Larry Bell is a conservative and a successful brewer in Michigan. His Bell's Brewery makes some of the best-loved craft beers in the country, selling 250,000 barrels a year of its highly rated Two Hearted Ale and other brews across 18 states.
He is, in political terms, the kind of guy you'd want to have a beer with. He believes in American energy independence. He thought it was a good idea to wring oil from the tar sands of Canada and pipe it into the U.S., even to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to run the oil down to Port Arthur, Texas.
But then tar-sands oil threatened Bell's beer, and what he found out about this particular oil changed his mind completely. "I was on the side of building Keystone XL," says Bell. "But I certainly couldn't condone it now."
Similar stories are piling up: Some political conservatives and supporters of U.S. energy independence are now opposed to tar-sands oil. Terry Van Housen, originally a big fan of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is supposed to run through his Nebraska farm and cattle feedlot, is now fighting it. Debra Medina, former Tea Party candidate for governor of Texas, supports a Texas Supreme Court case against the pipeline. Ex-marine Michael Bishop says he wouldn't have fought the pipeline for environmental reasons but has filed three lawsuits to stop it, including one against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
They have a litany of complaints. Some question why the foreign company building Keystone XL—Calgary-based TransCanada—can grab U.S. property under eminent domain. Some want to see more money for landowners. Others don't like that Trans-Canada has been providing lists of "aggressive" landowners and activists to local authorities.
But all of them fear an oil spill.
In July 2010, a pipeline owned by Enbridge (another Calgary-based energy-transport company) ruptured near Marshall, Michigan, dumping nearly a million gallons of tar-sands oil into the Kalamazoo River about 30 miles upstream from Bell's Brewery. The complex cleanup has cost more than $1 billion, making it the costliest on-shore spill in U.S. history—and it's not finished. In March 2013 a smaller spill from an ExxonMobil line flowed through the city of Mayflower, Arkansas. Bell and others believe the spills are caused in part because what flows through these pipes is not conventional oil but diluted bitumen, or dilbit.
"The first week, Enbridge told people it was crude oil, but the cleanup people who dove right in to help us out were exposed to benzene and other toxic materials that aren't in crude oil," says Bell. "They got sick from it, and they went to the doctor. He said, 'What were you exposed to?' And they have to say, 'I don't know.' That's heinous behavior."
Tar-sands oil is not what we picture when we think of a gusher of light sweet crude. Bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands has the consistency of peanut butter. It's too thick to pump through a pipeline, so it's diluted by about 30 percent with solvents called "diluents." Thus, dilbit.
Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum acknowledges that Line 6B carries dilbit but insists it's no different from other kinds of heavy crude oil.
"Crude oil is crude oil," he says. "It's liquid oil. When it's in the pipe it's all the same. The benzene and other chemicals in this product tend to evaporate and disperse within hours of an incident."
By summer 2012, Manshum notes, Michigan's Department of Community Health declared the river safe for recreational activities. Moreover, the company is required to keep records that explain the makeup of each batch of dilbit. What's left to clean up at the bottom of the river today, he says, is a nontoxic solid.
But when Enbridge moved to dredge the river and pile the sludge about 60 yards from his brewery, Bell brought experts to visit the local planning commission and had the dredging halted. Enbridge hadn't even gotten the right permit for the site before cleanup began.
"It was our error," says Manshum, noting that two other dredge sites weren't required to have the same permits.
"How could I let my people work," asks Bell, "knowing that stuff was blowing in the windows?"
The brewer's stance inspired other Michiganders to look at the pipeline. Dan Musser III, president of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and a member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, was concerned when Enbridge announced it would increase the volume of oil running through a 60-year-old underwater pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac. "If there were a spill in the straits, all eyes would be on us," Musser says. "It's not all altruistic; it would affect our business."
Steve Wuori, president of Enbridge's major projects division, came to see Musser in August. Musser says Wuori assured him it was light crude from North Dakota, not dilbit, running through the line. "I feel reasonably optimistic that they are on the right track to ensure a safe pipeline in our neck of the woods," Musser says.
Bell is not as optimistic. "Politically, I'm a guy who supports energy independence," he says. "But now that I understand dilbit and its brother, horizontal fracking, I know we need clean water."
These words echo across the 2,100 acres of corn on Terry Van Housen's farm in Polk County, Nebraska. He grows corn to feed cattle in his feedlot, where, he says, he can "make 30,000 pounds of steak a day." What he learned about the Keystone XL pipeline has him worried about his livelihood.
When TransCanada first sent a survey crew to look at his property, 61-year-old Van Housen was pleased. Crude oil sounded fine to him. They gave him $500 and told him he'd get money for the easement. The pipe would be buried and he could farm right over it. He was ready to sign. Then he started talking to his neighbors. "The land manager who came to see me from TransCanada made it sound so rosy, so perfect. But it wasn't so perfect at all," says Van Housen.
It's his understanding that he is liable for a spill if he runs his heavy equipment over the line—a claim TransCanada spokesman Grady Semmens dismisses, saying the pipe is buried in a way that makes it safe for farming. Then Van Housen learned about the Kalamazoo and Mayflower spills, as well as a number of smaller spills on existing Keystone pipelines. This worried him. Heavy crude, like dilbit, moves at higher pressures than light crude, and he, like many others, believes this is causing leaks.
