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U.S. will do new studies on Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

March 15, 2011 |  7:53 pm

Keystone pipeline map NRDC The U.S. State Department will require additional environmental studies before granting a permit for the 1,660-mile Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to carry oil from the tar sands of northern Canada through the U.S. heartland and on to south Texas.

In an announcement Tuesday, department officials said they would open a new round of public comments on a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, to be released in mid-April, with a decision on whether to grant a permit for the controversial pipeline now expected by the end of the year.

Pipeline opponents have long called for new environmental reviews, looking especially at the ability of a standard oil pipeline to safely carry the diluted bitumen found in the tar sands of northern Alberta.

A study last month by three of the nation's biggest environmental organizations and the Pipeline Safety Trust warned of a higher risk of corrosion-related spills linked to higher levels of abrasives, temperature and acidity in tar sands oil -- claims that TransCanada, the pipeline builder, has rebutted. Download Keystone XL Fact Sheet TransCanada

Ranchers in Nebraska and surrounding states are also calling on the State Department to look at the possibility of a new pipeline route that would avoid a sandy, vulnerable area above the Ogallala Aquifer, a key source of farmland irrigation and drinking water that underlies eight states in the Great Plains.

Now that the State Department has announced the new studies, opponents are worried whether the  month before release of the new draft EIS will be enough to do them right.

"I hope this is not a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in name only. To do this job right, the State Department must analyze the air pollution and oil spills that can be expected from this pipeline, as well as explore alternative routes that avoid the Ogallala Aquifer. If they don’t, they will have a lot of angry ranchers to deal with," said Alex Moore, dirty fuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

Moore said a spill last July of tar sands oil from a pipeline on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan provided evidence of the difficulty of cleaning up the thick, heavy material, especially in water. "The lesson we learned in the Kalamazoo River is that even six months later, they're nowhere near close to completing cleanup of that oil spill," he said.

Officials at TransCanada have insisted that similar oil has long been safely transported to U.S. markets.

"This oil product has been shipped into the U.S. for decades," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said. "It's very similar in its chemical properties to some of the heavier crudes being moved around the U.S. on a daily basis."

Contrary to the study prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups, he said, "the continued claims about this being some kind of highly corrosive product just aren't true."

"We're prepared to invest $13 billion in a pipeline to carry oil from Canadian and American oil fields, and these groups continue to claim that we're going to put something in it that will destroy and eat away at the pipeline? Does that make sense from a business standpoint?"

He said about a quarter of Keystone XL's oil would be domestic U.S. production of lighter conventional crude from oil fields in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

Howard said demands for rerouting the pipeline around parts of the Ogallala Aquifer fail to consider that "hundreds" of pipelines already cross above the underground waterway. Restudying the route now, he added, would mean forfeiting a large amount of money the company has spent for easements on the present proposed right-of-way and ultimately lead to new environmental problems by making the pipeline longer.

The Texas-based Consumer Energy Alliance, a group which promotes greater domestic energy security, questioned the need for more environmental reviews, saying the pipeline has already been thoroughly studied. "It’s good that we can finally see the goal posts, but at the same time it’s frustrating that they have been moved again," spokesman Michael Whatley said.

In addition to looking at corrosion and routing issues, the State Department should be examining the impact of boosting reliance on tar sands oil, the production of which results in the emission of a much larger proportion of greenhouse gases than conventional oil, along with the impact of the pipeline on air pollution in Gulf Coast refining communities, said Liz Barratt-Brown, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"We think that an honest review will show that the Keystone XL pipeline is not needed and is too risky to permit,”  she said.

The State Department in its announcement said the public would have an additional 45 days to comment on the new Supplemental EIS. The department will hold a public meeting in Washington, D.C., before making a final decision, required before any pipeline can cross into the U.S. from a foreign country.

-- Kim Murphy

Map: Route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, in dotted yellow. Red line shows existing Keystone pipeline. Credit: Natural Resources Defense Council

Related: One oil pipeline too many for Texas?

 

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