbridge spokesperson Denise Hamsher denies there is any competitive aspect to the situation, the company with the first efficient Alberta-Texas pipeline stands to gain the upper hand in lucrative transport contracts .
Soon after the surveyors' visit, Kelly went to his childhood friend Thomas Pliura, a lawyer and emergency room physician in the small, quaint town of LeRoy. Pliura normally practices health care and management law, often representing doctors or patients in federal lawsuits against hospitals, HMOs, and insurance companies .
He describes himself as a devout Republican and Bush voter-not your typical environmental lawyer. But like Kelly, Pliura grew up in the area and has a passion for the land and the outdoors, along with a fascination for Native American history and artifacts .
The Enbridge situation outraged him. He dove into researching it, and even visited tar sand excavation sites in Alberta twice. "It looks like the moon," he says. "It was a fluke that I became involved in this case, but the more I investigated the more I became convinced that things were not right," he says, adding that he's becoming obsessed by the case.
Now Pliura is representing about 250 landowners who oppose Enbridge's eminent domain petition . Another local lawyer, Mercer Turner, is representing another 30 or so. The Illinois Commerce Commission has held several hearings and accepted public comments on the issue; a decision is expected by summer, according to an ICC spokesperson.
Environment Illinois, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other environmental groups have filed as interveners against the eminent domain petition.
Carlisle Kelly says even after he refused the Enbridge representatives' request to survey his land, he found survey flags indicating they had been there. He filed a still-ongoing lawsuit accusing them of trespassing, and said he continued to find survey flags even after Enbridge representatives had agreed in court to suspend surveying.
"They seem to trespass whenever they want to," he says. long with their principled stand against Enbridge getting
eminent domain, local farmers are worried about the environmental, drainage, and safety effects of the pipeline, slated to be three feet in diameter and buried five feet underground, pumping 400,000 gallons a day, and up to 800,000 if extra
pumping stations are added.
Enbridge pipelines in Wisconsin and Minnesota have had troubled records. Two workers were killed in November 2007 when a Minnesota pipeline caught fire. In 2002, 250,000 gallons spilled from an Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota. On
February 16, a man working on an Enbridge pipeline in Wisconsin was crushed to death in a trackhoe accident.
Enbridge pipelines in Wisconsin have also suffered at least seven spills since 1999, and a Wisconsin pipeline that would link with the proposed one has logged 117 environmental violations from the state Department of Natural Resources. In
February 2007, the Wisconsin pipeline spilled 126,000 gallons of tar sand oil and diluting agent, contaminating
the water table.
"The way the geology is here, most wells are not that deep," says Turner. "We're worried our water supply will be ruined. And the stuff they have to use to dilute the oil is highly flammable-if that gets into the ground, a whole cornfield could go up in flames."
Hamsher counters that the Wisconsin and Minnesota incidents were due to abnormal situations and should not concern Illinois residents. She says the environmental violations in Wisconsin are mostly minor and are being dealt with.
Meanwhile environmental advocares note that easier access to tar sands means continuing reliance on heavily polluting fossil fuels instead of cleaner alternative energy. (Incidentally, the pipeline would pass not far from one of the region's largest wind farms, a sprawling assortment of turbines rising above the corn and soybean fields.)
Refining tar sand oil is a heavily polluting process, resulting in extensive greenhouse gas emissions and waste products. And excavating the tar sands-a slushy mix of semi-solid bitumen, silica, clay, water, and minerals- is an extremely energy-intensive and environmentally destructive process . A January 2008 "Oil Sands Report Card" compiled by the Pembina Institute gave almost all ten mining companies surveyed failing grades on environmental stewardship, and charged they fail to use existing technology to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and environmental effects .
Brian Granahan, a staff attorney for Environment Illinois, characterizes the tar sand boom as overheated speculation that won't likely pan out for either the industry or the public.
"Getting a new source of oil makes sense on its face, but in the bigger picture it's just a drop in the bucket," he says. "Hundreds of billions of dollars are being poured into tar sands, which is ultimately a stop-gap measure. It's taking us in the opposite direction of where we should be going."
At a meeting in his office in January, Pliura told residents that people in northern Illinois were "hoodwinked" when Enbridge built a pipeline through their land. "But we're going to show them they can't just walk all over us," he said.
"They underestimated you guys when you stood up and confronted them at the meeting"-a public hearing where Bob Kelly called Enbridge "highway robbers." "They were thinking we'll just let this old guy vent. But they don't realize when you upset someone like Mr. Kelly, you've made a grave error."