Semmens deflects this argument too, saying tar-sands oil poses no increased risk from either pressure or corrosion. "Several studies have shown there is no difference in safety or risk for pipelines carrying bitumen-derived crude oil compared with traditional, lighter crude oils," he says, citing a recent study by the National Research Council.
Van Housen's big fear, however, is that his property sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground freshwater lake close to the surface of the Great Plains that irrigates nearly a third of all the cultivated land in the U.S. The state of Nebraska convinced TransCanada to reroute Keystone XL so it misses the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region, but it still goes right over the aquifer.
"I told the land manager, 'What if it gets down into the aquifer and it destroys my ability to water my corn and my cattle? I'm done. I'm ruined,'" Van Housen says.
Semmens says environmental-impact studies have determined that a leak into the aquifer may affect an area measured in only "hundreds of feet" and that "TransCanada recognizes the significance of this critical resource and will not jeopardize it."
Van Housen is hardly reassured. He hasn't signed an easement and is trying to figure out a way to keep the pipeline off his land.
"I'm starting to freak out now," he says, sitting in his farm truck and barking into the phone about Trans-Canada. "What the hell are you trying to do? You're trying to get a lifetime easement and make billions of dollars but ruin our land. And you can't even protect us?"
Stakeholders like Van Housen got a further shock this summer when anti–Keystone XL activist group Bold Nebraska found documents in which TransCanada suggests to local law enforcement that particularly aggressive landowners and activists may be candidates for domestic terrorism charges.
"It's all bad," Van Housen says of the pipe. "There's no upside to it whatsoever."
In July 2011 Republican activist Debra Medina, head of a policy nonprofit called We Texans, got a phone call about looking into the Keystone XL pipeline.
"I asked why I would get involved with it," she says. "It's a private company. I'm all about private enterprise flourishing and making money. Then he told me they're using eminent domain to take Texas property to build the pipeline. I about fell out of my chair."
Thus began a legal battle over whether TransCanada, a foreign corporation, has the authority to use eminent domain in the state of Texas.
No one was more willing to take that on than Medina, a private-property and state-sovereignty advocate who is popular in Texas, where she got 19 percent of the vote for a third-place finish in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Medina says Texas statutes maintain that to use eminent domain to take property from folks who don't want to give it up, a company has to be a "common carrier," meaning it carries oil "to or for the public for hire" and is permitted by the Railroad Commission of Texas. Medina argues that TransCanada doesn't cut it.
"Unfortunately there hasn't been a court in the state of Texas that has agreed with me yet," she says.
She notes, however, that case law is evolving, including a key 2011 Texas Supreme Court decision that established that private landowners have standing to appeal eminent-domain decisions regarding pipelines. And a case that could affect the Keystone XL project, Crawford Family Farm Partnership v. TransCanada, will soon be heard by the Texas Supreme Court.
TransCanada's Semmens says Keystone is a common carrier and that the two percent of landowners whose easements are grabbed by eminent domain get less money than those who sign an agreement. That's the brutal logic. "The real problem," Medina says, "is that government is giving private enterprise immunity from civil liability. You can call it crony capitalism or corporatism or statist policy, but Republicans are getting pretty confused about their ideas of limited government and free markets."
Most of this jibes with the complaints of Texas landowner Michael Bishop, a vocal opponent of the southern section of the Keystone XL project, which was praised by President Obama in March 2012 and is already completed on Bishop's land.
"When my research led me to the truth about this pipeline, I was outraged," Bishop writes via e-mail. He, like Medina, is afraid of a spill. A self-proclaimed libertarian, Bishop is also upset because landowners have little recourse to fight the project.
"They have more rights than we do," he writes. "That is not equal protection under the law, and the current laws are skewed in favor of the oil companies—unjustly."
Genieve Long, a stay-at-home mother of four in Mayflower, Arkansas, didn't have any opinion about tar-sands oil—until it poured through her town. "I was never completely against them until the pipeline broke. And once I realized the devastation it can cause, I thought, This is ridiculous," she says.
When the ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower in March, an estimated 5,000 barrels of dilbit rushed through town. Twenty-two homes (two of which ExxonMobil later bought) were evacuated as the goo pooled in a marshy cove of Lake Conway about 300 yards from Long's home.
"You immediately had the throat-burning sensation, lungs burning; it would take your breath away," says Long. "Then came the lasting respiratory issues, migraines, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, confusion, skin rashes."
These symptoms, she says, affect her and two of her children. But she says her medical claims were denied because the air quality is now deemed acceptable and the dilbit never physically touched her property. She is preparing a lawsuit, and she traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak out against the Keystone XL pipeline.
ExxonMobil spokesman Aaron Stryk says the company's medical-claims hot-line is still open, as is its community information center, and the company has been paying all valid claims as determined by the Arkansas Department of Health. Many residents have complained that their symptoms were dismissed. "ExxonMobil Pipeline regrets the Mayflower spill and apologizes for the inconvenience we have caused the people of Arkansas," he adds.
As symptoms linger, regular Mayflower community meetings about the spill have been growing in size. "They have seen what has taken place and the lack of communication from Exxon to the residents," Long says. "The level of trust from the citizens has completely diminished. And as the trust from these citizens diminishes, so diminishes their trust about the oil that runs through the rest of the country—Keystone XL and all the other pipelines too. The more these people screw over the citizens of this country, the less we have faith that this oil is what we need. We need to find something else."
This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Playboy. Check out more from the issue at playboy.com/magazine.
Illustration by Justin Page