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New concerns in Congress over planned Keystone XL pipeline

June 1, 2011 |  7:33 pm

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With continuing spill problems on the Keystone pipeline carrying oil extracted from Canada's tar sands to the U.S., there are growing demands for a broader review before any approval of a second Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to carry the controversial product across the U.S. heartland to Texas.

In a letter this week to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, 34 members of Congress urged the State Department to hold off on granting an international permit for the second pipeline until a range of potential concerns is addressed. Download letter from Congress

These include the possible heightened risk of pipeline spills as a result of the corrosive effects of tar sands oil and studying how importing a relatively carbon-intensive product such as tar sands oil fits with the Obama administration's goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and overall oil imports.

The proposed 36-inch-wide Keystone XL pipeline would run 1,711 miles from northern Alberta to Port Arthur and Harris County, Texas, transporting up to 700,000 barrels a day.

The State Department in April issued a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement looking at some of the concerns raised over the pipeline, which would cross one of the nation's major agricultural aquifers in Nebraska.

In their new letter, the lawmakers said they are concerned that the department still has not addressed all the potential pitfalls, many of them outlined earlier by the EPA. "In fact, EPA gave the draft EIS its lowest possible rating," the lawmakers' letter said, adding that after reviewing the new supplemental document, "we still do not believe that the State Department has sufficiently addressed EPA's concerns."

At least 12 spills, mostly small ones, have been reported on the original Keystone pipeline since May 2010. Most have occurred at pump stations rather than along the main route of the pipeline.

The biggest spill occurred May 8 of this year, when about 400 barrels were released in Sargent County, N.D., after a valve blew at a pump station. Operators at TransCanada, builder of both pipelines, detected a loss in pressure and shut down the line nine minutes after the leak, but not before it blew a 60-foot-high geyser of oil into the air, according to local news reports.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and other opponents have argued that conventional pipeline design regulations are inadequate for the more corrosive properties of tar sands oil, carried at high pressure.

TransCanada officials say oil carried through the pipeline would not be substantially different in its physical properties from oil transported in other pipelines.

The State Department, which is accepting comments on the new draft EIS, is expected to make a decision by the end of the year. The members of Congress in their letter urged the department to conduct field hearings in each state through which the pipeline would pass.

RELATED:

Proposed Keystone XL pipeline is attracting controversy in oil-friendly Texas

State Dept. orders supplemental review of Keystone XL pipeline

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: A 2008 aerial view just north of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, where the world's largest oil companies are building massive open-pit mines to extract bitumen locked in the oil sands there. Credit: Eamon Mac Mahon, Associated Press/Canadian Press

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