On Oct. 7, the final public hearing on the implementation of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline was held in Washington, D.C. If approved by President Obama this year, the $7 billion, 36-inch wide, 1,700-mile pipeline would carry up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil each day.

The pipeline would travel from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas, crossing dozens of waterways, the fragile Nebraska Sandhills, the Yellowstone River in Montana, and the nation’s largest water aquifer, the Ogallala Aquifer, which covers 175,500 sq. miles.

On Aug. 20 in Washington, thousands of demonstrators showed resistance to the project, which they believe threatens the nation’s natural resources, potable water supply, delicate ecosystems and the local economies that depend on these resources. In the months since then, the demonstration has grown to become the largest sustained environmental protest in U.S. history, despite more than 1,200 arrests.

Demonstrators are also calling attention to the contractor hired by the U.S. State Department to assess the environmental impact of the project.

Recently, in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, three Senators—Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—raised concerns about why Cardno Entrix, a firm that publicly claims TransCanada as a “major client,” was chosen to conduct an objective environmental impact study. The senators wrote the letter urging for a new, unbiased study to be conducted before the pipeline is approved. The letter noted:

“This is a critically important issue for our environment and the energy future of our country. At a time when all credible scientific evidence and opinion indicates that we are losing the battle against global warming, it is imperative that we have objective environmental assessments of major carbon-dependent energy projects.”

The process of extracting and processing oil from tar sands releases more greenhouse gases into the environment than other forms of fossil fuels, as explained in research conducted by Canada’s environmental ministry.

James Hansen, a climate scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, has called the pipeline “the world’s longest fuse to the world’s largest carbon bomb on the continent.” In a call to action signed by Hansen, Naomi Klein (a Canadian native and author) and Bill McKibben (long-time U.S. environmental activist and author) describe the pipeline as “a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet, the one place to which we are all indigenous.”

TransCanada’s safety and environmental records are also in question. The State Department estimates that the pipeline could potentially spill a maximum of 2.8 million gallons along an area of 1.7 miles. However, a report by engineering professor Johm Stansbury of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln claims that there could be up to 91 leaks along the XL pipeline that could lead to 6.5 million gallons of tar sands oil contaminating the Ogallala Aquifer.

The aquifer is vital to the production of  more than 11,000 acres of rangeland and 5,000 acres of agricultural lands. Bill Erasmus, the regional chief for the Northwest Territories of the Assembly of First Nations, said that, “If there is a spill in that aquifer, it will mess up the water for about 4 million people.”

The first Keystone pipeline, Keystone I, has already had 14 reported spills since June 2010, which released a combined 22,000 gallons of oil into the environment, according to the State Department. TransCanada officials claim that their pipeline’s automatic shutdown valves and back-up-systems would prevent catastrophes such as last July’s 42,000 gallon ExxonMobil spill along Montana’s Yellowstone River.

The BP oil spill still fresh in their minds, the protesters in D.C. know these types of systems are not 100 percent guaranteed. Several environmental groups have recently banned together and put forth a lawsuit seeking to end the preliminary construction of the XL pipeline. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Nebraska Resources Council and Friends of the Earth allege that TransCanada has already cleared a 100-mile pipeline corridor through the Nebraska Sandhills and has removed endangered species, despite the fact that there is no official approval for the project yet. Tom Zeller, a reporter for the Huffington Post, reported that TransCanada ordered pipeline materials and equipment early in anticipation of the pipeline’s approval. The State Department did not immediately  reply to his request for comment.

The State Department estimates the project will create 5,000 to 6,000 new jobs and raise more than $7 billion in revenue for the U.S. through supplies and permitting costs alone. Industry spokespersons and pipeline supporters also argue that the pipeline will create 20,000 construction jobs along the pipeline and make the country less dependent on foreign sources of fossil fuels.

However, activists argue that the oil is not guaranteed to be sold in the U.S. Additionally, they believe more sustainable jobs would be created if the government were to invest in rebuilding the country’s D-rated infrastructure, as rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers, in combination with establishing a new, comprehensive renewable energy portfolio. A study conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors of the Mayors Climate Protection Center describes expanding opportunities in the renewable energy market. The current number of green jobs in the U.S. totals 750,000 — a number projected to grow to 4.2 million over the next three decades.

Elizabeth Cori-Jones, a resident of Gainesville, was one of the people who felt drawn to Washington to voice her opposition to the pipeline. On Oct. 7 she spoke at the final public hearing alongside hundreds of other concerned citizens, ranchers, indigenous groups and non-profit environmental groups to voice a united opposition.

“Why would the U.S. agree to accept the risk of toxic spills and habitat destruction in our country for a project that seemingly benefits only Canada?” Elizabeth asked. “We are giving Canada refineries and shipping ports, which they don’t otherwise have. Yes, some temporary jobs would be created in the U.S., but nothing compared to the potential for new jobs in alternative energy development or infrastructure upgrades. The refined oil, it turns out, would not diminish our dependency on oil from ‘unstable’ areas of the globe, as it would be most likely shipped abroad.”

On Nov. 18, the 90-day period for collecting official comments regarding the State Department’s environmental assessment will end and Obama will have until the end of the year to decide whether to approve the pipeline. More than 2,000 people have already pledged to be in Washington on Nov. 6 to continue to protest the pipeline. They are committed to maintaining a “people’s voice” and presence in D.C. until the final hearing on Nov. 18th.

For additional information…

Keystone Pipeline Map TransCanada.com

Crumbling Infrastructure Symbolizes U.S. Economyfrom The Street

Built to Spill? Infograph